New rabbi in Montgomery County takes fresh approach to serving community


Rabbi Charles Arian, who replaced Rabbi Mark Raphael, has hosted talks with congregants to get to know them on a personal level. (Dan Gross/The Gazette)
October 4, 2012

It’s a good thing bourbon is kosher.

A new rabbi in Gaithersburg is taking a new approach to the way he unites his community.

Rabbi Charles Arian has already begun semiweekly coffee chats with members of his congregation. Now, the rabbi — who loves bourbon — plans to stage a bourbon tasting with his synagogue’s men’s club this fall to strengthen community relationships.

“I try to cut down the distance between the pulpit and the congregation, [both] physically and metaphorically,” said Arian, who was selected last month as rabbi of conservative synagogue Kehilat Shalom.

“Synagogues have to meet their constituents where they are at,” he said. “This is a congregation that has gone through a lot of changes . . . [and] we have to make a concerted effort to be open and warm and friendly and accessible — and I think we are doing that.”

In addition to the retirement of Rabbi Mark Raphael, who served for 16 years at Kehilat Shalom, the congregation is recovering from a proposal it voted against last year to merge with Shaare Torah, another congregation based in Gaithersburg. Arian said the vote left “a lot of hurt and bruised feelings on both sides of the debate” within the Kehilat Shalom community.

“It was a bit of a difficult transition, when even just talking about the idea of merging with another synagogue and what that would mean for the memories of our past,” said Kehilat Shalom President Marcie Lerner, who has been a member of the synagogue for about 10 years.

The merger idea stemmed from a “decline in membership,” which sits at about 200 families, and financial hardship, she said.

“Some people were upset that we did not merge, and some people were very happy that we did not merge.”

Arian of Montgomery Village, who hails from Brooklyn and Hazlet, N.J., is no stranger to the area.

The rabbi received his undergraduate degree in foreign service at Georgetown University in the District and served as the Hillel rabbi at American University in the late 1990s. After 26 years there, Arian brings his passion for “making the world a better place” to the congregation of Kehilat Shalom.

Arian said he has hosted one or two coffee chats each week in the homes of members of the congregation as a way to get to know the community he serves. The chats, he said, allow eight to 10 members to ask him questions and get to know each other better.

He said through the chats he has been forced to contend with certain “demographic realities”: Montgomery Village does not have as many Jews and Jewish families with young children as it once did.

“It’s really hard to look in the mirror and say it’s not that we’re not doing a good job to reach out to families with kids, it’s just that there aren’t a lot of families with kids in the neighborhood,” he said.

Arian’s wife, Keleigh S. W. Arian — a former teacher — said that being the wife of a rabbi “is not always easy” but believes Kehilat Shalom is a “healthy, warm, welcoming and committed congregation.”

The two have been married for nine years, after meeting on JDate, a Jewish online dating service. Although her husband is away from home often, she feels “blessed” he is working with the Kehilat Shalom community, she said.

“Everyone is willing to roll up his or her sleeves and make the place work,” Keleigh said. “When someone, like me, walks into that kind of environment, it just makes me want to jump right in and help out.”

Charles Arian was chosen from about six candidates because he was a “vibrant, warm, intelligent personality” with a great sense of humor, Lerner said, and he appealed to more congregants than any other candidate.

“He just has a lot of fresh ideas and new ways of thinking about the old way we used to do things,” Lerner said.

Still, Arian, who has a knack for social media, said he is hoping to be more than just a “voice and face” of Judaism to the Jewish community.

“People often feel they can only talk to me about narrowly religious subjects,” Arian said. “Sometimes I am tired of talking about narrowly religious things. I am passionate about Georgetown basketball [and] a nerd when it comes to different types of whiskey. I can be their buddy and not just their rabbi.”

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