On Saturday, Missoula’s Jewish congregation Har Shalom will hold Passover services at the Wilma Theatre with Rabbi Gershon Winkler leading the group in prayer, song and storytelling as he has for the last decade. This year’s ceremony, though, comes on the heels of major change for the congregation.
A recent vote by the 70-household congregation to hire a student rabbi follows the March approval of the group’s affiliation with the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Joining URJ allows the congregation to utilize the larger group’s resources, which include the services of rabbinical students and learning resources and materials for members. The Reform Judaism movement is distinct from Orthodox Judaism in its broader interpretations of the Torah—interpretations that sanction, for instance, female rabbis as well as inter-faith families, according to Rabbi Richard Address, director of family concerns for URJ.
Toba Winston, president of Har Shalom, says the decision to hire a student rabbi rather than continue its reliance on the independent services that Winkler has provided will allow the congregation to have more services and community cohesion. Ultimately, the congregation hopes to hire a full-time ordained rabbi, and this is a step in that direction.
“We certainly will have more services because we can afford more than with a contract rabbi,” Winston says. “There clearly was a desire to have more spiritual presence here.”
The new student rabbi, who has yet to be assigned, will come to Missoula from Los Angeles’ Hebrew Union College 11 times during the High Holy Days and other important occasions beginning in the fall.
The congregation also voted to invite Winkler—who lives in New Mexico—back as their budget allows. In addition to holding Passover services, Winkler is also scheduled to return in June for two bar mitzvahs. For the past decade he has traveled to Missoula about eight times a year, he says, and he will continue teaching in communities around the nation.
“I think that Har Shalom wants to build more of a connective tissue for the community,” he says. “I’ll miss them. I’ve seen these people grow and get more connected with their roots, so I will miss the trips to Missoula.”