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Interim rabbi takes helm at Temple Emanu-El

Rabbi Scott Saulson

Rabbi Scott Saulson, Ph.D., joined Temple Emanu-El this month as interim rabbi.

With an extensive background in pastoral counseling and mediation, Saulson specializes in helping congregations in transition. This is his eighth interim rabbi position.

Along with fulfilling typical rabbinic duties for a year, such as officiating at services and providing pastoral care, Saulson will help Temple Emanu-El’s membership prepare for their next settled rabbi, and will provide guidance as Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Or Chadash work together on the potential creation of a new, combined synagogue.

“Typically I don’t have any expectations” when stepping into an interim role, he says, instead seeking to “understand what they expect of themselves and to help them with that.”

“My modus operandi happens to be more collaborative, so this is a nice collaborative situation that we’re entering into,” Saulson says. “In my role I’m able to, as they say, ‘sit in the balcony’ and get a birds-eye view ostensibly of what’s going on and to offer my insights and observations to help people in that respect.”

A transitional rabbi, he says, gives a congregation’s members “a chance to catch their breath and review what has been going on for the last several years and what a new approach might look like.”

”I think all congregations, not just Emanu-El, are basically faced with the changing spiritual demands of our people, compounded of course by the distancing that we’re experiencing now [because of COVID-19], which is not likely to go away any time soon. Helping people to fashion or renew a vision — because two congregations are coming together — we’re going to have to find common ground and common hopes,” he says.

An interim year provides an opportunity for the anxiety that comes with a congregational lifecycle event to play itself out, so it is laid to rest before a settled rabbi arrives, Saulson explains.

“Rabbi Saulson’s experience working with congregations and the insight that he brings to the way people connect with Reform Judaism are key areas that I think we will take advantage of in the year that we’re fortunate to have him at Temple’s service,” says Scott Arden, president of Temple Emanu-El.

Saulson served the Jewish community of Atlanta as chaplain for 14 years through Jewish Family & Career Services, then established a private practice providing counseling, support, and care-giving mediation to families and their elders in transition, www.MovingParents.org.  For a decade, he also was the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel of Gadsden, Alabama.

Before his official July 1 start date in Tucson, Saulson had the chance to confer with Rabbi Batsheva Appel, who left Temple Emanu-El last month for a position in Louisiana, as well as Temple Emanu-El’s Cantorial Soloist Marjorie Hochberg, and Or Chadash’s Rabbi Thomas Louchheim.

“He’s a very good listener,” says Hochberg, adding that his experience as a mediator is clear in the way he talks with people.

Louchheim had many discussions with Saulson in June to begin coordinating adult education, 10th grade confirmation, and working with conversion students, among other topics.

“While Scott is here and even prior to any union of our two congregations, we’re going to try to do as much together as we can,” Louchheim says.

Both congregations had voted last year to continue exploring the idea of combining, but that was not a binding vote, Louchheim explains. Once all the details of a new entity — from the name to the mission to the clerical  structure — are worked out, then a binding vote will be taken.

Saulson and the two congregations also will be working with a consultant, Rabbi David Wolfman, founder of David S. Wolfman Consulting, LLC: “The Human Side of Change.®” His consulting practice focuses on managing organizational change and transition and navigating conflict in congregations and other organizations.

“What is helpful to me from Rabbi Wolfman was just the idea that at first, we have to let people sort of sit in their discomfort,” says Hochberg, acknowledging that bringing together two congregations is a bit like creating a blended family, where the kids are leery of the change. “Plus, her family is moving into his house,” she adds.

“It’s ok for people to feel fear and grief,” Hochberg says, and then, she hopes, to move past those feelings. “That’s the goal of this process.”

Saulson, who has previously facilitated congregations integrating with other congregations in various ways, says that in some ways, Wolfman will be “relieving me and Rabbi Louchheim of some of the fundamental work that we’d have to do.”

Wolfman’s involvement is just one way this position is different from his previous interim gigs, Saulson says. “I have been more involved than ever before in ramping up my role here, beginning in May. I’ve been on Zoom calls with the joint executive committee, conversations with Rabbi Louchheim and Rabbi Appel, [and Temple Emanu-El Executive Director] Donna Beyer. That’s been quite unusual — and helpful.”

Also new for him “is the idea that there’s going to be a co-rabbinate for the combined congregation” if the plan to combine the synagogues comes to fruition. “I’m really eager to work with Rabbi Louchheim as co-equals in this endeavor,” he says.

Saulson earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Michigan,  a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Miami and a master’s degree in Hebrew letters from the Hebrew Union College, where he was ordained as a rabbi in 1976. He earned his doctorate in Semitics from the University of South Africa. Prior to his rabbinic studies, he served as a volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps in Micronesia. But this is Saulson’s first time living in the American West. He and his wife, Diane Wulfsohn, Ph.D, a practicing clinical psychologist, plan to trade monthly visits between Tucson and Atlanta.