Rabbinical career fulfils dream for new TI rabbi

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Geoffrey M. Brown is the new spiritual leader of Temple Israel.
He’s worked in various aspects of the Jewish community since he graduated from Drake University of Iowa in 1980, but only now is he fulfilling his dream of becoming a rabbi. Geoffrey M. Brown, the interim rabbi of Temple Israel through May, will graduate from the Academy of Jewish Religion next spring.
Brown has wanted to be a rabbi for decades, but practical concerns came first. In an e-mail interview, he noted that, in the 1990s, “Elissa, my partner/friend/significant other and I were planning the next phase of our lives. It was my decision to proceed with her career first: to seek her Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy with a specialization in gifted education. Once she completed the degree with honors at William and Mary [University], and once our three children were officially no longer living at home, it was my turn to pursue my goal: to become a rabbi. There are a few years between the 1980s and 2012 when I began my studies at the Academy for Jewish Religion. I will finally achieve this goal and receive smicha – ordination  – this spring.”
He sees his work – whether within the Jewish community or not – as helpful in creating his rabbinate. “We are (the generic ‘we’) a composite of all our experiences,” he said. “During my career, both within Jewish circles and in the secular world, I have learned, managed, facilitated and led others – primarily in non-profit settings – such that I understand business operations and financials, as well as development.”
Brown has worked with almost every age group. The most recent example is his work at the 92nd Street Y with preschool-sixth grade children at its summer camp, Yomi, and with middle-school aged children at the Y’s Hebrew school. He continues to do b’nai mitzvah tutoring, something that he began when he was 16 years old. Brown also worked with college students for 10 years at several universities, in addition to serving at a pulpit that allowed him to engage with seniors and retirees.
Brown notes that helping others on their Jewish paths – wherever they might be on that journey – is “the most important part” of his rabbinate. He believes he can do this by assisting people “in their explorations of their own personal Judaism.” In addition, he wants “to provide positive learning experiences with people of all ages such that they enjoy their exposure to Judaism, whether it involves ritual, prayer, social action and Israel,” and to help “congregants and other people with whom I encounter in pastoral and counseling settings.”
Brown sees the new Temple Israel building as a great opportunity: He hopes to “attract new community members to explore our new space and take advantage of helping plan for the future.” He wants to help the congregation use the building “to its fullest extent” and plans to accomplish this by “encourag[ing] young families who have an association with Hillel Academy to become part of planning special programming designed and geared for them; attract[ing] BU students for Shabbat morning services beyond their ba’al koreh [Torah reading] skills; serv[ing] the needs of community members in assisted living and visiting the sick in hospital settings; and provid[ing] learning opportunities for all ages.” Brown will also help synagogue leadership create a five-year plan to work toward those goals.
Brown has lived most of his adult life in smaller communities and realizes the advantages and disadvantages of the situation. Among the problems he sees are fewer kosher food options, and fewer people and resources. He did note that Binghamton has more prayer options than many smaller communities since there are three synagogues in the area, as well as opportunities for other prayer experiences connected to Binghamton University.
However, the smaller demographic can be an advantage since “Jewish community members, whether they affiliate or not, have easier access to Jewish life,” he said. “Even if they are not ‘religious’ – (I think that means that they don’t find comfort in prayer scenarios, but they identify as Jews) – they will, most likely, attend and plug into some Jewish sponsored activities.”
Since there are fewer people in the community, he believes this makes it easier for people to take leadership positions. Brown also notes that “even if one doesn’t necessarily volunteer themselves, it is my experience that when called upon to help, they are usually quite excited to be asked to participate.”
The smaller size also leads to greater coordination and sharing of services. “Smaller communities can create cooperative calendars and conduct cooperative programming,” he said. Examples include joint Selichot services, communitywide celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut and the pooling of resources to bring speakers and entertainers into town.
In his free time, Brown enjoys being out of doors. “Anyone who wants to explore Judaism in nature – on a hike, riding on bikes, rappelling off a cliff-face or anything that allows for outside experiential learning – I am an affable companion,” he added. In fact, readers can learn more about him at his website, Bicycle Rabbi, at http://bicyclerabbi.weebly.com/.