Rabbi Barbara Symons leaves a legacy of relationships at Temple David
TransitionsRabbi Barbara Symons prepares to leave Temple David

Rabbi Barbara Symons leaves a legacy of relationships at Temple David

Rabbi has been the spiritual leader of suburban synagogue for nearly two decades

Rabbi Barbara Symons will be seeking new sukkahs to sit under as she readies to leave Temple David after 18 years. (Photo provided by Barbara Symons)
Rabbi Barbara Symons will be seeking new sukkahs to sit under as she readies to leave Temple David after 18 years. (Photo provided by Barbara Symons)

Speaking of Rabbi Barbara Symons, Rev. Lindsay White is succinct: “She really has been a force of nature.”

Since she arrived in Monroeville 18 years ago, Symons has been a constant fixture, not just at Temple David, where she serves as the congregation’s rabbi, but at council meetings, Gateway School District board meetings and as a member of the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium.

She’s been a spiritual leader, friend, confidant and a counselor in the community.

Rabbi Barbara Symons has flowered relationships, both at Temple David and in the Monroeville community. (Photo provided by Barbara Symons)

And now, as Symons prepares to leave Temple David and move to New York with her husband, Rabbi Ron Symons, the congregation and region will have to find someone to replace the person whom White described as “the pulse” of the community.

White is a pastor at Cross Roads Presbyterian Church in Monroeville and has worked with Symons for the last four years on the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium, a partnership of religious and spiritual community leaders living or working in the area.
Symons, White said, is well-known for her love of the community and her commitment to make it a better place to live.

“She will be deeply, deeply missed,” White said.

As an example of Symons’ leadership, White said that when there was a fire at Cambridge Square Apartments in 2023, damaging or destroying 28 units and displacing 65 people, first responders and the municipality reached out to Symons to see if the ministerium or its community partners would be willing to support those affected.

“And Barbara wasn’t even the head of the organization at the time,” White remembered. “It was just, everyone knew she would respond.”

St. Bernadette Parish Deacon Michael Kelly said that Symons was the driving force behind many of the Ministerium’s activities.
“She been the one that pushed for things to happen,” he said.

Symons, Kelly said, was responsible for the periodic panel discussions the group had on various subjects, during which they shared views from various religious traditions, and she was partially responsible for what became the Monroeville Community Network, which works to affect positive change and goodwill in the Monroeville community.

The rabbi, he said, is leaving “large shoes to fill.”

Symons came to Monroeville in 2006 from her previous congregation in Franklin, Massachusetts. She interviewed with multiple congregations, she said, trying to find the right next move, “and this just felt like the right everything.”

The list of “rights” she found at the Reform congregation included its size, the opportunities available in the region for her husband and the right location to raise their three children. It even had provenance of sorts — Symons’ maternal grandmother was born and raised in the Hill District.

The family, Symons said, also was attracted to the community because of the diversity of the region and the Gateway School District.

The rabbi said she’s proud of the work she’s done as a leader working to strengthen Monroeville.

“It was important to have an authentic local voice and to use that voice,” she said.

Examples of using that voice, she said, included speaking at school board meetings or annually introducing Elie Wiesel’s “Night” to area 10th graders.

And while Symons may cast a wide shadow in the Monroeville community at large, she will be most missed for her leadership and the relationships she forged at Temple David.

“That’s why I’m here,” she said. “I am here to be the rabbi at Temple David.”

The rabbi said she relished the moments when she was able to preside over different life cycle events at the congregation. Funerals were always difficult, she noted, especially when it was a tragic death, but she recognizes the “tremendously powerful intimacy” of those moments.

Friend of animal and people alike, Rabbi Barbara Symons has been the spiritual shepherd at Temple David for nearly two decades. (Photo provided by Barbara Symons)

“My favorite life cycle events are special anniversary blessings or special birthday blessings because I really get to hear people’s stories, and not in a eulogy,” she said. “It’s a celebration of life while we’re living.”

Symons might have preferred the celebratory over the sad and tragic, but Temple David’s Worship and Ritual Vice President Randy Boswell said he’ll never forget the rabbi’s warmth and comfort when both his mother and wife passed away.

“She was able to get me through those hard days,” he said. “And it wasn’t just me. She’s that way with everybody. I’ve seen it. I’ve been there. She’s so comforting — it’s amazing, how she can intertwine the lives of your beloved that has gone on and make it a memorable time. She’s just an artist.”

While at Temple David, Symons led the congregation through sometimes difficult waters, including the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and COVID-19.

Symons said that while the suburban congregation was geographically distanced from Squirrel Hill, the ripples of Oct. 27, 2018, were felt at Temple David, where shooting victim Rose Mallinger’s niece and great-niece were members.

“People had all kinds of relationships to the victims,” she said, “so, we were very connected.”

Symons endeavored to ensure the right kind of memorials took place, both in the immediate aftermath and the years that followed.

If Oct. 27, 2018, was a time of personal connection, COVID-19 presented the challenge of not being able to have a physical connection.

“It was hard because we were so separated,” she said.

Using technology, phone calls and personal notes, Symons and the congregation were able to maintain their relationships.
“All of the leadership at temple and I were trying to be present and have some normalcy and insight and inspiration from our texts and prayers,” she said.

One bonus for the rabbi was that during the pandemic’s downtime, she was able to work on the book she edited for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah.” It was published in 2023.

Reena Goldberg and her family have been members of Temple David for more than 25 years. Her connections to Symons run deep — as a congregation member, former board member and immediate past president of the congregation, and as a teacher in its religious school, which the rabbi led.

She said that Symons was the “right fit” from her earliest days when she was getting to know the board and members at various meet-and-greets.

Goldberg said that Rabbi Emeritus Jason Edelstein helped with the transition from an interim rabbi to Symons and served as a mentor to the new full-time rabbi, something Symons acknowledged, as well.

While serving as president, Goldberg met regularly with the rabbi. The entire board, she said, was close.

“[Symons] is very active, making sure Temple David, a medium-sized congregation kind of hidden away in the suburbs, wasn’t forgotten, which would have been easy to do otherwise,” Goldberg said.

She noted that Symons is recognized as a leader and known for her achievements.

“She definitely has her own style, voice and strength and things she’s really involved in,” Goldberg said. “Especially here in Monroeville, a lot of people recognize her and know who she is because she is so involved in community events and building relationships.”

Symons said that she and her husband — the senior director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh — have supported one another throughout their careers.

“Being the rabbi of a congregation takes a whole family,” she said. “That’s really important. Ron moved here unseen, which was a gift. Aviva, Ilana and Micah understood when I had to go to the hospital to visit someone, or I wasn’t home for more than a quick dinner and then out to teach or to a meeting. It really was a family endeavor.”

As for her legacy, Symons said that her children, all working as Jewish professionals, are a testament to their time at Temple David.

The rabbi noted that it is interesting what compliments stick with you.

“Ten or 12 years ago, someone said to me that I made it so everyone could get involved on a leadership level, and that there weren’t any perceived barriers,” she said. “I took that really deeply as a compliment — that you don’t have to have that much knowledge or money or whatever.”

She said she’ll also remember the diversity of programs at the temple during her time there, which included a multiplicity of opportunities for people to become involved.

In the end, she said her time at the synagogue won’t be forgotten.

“As a rabbi, I helped to shape Temple David, but Temple David helped shape me and that’s something I will take with me as a move forward,” she said.

Temple David plans to hire an interim rabbi as it searches for its next full-time rabbi.

The congregation is honoring Symons with a weekend of events on May 17 and 18. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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