Rabbi Transition at Bet Haverim
Announcing the Hiring of Rabbis Wohlner and Simons
Twenty-seven years ago, a fresh-faced rabbi arrived in town to guide the Jewish Fellowship of Davis into a new chapter. Throughout subsequent years, he worked alongside us to create a warm and accepting community where anyone, regardless of background, could seek religious and spiritual answers, celebrate traditions, educate their children, find friends and be together through happy times and sad. We continued to build a true “Bet Haverim,” a House of Friends. On the eve of Rabbi Greg’s retirement, we reflect on how far we’ve come together and prepare for our next chapter as a community.
Today, after enthusiastic survey responses from our partners, a unanimous recommendation by the Rabbinic Search Committee and a unanimous vote by the Board of Directors, we are overjoyed to announce:
Rabbi Bess Wohlner and Rabbi Jeremy Simons
will succeed Rabbi Greg Wolfe
and join Congregation Bet Haverim in July, 2022!
Who are Rabbis Bess and Jeremy?
Currently, Rabbi Bess is the Associate Rabbi and Rabbi Jeremy is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel in Memphis, the largest synagogue in the South with over 1,500 families. At “TI,” they led worship services, conducted life-cycle events, provided pastoral care, and ran youth education from pre-K through high school. Additionally, they planned outreach to young professionals, fostered interfaith connections, developed adult education opportunities, and were deeply involved in Tikkun Olam/Social Justice work.
Rabbi Bess, a Kansas City native and the last Jewish Studies major at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, received her master’s degree in Jewish Education in 2013 and her Rabbinic Ordination in 2015 from Hebrew Union College. After graduation she became first the Assistant Rabbi and then the Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel.
After his Rabbinic Ordination in 2014, Rabbi Jeremy spent three years supporting small Southern Communities as the Director of Rabbinic Services for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Next, he served as the Director of Hillel for the University of Memphis and launched the Hillel Chapter at Rhodes College. For the last two years, he has helped lead Temple Israel as their Assistant Rabbi.
For a wonderful array of texts, links, teachings, photos and videos, we know you will enjoy browsing the rabbis’ website.
For a re-cap of the entire search process, see the last section of this letter.*
What Do Former Colleagues Say About Them?
- Enthusiastic, Engaging and Energetic
- Joyful, warm, spiritual, and caring
- Have light about them to complete the mission to repair the world
- A breath of fresh air!
- Authentic and genuine
- Engaging with seniors, super great with little people – rabbis for all ages
- Collaborative. Excellent for lay leaders to work with
- Smart and Humble
- They are the real deal! Really good people. I wish they were staying!
What we Love about Rabbis Bess and Jeremy:
We love that they are true community rabbis who see the Jewish community as an extension of their own home. They speak lovingly about wanting to know each and every person in our Partnership and the joy that it would bring them to see family cycles come full-circle: blessing the infant as baby, who grows into the child they teach in Sunday School, who becomes the young B’nai Mitzvah returning some years later to be married under the Chuppah, who then invites the rabbis to name their own new baby.
To quote from Rabbi Wohlner: “A community that takes the time to know itself is one that also makes each person feel valued, feel needed, and feel cared for. When people feel seen and feel part of something greater than themselves, they are able to give freely, to seek deeper connection, and to be fully committed. Community creates meaning in our lives and enables us to be present for one another.”
We love the experience, focus and vitality they bring to youth education. Each made the decision to become a rabbi based on prior work as synagogue youth educators and youth group directors.
When Rabbi Bess first came to Temple Israel, she was thrown the interim task of leading the Religious School for one year while a director was found; she accepted under the condition that she have three years to fully develop innovative programming. As a former colleague said, “Bess fixed things. She is very gifted and excels with children, young adults and families.” She is equally comfortable sitting on the floor playing guitar with preschoolers as she is leading curious teenagers in a Musar practice.
