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Reform synagogue hires N.Y. rabbi

Temple Beth-El will replace the rabbi who made a sudden, emotional departure last October.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Temple Beth-El, one of Tampa Bay's largest Reform congregations, has hired a new spiritual leader.

Michael Torop, now associate rabbi and director of education at the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, N.Y., about 45 minutes from Manhattan, will begin his new job on Aug. 1.

"We were looking for someone who had the vision and compassion and spirit to carry the congregation forward," temple president Cecile Berko said Thursday, one day after members of the congregation voted unanimously to hire Torop.

A search committee of 28 congregation members and nine past presidents selected the new rabbi from a slate of eight candidates.

"We drew up qualities of what we were looking for in a rabbi and when we looked at Rabbi Torop and talked to him, he fulfilled the qualities we were looking for," Mrs. Berko said.

Torop, 38, replaces Rabbi Stephen Moch, who resigned last October after announcing that he was gay and admitting that he had a history of infidelity to his wife. Both Moch, who had led the congregation since 1991, and a spokeswoman hired by the temple said then that his resignation turned not on the issue of sexual orientation, but fidelity.

Torop expects to feel little effect from Moch's sudden, emotional departure.

"By the time I arrive in August to assume this pulpit, it will have been nearly a year since Rabbi Moch's departure," he said late last week.

"The congregation has done a tremendous amount of work to process the events surrounding his resignation and to move forward as a community. While I know that there are still some residual concerns, I sense that Temple Beth-El is truly ready to move on to embrace a new rabbi, and to look forward at what is yet to come. I will approach the congregation with a similar view -- to be forward-looking and build for tomorrow."

Torop is married and has three children, Gideon, 6, Aaron, 41/2, and Hannah, 4 months. His wife, Betsy Torop, also is a rabbi. She has been hired to lead Congregation Shir Shalom in Bradenton, which was founded about 18 months ago. She will begin her new job on Sept. 1.

Ordained in 1990 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Torop earned a master's degree in education from Harvard University. Before his job in New York, he served as rabbi of the Leo Baeck Center for Progressive Judaism in Melbourne, Australia, for eight years.

Torop said he applied for the position at Temple Beth-El because he was at a point in his career that he wanted to have his own congregation.

"Having been back in the U.S. for three years, I felt that I was sufficiently reacquainted with American Reform Jewish life, and I was prepared to pursue a position such as this," he said.

"Temple Beth-El is an extraordinarily warm and caring congregation, with a depth and strength that is to be respected. This is a diverse community, which nevertheless has unity of purpose and a vision for the future. The congregation desires a serious encounter with Judaism, with our texts and traditions as well as with the contemporary forms of expression of Jewish life. ... I can think of no other congregation that would so completely reflect the kind of work I want to do in my rabbinate."

After Moch's departure last fall, Temple Beth-El was able to continue its spiritual programs by relying on staffers, lay leaders and guest rabbis. The temple, at 400 Pasadena Ave. S, has a membership of about 600 families.

When Moch resigned, Mrs. Berko said, "There was no doubt that the congregation felt a void and knew that he would be missed, but they understood that we had to go forward."

The episode "tightened" the temple family, she said.

"The congregation often talked about survival. ... We didn't survive; we succeeded," Mrs. Berko said.

"We missed the qualities that rabbinic leadership offers us, but we were able to continue and prevail and we look forward to having Rabbi Torop as our spiritual leader."

Torop is looking beyond his two-year contract.

"I hope that we will take a view that will stretch far beyond the first two years and build on the strong foundation that already exists at Temple Beth-El," he said.

"I hope to bring learning and teaching. I hope to bring a sense of the holy, and a shared commitment to doing God's work with our community. I hope to bring laughter and joy, support in hours of need, and at every moment a reminder that to learn Judaism is to live Judaism, and to live Judaism is to love Judaism. And by learning, living and loving Judaism, we can bring meaning and a sense of the transcendent to our lives."

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