When six families started the Lake Norman Jewish Congregation two years ago, one of their main goals was to have full-time spiritual leadership.
This summer, Rabbi Michael Shields joined the congregation – now made up of about 90 families – as its first full-time rabbi.
“We just knew that at some point, lay leaders were only going to take the congregation so far,” said Slade Goldstein, president of the Lake Norman Jewish Congregation. The congregation had hosted guest rabbis and got a taste of full-time leadership when it paid a rabbinical student to travel from New York to North Carolina monthly for nine months to lead services.
Congregation leaders met Shields at a conference in California, where graduating rabbinical students could meet with congregations looking for rabbis.
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Shields said the first round of introductions was like speed dating, as he interviewed with 12 congregations in three days. After meeting leaders from the congregation, “we both knew we'd like to have a second date,” Shields said.
Goldstein said he wasn't sure if the congregation would find a rabbi for the congregation there.
“We knew that it was important that we find the right person, not that we find a person,” he said. “It had to be somebody who could buy into this new congregation in a place where almost everyone who's a member of our congregation is not from here.
“I think we knew from the first five minutes of our conversation with Michael.”
Shields said he could tell the leaders were excited about their growing congregation, and he could see that it was open to new ideas.
“Here was an opportunity to fashion something new and try new things and be willing to fail together,” he said. “That (feeling of) safety in being together on this journey was exciting and wonderful.”
While Shields grew up in New York, he said his sisters once lived in Georgia. “I had come to know the South a little bit, so it was on my radar screen,” he said.
He wanted to make sure he lived somewhere were he could find a wife and make friends.
“When I visited here and got a feel for Charlotte and Davidson and tried to imagine what my life would look like, I was pleasantly surprised,” Shields said.
He also liked that North Carolina is one of the biggest growth areas for reformed Judaism in the United States, he said.
One of Shields' primary focuses will be on the congregation's growing Jewish school and education program for adults.
Shields said he enjoys studying and reading so that he can teach and be a resource to people in the community.
His educational priorities range from the Jewish school to helping families navigate child-rearing to making sure the elderly are spiritually and educationally fulfilled.
Goldstein hopes that the congregation can build Lake Norman's first synagogue in the next few years, giving the congregation a literal place to call “home.”
Their plan is to first provide opportunities for social, spiritual and educational growth for the Jewish community in the Lake Norman area. That community will define what kind of building the congregation constructs, Shields said.
“The work we're doing right now is really, I think, sacred work, just getting to know each other and dreaming together,” Shields said.
The congregation is made of everyone from families with young children to retirees to people who aren't Jewish but are married to a Jewish person.
“Now Jews who are already living here will have a community that is accessible, and they'll have a meaningful spiritual experience here at the lake,” Shields said.
“We're going to change the face of Jewish life in Charlotte.”