By Janelle Faignant
We had only emailed twice, and already I had two things in common with Rabbi Doug Weber. Neither of us is on Facebook, and we both speak French. Well, kind of. We both understand French. (Je comprend le tout, but I don’t speak too well, he says.)
Weber has been head rabbi at the beautiful Rutland Jewish Center on Grove Street for a little over a decade. That chapter closed on August 1, when he officially retired from the position. On a recent Friday morning he talked about his life as a rabbi, the decision to leave, and the next chapter.
Almost 13 years ago on a cold day in January he found himself on the slopes of Killington, contemplating the move to Rutland. Formally becoming a congregation’s rabbi means being elected by it, and after submitting a résumé, he received an unusual invitation from the Rutland Jewish Center’s members.
“I had spoken to members of the search committee on the phone, had lunch with a couple (of them), and they said come back to Rutland and you’ll meet more people. We understand you ski,” Weber recalled.
They met on a day the temperature was 15 below, but that didn’t stop the dozen members of the congregation who were there, and Weber had his initial interview, two or three people at a time, riding chairlifts up and down the hill that day.
“I’ve always liked the fact, especially here in Rutland, that as part of my job I might spend the day skiing with a group from the congregation to talk about things on the lift instead of sitting in an office,” Weber said.
He grew up on Long Island, moved around a bit, and came to Rutland in 2005 with his wife, Jessica, with whom he has three adult children. A lifelong interest in philosophy and the existential questions that go along with it led him to become a rabbi. His thoughtful and frank, but tactful, way of speaking and sense of humor make it easy to see him as natural for the job.
As a member of the Conservative Rabbis Association, he was ordained in the Reform Movement, and said, “I’ve always been a fence-straddler between the more traditional conservative movement and the reform movement, and (the Rutland congregation) reflected that mix.”
“This congregation seemed to me, and it was at the time, a perfect match for my religious style,” he said.
But during his 12-year tenure, he saw proof of the statistics about the decline in numbers in organized religions of all denominations. In 2009 and again in 2016, Vermont was ranked among the least religious states in the country by the Pew Research Center — the American think tank which does studies on social issues and demographic trends.
“The economic challenges in the general community have impacted the congregation, and the congregation faces some demographic challenges,” Weber said. “But so do almost all the traditionally organized religions.”
“Fewer people in New England affiliate with a church or a synagogue or any organized religion than in any other area in the country,” Weber said. “So it’s a real challenge.”
But Weber says that the incoming rabbi, Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman, who will be the first female rabbi in Rutland, will bring fresh energy when she begins in October.
“It’s one of the reasons that I’m out of the picture and the congregation has engaged the services of a new person who they think, and I think they might be right, might be more in tune with Jews who live in the area who have not chosen to be part of the synagogue,” Weber said.
Now, at 63 years old, Weber is continuing what had been a second job as a part-time professor of philosophy at Castleton University and the College of Saint Joseph. As a philosophy major, he’s back on familiar ground and still focused on the search for answers to life’s big questions. Neither college has many Jewish students, and in a class of 20, Weber says “many have never met anybody Jewish, and none have ever met a rabbi.”
“It’s been one of the more useful things I’ve done, being able to answer questions like, ‘why do you wear that funny hat?’ or ‘why is class canceled on Yom Kippur?’ And ‘what is Yom Kippur?’” he said. “It’s providing me with a good opportunity to spread understanding about a culture that most of the students, quite logically, don’t know much about.
“I am happy with my new life,” Weber said. “I’m able to concentrate more on my college teaching, my own reading, my own personal reflection, and the congregation will be happier.
“I look back on my 12-and-a-half years working with the people of the Rutland Jewish Center fondly,” Weber said. “I had, I think, a good relationship with them, everybody has ups and downs, but I enjoyed my work.”
Weber will continue to be part of the Rutland Jewish Center as rabbi emeritus, “which means I’m available for the new rabbi to ask advice if she wants and to stay quiet if she doesn’t,” he said.
“I have found that being a congregational rabbi for 35 years total, has been a good experience,” Weber said. “I’m going to give it a good try to remain a positive presence in the community.”