It was a joyous, gift and music-filled gathering Sunday morning, March 26, as members of Westville’s Beth El-Keser Israel (BEKI) synagogue installed Eric Woodward as their new rabbi.
Woodward, 41, a graduate of Williams College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, assumed the pulpit over the past year, the congregation’s first new pulpit rabbi in 28 years. He succeeded Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen, who served from 1993 – 2021, and Carl Astor, who served as interim rabbi until Woodward arrived.
An upbeat throng of 200 adults and kids participated in the installation ceremony held in the sanctuary at Harrison Street and Whalley Avenue.
“I was wondering if I should bring my tools” to the installation, quipped longtime synagogue member Yair Minsky. He was making an old joke about a relatively new ritual, rabbinic installation. An installation ceremony mandates no set pieces, prescribed prayers or blessings. The largely freestyle affair allowed Woodward to choose whomever he wanted to officiate and conduct the installation. He chose his best friend, seminary roommate and study-buddy Rabbi Ravid Tilles, who came down from Boston to participate.
“It makes sense that Eric would ask me as a friend to Rabbi Ravid Tilles, right, presents prayer shawl to BEKI Rabbi Eric Woodward at Sunday's cer- emony. (Allen Samuel Photography) come speak on his behalf,” said Tilles. He could have chosen someone with more rabbinic and Torah gravitas, Tilles said, but Woodward “values relationships as central to his rabbinate. There is nothing more important or sacred or significant than relationships.”
Tilles went on to describe Woodward as someone who “helps people find something within. That’s the thing he’s most expert at.”
Minsky echoed many other congregants interviewed in saying that Woodward’s relationship-ignitied personal spark has proved a perfect fit to shepherd a congregation through gradual reemergence from a pandemic that has stressed out many of our relationships at home, at work, and in a now war and danger-filled world. The installation was an “exciting moment, in the midst of all the grief in the world, for the congregation to come together,” said Maytal Saltiel, an active BEKI member “He’s interested in everyone, has a great memory and remembers everyone’s story.”
When Woodward stepped up to the bimah, he beamed out on the new/old faces looking up at him.
“I’m just taking a minute to take in all your faces,” he said. “From the moment BEKI came into our [family’s] lives, it felt as if it were meant to be. I think we truly saw each other, the joy and love of being seen.”
Woodward found a proof-text for this message in a medieval Jewish commentator’s question: Why the Jews’ biblical story begins at creation at Genesis (the first humans recorded in the story, after all, weren’t Jewish) as opposed to the central-people making moment, the Exodus from Egypt.
Answer: “To give us context, to train us about our place in the world not just as Jews but as humans ... Every time we meet another person we are in medias res and we bring a whole ‘trousseau’ of past experience, a wrapped up bundle of things, a jumble of narratives and moments. The story of the Exodus is the main story we tell ourselves, but it’s not our only story … Who are you and what is your story?”
In addition to formal proclamations offered by Mayor Justin Elicker and State Rep. Pat Dillon, Tilles presented Woodward with a prayer shawl and an old text for a blessing, from when Moses (with God’s help) passes the mantle of leadership to Joshua: “May the Torah never cease from your lips ... Be strong and resolute, for [God] your God will be with you wherever you go. Mazal Tov.” Then, as Woodward struggled a little to don the talit, the prayer shawl, Tilles called up from the seat in the first row to which he had descended: "You know how to use that thing?"