Rabbi Darryl Crystal likes to tell a story about an experience he had while employed as a rabbi at a congregation on Long Island, New York.
The synagogue youth group had a well-used air hockey table in the youth lounge which had to be replaced during his tenure “because the back rails were made of wood and the kids played so many games that the puck had gouged out the wood and it would get stuck.”
The story is an apt metaphor for the role Crystal has played for the last 15 years, serving as interim rabbi for congregations across the country, ensuring that the transition from one settled rabbi to the next is as seamless and smooth as possible, being mindful that members don’t get “stuck” in the old wood, and replacing any “back rails” that may need attention.
Crystal began a one-year tenure with Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill on July 1, after the retirement of Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who served the Reform congregation for 32 years.
The process of working with a congregation typically begins six months before his start date, Crystal explained, noting that during that time, he works with the transition team, comes in for a of couple visits and “gets to know the congregation.”
It is during this process that the rabbi begins asking probing questions using “positive psychology,” he said. Those questions include: “What’s been a meaningful experience that you are proud of about the synagogue? What are important traditions? What do you want me to know that’s something new you might like to try?”
Crystal’s role is not to begin “turning things upside down,” he said. Rather, he views one of his responsibilities as “learning the traditions” of the congregation he’s serving “to pass them onto the next rabbi.”
While he understands the importance of transmitting the history and traditions of a congregation to a new settled rabbi, Crystal also asks its members, “What it is you may like to try?”
The answers to that question allowed him to create a new program for Temple Sinai, “Judaism in the 21st Century,” slated to begin in August. The series’ first speaker will be Rabbi Esther Lederman, director of congregational innovation for the Union of Reform Judaism. Future guests will include Rabbi Barry Block, who recently edited the “The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life”; the URJ Director of Worship, Cantor Rosalie Will; and, Rabbi Sid Schwarz, the creator and director of Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network.
Crystal “wrote the book” on the role of interim rabbis, said Alison Yazer, who co-chaired the interim rabbi search committee with Joshua Breslau.
Although that’s not exactly true, according to the rabbi, it is correct that he spent three years as the manager of the interim rabbi program for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, assisting with the training of interim rabbis.
“I’ve created models and I’ve shared the material I’ve created with people going through the training,” Crystal said. “For instance, I have a 10-page list of questions I ask the departing rabbi.”
Those questions speak to the depth of Crystal’s experience and range from the spiritual – “How do you celebrate the High Holy Days?” to the mundane – “What’s the password for the telephone? They forget to tell the new rabbi that, sometimes,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused Crystal to adapt some of his normal processes for use in the digital space.
“We live by Zoom,” he explained. In the past, the rabbi would typically do meet and greets with congregants in people’s homes. Instead, Temple Sinai has set up 20 meet and greets by Zoom. Small groups, coordinated by the congregation’s onboarding committee, will also meet with the new interim rabbi online to discuss things like tradition and how Rabbi Jamie Gibson touched their lives, “because one of the things an interim rabbi is supposed to do is to affirm the legacy of the previous rabbi,” Crystal explained.
The legacy of a retiring rabbi like Gibson can loom large for a congregation. Crystal understands that.
“One of my favorite adages is, being an interim rabbi is like the Beatle’s song, ‘You say goodbye, I say hello.’ There’s an emotion of saying goodbye and saying hello. That’s why you have an interim rabbi.”
Much of the work of moving beyond the vision of a retiring rabbi belongs to the congregation and is simply facilitated by an interim rabbi, according to Crystal.
“Part of it is giving the congregation the space to ask, ‘Who are we now and what’s different?’ For instance, I don’t sing or play the guitar. So, that’s going to be a big shift for the congregation and there’s going to be a lot of emotion with it because it was a center point of worship.” By not singing or playing music, Crystal said he will create space for the congregation to begin envisioning how worship may look without that anchor of the last 32 years.
Even before deciding to become an interim rabbi, Crystal was something of a nomad. Born in Connecticut, he grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and went from studying as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland to rabbinic school in Cincinnati. Stops included serving student pulpits in Joplin, Missouri and Wilmington, North Carolina and chaplain residencies at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. He also spent two stints as an intern at the Religious Action Center.
Once ordained, Crystal served at the previously mentioned Long Island congregation and as a rabbinic cohort for the Institute of Jewish Spirituality and spent time at the Elat Chayim Center of Jewish Spiritualty in Connecticut before eventually moving to Israel for a year to study at The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a retreat he continues to make annually. Along the way, Crystal served as interim rabbi across the country including for congregations in Savannah, Georgia; San Antonio, Texas; Chicago, Illinois and Baltimore, Maryland.
“Having someone who’s so familiar and dedicated to the process was important,” noted Breslau, saying that the interim rabbi will help the congregation “get some space and think about what our priorities are, in terms of what we want next. That’s his role and I think it will be very helpful to the congregation.”
When the coronavirus pandemic is over, Crystal, a baseball fan, hopes to visit PNC Park before the end of his tenure.
“I love baseball,” he said. “I was traumatized as a child attending the last Washington Senators game before they became the Texas Rangers. I’m a purist. I love watching games at Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway. There you have your peanuts; you have your hot dog and you watch baseball. I’m also waiting for the theater season to begin again.”
Looking ahead to the next year, Crystal said Temple Sinai is “a great synagogue and I’m really looking forward to being with everyone.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.