Rabbi Brian Glusman wore khaki pants, a polo shirt and a guitar around his neck. Gliding across the room, his eyes bright, he sang loudly. The worshippers joined in. Eighteen-month-old Shira Early danced down the aisle and among the chairs.
Retired physician A.J. Kravtin, keeping beat with his right hand on the chair, said: “This is like a tent revival.” But it wasn’t; it was a regular Shabbat service at Shearith Israel.
“Shearith Israel is alive!” Glusman exclaimed between verses.
After selling its Wynnton Road property in 2007, Shearith Israel members worshipped temporarily in the Schwob Memorial Parlor at Temple Israel. There was talk of merging the two. Shearith Israel is in the Conservative tradition and Temple Israel is Reform. Conservative Judaism grew out of the tension between Orthodoxy and Reform. It was formally organized as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in 1913. For now, the differences have proved too great and, for now, local merger talks are off the table.
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Beginning in October, Shearith Israel members renovated its parsonage off Hilton Avenue. The house sat vacant after Rabbi Max Roth retired and moved with his wife to Massachusetts.
Its most obvious upgrade: converting the former front room and dining area into one big room for the sanctuary. One end contains the ark for the Torah scrolls and a podium. Religious artwork covers the walls. Chairs, which on a recent Sabbath were all filled with about 35 people, fill in the space.
Its 65 families are holding on, re-grouping and looking forward.
Glusman, 48, lives in Atlanta with his wife, Laurie, and their three children. For now he comes to Columbus monthly and spends the night in the house on Fridays. He leads services Friday night and Saturday morning. He’ll be here again next Friday. Glusman said he’ll lead services twice a month beginning in January and will be on call for life events like funerals and weddings. The members fill in the rest. From 2001-2009, he led the 750-family Temple Beth-el in Birmingham.
In 1994, Laurie Glusman founded oytoys.com, a cyberstore. It then spun off other businesses that came to include a line of beauty products and baby items. Of his resignation from Beth-el in 2009, Glusman said he wanted to step back from a full-time rabbinate, help his wife more in the business and spend more time with her and the children.
“While I loved it and found it incredibly fulfilling,” he said of his job in Birmingham, “being a rabbi is a 24/7 job. I wanted to be more of a father and husband. It’s really important for me to be a father who’s present. It was a great time in my life to make a change.”
He’s done interim rabbinate work in Huntsville, Ala., and has served congregations in Pennsylvania and Colorado. Ordained in 1997, his seminary degree is from The Academy for Jewish Religion.
Glusman grew up in Atlanta’s Orthodox congregation Beth Jacob.
His move to Conservative Judaism caused some tension in this family, at first, but now there’s more understanding, he said.
“People didn’t know what to make of me,” he said. “For my father, while he was familiar with Conservative Judaism, it was still very foreign to him.” For instance, a guitar-playing rabbi in the service proved the most unsettling.
“It’s not easy for some to be accepting of the instrument,” he said, “but if we want to compete in the marketplace, we have to adapt. It works. It’s not about the guitar and I’m not a terribly good guitar player. For me, it’s a great tool. It’s just a resource I use to help people participate.”
He believes worshippers of any faith should be participants and not observers; otherwise, why not just go to the opera? he said.
After returning to the South, he realized how much he’d missed it.
“Without question, the members of synagogues in the South are so sweet and nice and embracing,” said Glusman, who has already experienced that here.
Yet, Jews in the South -- greatly outnumbered by Christians -- have to “work incredibly hard about being Jewish. It’s more challenging. You really have to strive and make tremendous commitment.” At the same time, he’s found a reverence and respect toward the Jewish community in smaller towns like Columbus.
Michael Goldman, president of Shearith Israel, said the congregation knew of Glusman through the Birmingham congregation.
“He has so much enthusiasm. He’s great for the congregation,” Goldman said.
Glusman calls the Friday night service the “gateway service” in its accessibility. As such, Glusman said his entrepreneurial work with his wife’s business also fits with his religious calling.
“The religious leader has to be an entrepreneur. I’m selling religion; I’m selling spirituality.”
Allison Kennedy, reporter, can be reached at 706-576-6237