The very first weekend that Bob Katzen met Rabbi James Gibson, he knew, without question, that he had found his rabbi.
It was 1988, and Temple Sinai had been searching for a new rabbi for about a year. Members had already interviewed about two dozen candidates, when Gibson came from his pulpit in Wausau, Wis., to meet the 540-member Reform congregation in Squirrel Hill.
The congregation had been led by four different rabbis in 12 years, and it was looking for its true bashert.
“I was on the search committee, and I was driving Jamie to the airport [after his interview], and I told him then, ‘I consider you my rabbi,’” recalled Katzen, who is a past president of the congregation. “We just knew from the very beginning. And it’s been unbelievable.”
After 25 years, Gibson has served Temple Sinai longer than any of the congregation’s previous rabbis. He is beloved and respected by his congregation as well as the wider Jewish and interfaith communities, and will be celebrated during a weekend of events at the Temple, May 3 and 4.
During Gibson’s tenure, the congregation has bloomed. It now has more than 900 member families, a thriving religious school and popular, well-attended Shabbat services. Its four Centers of Jewish Life — Neshama (spirituality), Midrash (learning), Bracha (acts of love and kindness) and Tikkun Olam (social justice) — were developed by Gibson, and provide outlets for nearly everyone to connect.
Gibson clearly did something right.
“It’s all about the relationships,” he said.
Gibson’s most important accomplishment during his tenure at Temple Sinai, he said, is “fostering a tremendous sense of participation and buy-in in this community. We really work hard for a common set of goals, and we are really looking out for each other’s best interests.”
As a result, Gibson’s congregants come from all over the Pittsburgh region — from Bridgeville to Wexford — to participate in the caring community he has had a hand in creating.
“I think Jamie has attracted younger families, in part, because of his attention to them and his understanding that we all connect to the synagogue in different ways,” said Bob Bernstein, a past president of Temple Sinai, and a chair of the celebration.
“He’s helped us be responsible to the needs of the members; he facilitates that.”
Gibson has brought some changes to the congregation along the way, but has introduced those changes slowly and methodically.
“My favorite aphorism is, ‘Just because you stir it faster, doesn’t make it soup,’ ” Gibson said.
Case in point: a committee worked for three years before deciding to take on a second rabbi, and a group is now studying “how and what we want to eat,” not just in terms of traditional kashrut, Gibson said, but in terms of sustainability.
“We tend to look at things through different lenses before we make decisions,” he said. “But we also have the ability to move quickly when opportunities arise.”
Gradually, he has moved Temple Sinai, historically a classically Reform congregation, to the religious center, according to Katzen. He noted that Gibson has introduced more Hebrew into the services and made other ritual changes.
“We’ve increased Shabbat consciousness in the family we call Temple Sinai,” said Gibson, adding that the congregation now offers five different Shabbat experiences a month, including smaller dinners in members’ homes.
The congregation is strengthened, Gibson said, through the collaboration of all of its clerical leaders, including Rabbi Ronald B.B. Symons, and its musical soloist and chaplain, Sara Stock-Mayo.
“We’ve been able to attract leadership with the same core values I have,” Gibson said. “This is not a one-man show, it can never be a one-person show to operate a sacred community.”
In addition to his pulpit and congregational responsibilities, Gibson chairs the Jewish Unity Project for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and convenes the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue sponsored by the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He also serves as co-chair of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue, and teaches Catholic high school students through the Catholic-Jewish Educational Enrichment Program at Oakland Catholic High School.
His interfaith activities “fit with a personal inclination I have to seek out people involved in their spiritual connections,” Gibson said.
That Gibson loves what he does is apparent.
“I am honored every day to be the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “It’s my job to honor the people with my best efforts, to be the best we can be, a ‘family of families.’ ”
His congregants know how lucky they are.
“Whatever success we have is on Jamie’s shoulders,” said Katzen. “It’s Jamie’s congregation now. He’s responsible for the constant growth. He’s left his mark on the congregation. It’s a positive mark, and there’s no question the mark will last.”
“Jamie is a teacher and a friend to everyone,” Katzen continued. “Twenty-five years is quite an accomplishment, and we’re very happy.”
The celebration of Gibson’s 25 years at Temple Sinai began on March 15, with a Shabbat celebration featuring guest Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller. The celebration will continue Friday, May 3, and Saturday, May 4, with special guest Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and a concert by singer/songwriter Craig Taubman.
Want to go?
Friday, May 3, 7 p.m.
Mega Mostly Musical Shabbat and oneg
in honor of Rabbi Gibson’s 25th anniversary,
featuring Rabbi Gibson, musical soloist
Sara Stock Mayo and the Temple Sinai Band
Saturday, May 4, 9:15 a.m.
Shabbat morning service
with guest sermon by Rabbi David Saperstein
Lunch and Learn following service
led by Rabbi David Saperstein
RSVP for this event
Saturday, May 4, 8 p.m.
25th Anniversary Celebration Concert,
featuring singer/songwriter Craig Taubman
RSVP for this event
Call 412-421-9715 for more information
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)