After a half decade of service, Rabbi Jeremy Markiz will be stepping away from his role as the director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah at Congregation Beth Shalom.
Markiz started working part time at the Conservative synagogue in Squirrel Hill in 2016 after a summer working at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s J&R Camp. He was hired full-time in July of 2017 and his tenure will conclude at the end of June.
Markiz grew up in Oregon and was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. He moved to Pittsburgh with his wife, Dr. Elana Neshkes, who was beginning a five-year residency with UPMC. That residency is now ending, and the couple is looking forward to the next chapter of their lives. Before turning the proverbial page, though, Markiz chatted with the Chronicle.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning. What drew you to the idea of serving as a rabbi?
There are a lot of different ways to tell that story. One narrative is that I was always drawn to the rabbinate, even if I didn’t know it. In the sixth grade, we all had to do a job shadow. I chose the rabbi. So, there was something certainly in me at that point. A big piece was in college — I felt like I needed to study Talmud. I went to a local rabbi and it was the most embarrassing hour of my life. It was so challenging. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t read the words, even though they were in Aramaic. I wanted the keys to the kingdom, I wanted to understand my tradition, so I went to rabbinical school.
In rabbinic school, I realized the drive that had been pushing me. I have these two core principles-—access and literacy. That has driven all the work I’ve done since, the goal being: How can I make Jewish living and learning more accessible? Everybody’s on a journey of Jewish literacy. We all start at zero and then we learn. My role and what drove me is to provide greater access and greater literacy to the world.
What does the director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah do?
Every day is different, which is what I love about the rabbinate — it meets my internal ADHD needs.
I’ll give you the pre-pandemic and then pandemic answer.
Youth Tefillah is responsible for all the Shabbat holiday programming for kids and families. Every Shabbat morning, we have multiple services and once a month we have the Shababababa program and developing holiday programs with an emphasis on the High Holidays. On any given day, I am working on developing those programs and engage lay leaders to help me do those things — and, engage the community better to understand what their needs are.
Derekh has a similar answer but a different context. I try my best to steep myself in understanding what the community needs so I can engage lay leaders to develop programs. Derekh is about relationships. How can I better understand the leader, the participant, the learner, whatever it is, to help empower them to make Beth Shalom’s community even better? And, because Derekh is internal and external learning, it’s not just about Beth Shalom. It’s about Pittsburgh. Pre-pandemic, there were a lot of coffee dates.
During the pandemic, it’s been more challenging, but the same principles are there. It’s about creative problem-solving and building relationships. It’s about listening more than anything. What do people need? How can I be there for them? There is of course teaching and pastoral care. The thing I love the most about this job is that every day brings on new opportunities and challenges, none of which I could ever plan on.
Who has a harder job, a pulpit rabbi or a rabbi working to create educational programs and engage the community?
The jobs are about finding alignment. I don’t know if one job is harder than the other. I can tell you that the jobs of building relationships and developing educational and teaching opportunities are in great alignment for me. In any role though, there are always challenging moments.
Why did you decide to leave Beth Shalom?
Elana and I were trying to figure out what our next steps were. She was finishing her residency. We came to Pittsburgh with the knowledge that she was in a five-year residency and that it was very possible — potentially likely — that we would be leaving. I knew that decision was coming. I wanted to give my wife space to make that decision for her and to let her choose that path.
After five years at Beth Shalom, I feel like I’ve accomplished a great deal. It felt like it was time for me to try something else and find the next space where I could do my best work. It felt like time.
What advice, if any, would you leave the Pittsburgh Jewish community?
I had a teacher in high school who was part of the synagogue, and Abby, my teacher, had a mantra I’ve always held close: “When in doubt love more.” I think the era we’re entering is going to be challenging. The post-pandemic era of societal chaos and community stress — it will be easy to put up barriers and hunker down. The approach Abby taught me is a reminder to be embracing and empowering and encouraging and to think expansively.
Elana has accepted a position in Washington, D.C., so we will be moving this summer. I am launching a consulting firm to help synagogues, rabbis and Jewish organizations do effective work with a focus on digital communications, building on the work I’ve done the last five years. I have a personal passion around productivity. It’s called Next Level Rabbinics.
Any last words?
I wrote a letter to Beth Shalom and the main theme is gratitude. Beth Shalom invested in me, not knowing who I was or what I could bring. I think I’ve brought a lot of value to Beth Shalom and the community — at least I hope so. That’s the dream, that your work has value and matters. Beth Shalom is the place where I became a rabbi. The trust of a community and individuals that a rabbi earns, this is the place where that started to be true. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.