Growing up in Manhattan, Jonathan Freirich was surrounded by synagogues.
“The great thing about being Jewish in New York,” Freirich, 45, said, “is that it seems like everybody is Jewish.”
Freirich, the associate rabbi at Charlotte’s Temple Beth El recently announced to his congregation that, like Senior Rabbi Judy Schindler, it is time for him to move on. He is seeking a senior rabbinic position in a new congregation and will be leaving at the end of June 2016. But he cherishes his time in Charlotte.
Freirich did not have a childhood aspiration to become a rabbi. It wasn’t until he got to Middlebury College in Vermont, where he was a philosophy major with a minor in history, that his path became clear.
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It was actually his then-girlfriend (and now wife) Ginny Reel, 43, who encouraged him to go to rabbinical school.
“She looked at my life,” Freirich said, “and realized this is what I have always been doing.”
Freirich even had the nickname of “Rabbi” at summer camp because, as a seventh-grader, he would help lead evening services.
Following his 1992 college graduation, Freirich attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. He was drawn to the philosophy of reconstructionist Judaism that, he said, is “very progressive on social issues and more conservative on observance issues.”
Freirich graduated from the six-year program with a rabbi and teacher diploma, a Masters in Hebrew Letters and a certificate of Rabbinic Specialist in the Campus Rabbinate. During that time, he married Reel and spent a year in Israel studying in the desert and working on a kibbutz, or communal settlement, he said.
Reel, who was not Jewish but had been on a path to Judaism before they met (she traveled to Israel as part of a high school student exchange program), joined Freirich on the kibbutz. They married in 1996 and have two children, Jude, 8, and Sadie, 2.
Freirich had such a powerful experience with Middlebury’s Hillel (the center for Jewish life on the college campus) that he began his rabbinical career by working with college students. He started off in Philadelphia, advising area college campuses, then served as the assistant director at Hillel at the University of Arizona in Tucson for two years followed by another two years as the director of the Hillel Foundation in Cleveland.
My hope is for everybody – whether a kid or an adult – to see that Judaism complements their lives and opens them up to conversations that make life more interesting.
Jonathan Freirich, associate rabbi at Temple Beth El
“I love the relationships with college students,” Freirich said. “You see them grow so quickly.”
He also led several Birthright trips to Israel. The program gives Jewish young adults the opportunity to tour Israel for free as a first-time, educational experience.
In 2003, Freirich became the rabbi for a small synagogue on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
“It was an awesome place to live,” Freirich said.
But after eight years, he was ready to move on to a bigger congregation.
“If I had become a rabbi to ski and bike, I would have stayed,” Freirich said.
He came to Charlotte in 2011 to be an associate rabbi at Temple Beth El with Rabbi Judy Schindler.
“She called me and asked me to come,” Freirich said. “And you don’t say ‘no’ to Rabbi Judy.”
As the associate rabbi at Temple Beth El, Charlotte’s Reform Temple, Freirich officiates in Rabbi Schindler’s stead at weddings, funerals, and bar and bat mitzvahs whenever she is unavailable. Freirich also teaches the seventh grade Hebrew School students and helps them prepare for their bar and bat mitzvahs.
“What I really enjoy about working with the seventh-graders,” Freirich said, “is that I see them totally fresh. I have no history with them. I get to be their coach and confidant.”
He teaches the confirmation class of 10th-graders as well.
Freirich also sees his role with the confirmation students as a vital one because, he said, “confirmation is the idea that Jews are created by communal life, not individual achievement.”
Distinguishing these two milestones, Freirich said, “Bar and bat mitzvahs focus on how much we learn. Confirmation focuses on how we connect with our peers.”
Freirich has also initiated programs such as Talmud lunches for discussing the Torah, Temple Beth El University and Jolt of Judaism to teach Judaism and the history of Jews and Jewish law in both formal and informal settings.
“My hope is for everybody – whether a kid or an adult – to see that Judaism complements their lives and opens them up to conversations that make life more interesting,” Frierich said. “I want everybody to feel confident taking their own role in the 3,000-year conversation that is Judaism.”
Freirich, who lives in Beverly Crest, said that he and his family have loved “the warmth and friendliness of both Temple Beth El and Charlotte.” And he has considered it an honor being a rabbi in the Queen City.
Freirich looks forward to his role as a Jewish ambassador in a new community, but, he said, “Ginny and I will always cherish our time in Charlotte.”
Katya Lezin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.