During recent late Shabbat afternoons, some members of Congregation Or Zarua on the Upper East Side saw an unexpected sight on the northeast corner of Central Park’s Great Lawn — their rabbi, in sneakers, throwing a Frisbee around with other members of the congregation.
Since becoming spiritual leader of Or Zarua in mid-July, succeeding Rabbi Harlan Wechsler, who founded the Conservative congregation 23 years ago, Rabbi Scott Bolton has taken his position as a pulpit rabbi — his first full-time post — outside of the synagogue walls as part of an effort to attract new members.
“I’m an outreach kind of person,” he says.
In a rabbi who delivers a Saturday morning dvar Torah in standard suit and tie but turns up a few hours later in the park with a baseball cap atop his head, members — and potential members — “see a rabbi who’s serious about Torah, who is serious about the arts, who is serious about Jewish spirituality and Jewish learning,” he says.
An artist and musician, he works in an office that also houses his keyboard, guitar and set of drums, and an example of his collage-type artwork.
A graduate of American University, where he studied communications theory and criminal justice, he worked in government relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, a job in which he decided that while he was helping firefighters reach “potential” he had not reached his own spiritual potential.
A product of a “strong Reform household” whose education includes time in both Reform and haredi institutions, he says he found, while studying in Israel, a spiritual home in the Conservative movement, which bridges his traditional-intellectual and egalitarian needs. “Conservative Judaism started to really speak to me, as leaders were advancing Jewish law in light of contemporary challenges and understanding of morality,” the rabbi wrote in a recent introductory essay on his background (rabbiscottbolton.wordpress.com).
A Brooklyn native who grew up in Texas and New Jersey, Rabbi Bolton, 43, served the last six years at head of school at the now-defunct Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School in Rockland County.
At the Conservative day school, which closed in June because of declining enrollment and financial challenges, he says he was a de facto pulpit rabbi — a “rabbi head of school” — who treated the students and parents and faculty members as congregants. He married and buried members of the Gittelman family, led adult education classes for parents and encouraged unaffiliated families to conduct bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies as part of the day school daily morning minyan.
“I made the school into my shul,” he says. “I always had a rabbinate.”
While studying in Israel, he and his wife, Rabbi Amy Bolton, briefly led a small, Conservative-oriented congregation in Arad.
Or Zarua needed a new spiritual leader this year, at the same time that the Gittelman school closed its doors.
“I’d never been to Or Zarua,” Rabbi Bolton says, but its reputation as a venue of committed observance and intellectual probing was well known in Conservative circles.
During his interview, he says, he led board members in an impromptu niggun he had composed, and offered a spontaneous explanation of a biblical verse where the words Or Zarua (Hebrew for “light is sown”) are found.
Rabbi Bolton was a perfect match, says Diane Okrent, president of Or Zarua and a longtime member. “We were looking for a rabbi who’s a scholar and a teacher, who is well-versed in Talmud and Midrash and philosophy, who is passionate about Israel.
“We wanted a rabbi,” Okrent says, “who is able to reach out and energize all members of the community.”
The congregation, whose membership is slightly over 300 families, is seeking to expand.
“We’ve always had a reputation as an intellectually serious congregation,” one that did not seek new members, Okrent says.
Not true, she says. “We are not insular. We’re evolving. We have no intention of limiting our size in any way.”
Or Zarua’s relatively small membership is a function of its physical space, its sanctuary 25 feet across, which fosters a sense of intimacy.
According to the congregation’s bylaws, Okrent says, a change will be required if membership exceeds 600 families. “Our mandate is to attract new members.”
Rabbi Bolton has invited congregants to schedule meetings to introduce themselves to him in his study or in venues away from the synagogue.
It’s too early to talk of any specific changes he may propose in the synagogue, the rabbi says.
During the High Holy Days, he says, his sermons will be about the “Conservative approach” to Judaism, and the “blessings” of living as a Jew in the United States.
When Shabbat afternoons grow shorter and the weather grows colder this winter, Rabbi Bolton says he will think of some new programs for congregants. “The idea is to engage them,” he says. “You don’t have to be in Central Park.”