Rabbi Jeremy brings his recent experience leading Temple Israel’s post-b’nai mitzvah youth community, which engages over 100 highschool students through music, sports, learning to lead worship services, and engaging their minds and spirit through questioning and critical thinking. He also appreciates the simple gestures such as greeting parents at preschool drop off and learning the latest in two- and three-year-old culture as he walks them into the classroom.
Social Justice/Tikkun Olam
Rabbis Bess and Jeremy bring a strong commitment to Tikkun Olam. They write, “to live a Jewish life is to commit oneself to bridging the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.” Inspired by one of their conversion students, they helped their synagogue achieve a Keshet Certification (this certification shows that the synagogue takes action to fully support LGBTQ members). They are actively involved in Memphis’ interfaith community; after ICE detained and jailed undocumented workers, the rabbis quickly worked with their community to raise the money needed to post bond and arranged for them to be free until their court date.
We love the different approaches they bring to their sermons. Rabbi Jeremy, reflecting his philosophy background, finds lesser-known passages in the Torah and Talmud and uses traditional and modern sources to clarify the questions being asked; he is not compelled to provide easy answers, but rather challenges us to think through the question on a personal level.
Rabbi Bess brings her full heart to her sermons. Listening to her weave personal experiences and Torah commentary, we connect to our traditions’ wisdom at a level that both engages the intellect as well as the spirit.
Caring for Their Community
We love the care and sensitivity they bring to those moments, happy or sad, where people are the most tender. When a partner is sick, they text, phone and visit in the hospital, providing companionship and comfort.
They have been known to go out of their way to honor a congregant’s humanity. Once, Rabbi Jeremy drove fourteen miles through a blinding snowstorm on unplowed streets to help bury a congregant with only him and the gravedigger in attendance. He felt it was his duty to bear witness to the deceased.
During the pandemic, after performing a gay marriage via Zoom, they were concerned that the state of Tennessee might not recognize their online officiation as legitimate; the following weekend, they drove to the couple’s home to perform the ceremony in-person, leaving no room for doubt.
We are excited by the benefits that co-rabbis present to CBH. Rabbis Jeremy and Bess have seen how this model contributes to the depth and breadth of synagogue life. At Temple Israel, they discovered that congregants personally connected to each of them for different reasons, allowing the community choices for lifecycle events, program creation or counseling sessions. We are excited that the dual-rabbi model will allow their complementary skill sets and passions to fully serve our community. Both Jeremy and Bess have expressed the belief that they can better serve a congregation as a pair than each could alone.
* How Did We Get Here?
After Rabbi Wolfe announced his retirement, the Board of Directors created a Rabbinic Process Team to set a course for the journey ahead. The RPT held two community listening sessions in February, 2021, to allow us to flesh out who we are as a community and the characteristics we most dearly sought in our next rabbi. They also sent out an online survey, eliciting 136 partner responses. Based on this feedback, they crafted CBH’s application to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the organization that coordinates the Reform rabbi hiring process nationally.
Following the submission of our application, the Rabbinic Search Committee began their work in June 2021. Over the following seven months, the RSC collected many applications, closely reviewed the thirteen most promising resumes, and conducted nine first-round and two second-round interviews. Members of the RSC carefully analyzed the applicants to determine who would be the best fit for CBH. They recommended that CBH invite Rabbis Bess and Jeremy to visit our community in person; during their December, 2021, visit, the rabbis met with many individual partners, committee members, leadership and CBH staff. We also held a community “sample teaching” online. After the visit, a survey was sent to gather feedback from the Partnership, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive.
Based on the survey feedback, the glowing reference checks, and the unanimous recommendation of the Rabbinic Search Committee, Rabbis Bess Wohlner and Jeremy Simons emerged as the strong and clear choice to be our next Rabbis.
We are excited for our future possibilities and look forward to welcoming Bess and Jeremy when they start on July 1st, 2022. Shortly, we will have further information about welcoming the rabbis and opportunities for all of us to meet and start our long relationship together.