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Shalom: Synagogue welcomes new rabbi, bids farewell to old mentor

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Rabbi Scott M. Sperling, newly appointed rabbi of Beth El Congregation on Fairmont Avenue in Winchester, assumed his duties on July 1, following the retirement of the former rabbi, Jonathan Brown. Rich Cooley/Daily

Upcoming Religious Forum

WHAT: A discussion with Eli Sperling, son of Beth El Congregation Rabbi Scott M. Sperling, titled "The Arab-Israeli Conflict -- A Regional Context."

WHEN: Monday at 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Social hall, Beth El Congregation, 520 Fairmont Ave., Winchester.

MORE: Visit www.elisperling.com, or call 540-667-1889.

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Sperling, former director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Mid-Atlantic Council, was already well known in the area. He sometimes includes his guitar in services. Rich Cooley/Daily

By J.R. Williams -- jrwilliams@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- In selecting a new rabbi, members of the region's only synagogue chose a familiar face with a reputation as a trusted adviser.

Beth El Congregation has hired Rabbi Scott M. Sperling, 60, to replace Rabbi Jonathan Brown, who entered retirement after his 70th birthday.

Now that Sperling has accepted the post, reaction seems to be leaning in a particular direction.

"It was like Cal Ripken was coming to play for the Hagerstown Suns," said Alan Mann, former congregation president. "Major league material ... someone who is going to lift us up from being a farm team to reach our full potential as a congregation."

Many in the congregation already knew Sperling well, including his predecessor.

As the former director of the Union for Reform Judaism's Mid-Atlantic Council, which includes Beth El, Sperling already had planted seeds in the city.

Sperling said he has known Brown for 40 years, beginning when he served congregations in Los Angeles.

"It's really wonderful to have that long-standing relationship to fall on," said Sperling, who assumed his duties July 1. "We're delighted to come back to our favorite kind of place, which is a small congregation in a small town."

Sperling and his wife, Laura, are settling in to a home in Frederick County. Meanwhile, the rabbi said he has been doing "a lot of listening" in his first few weeks on Fairmont Avenue.

"This has been a wonderful transition," he said.

The new rabbi was selected from a pool of applicants by about a dozen congregation members of different ages and involvement in the synagogue.

"We really feel confident about our choice of rabbi," said Beth Nolan, congregation president.

Sperling, ordained in 1976, holds a Master of Arts degree in Hebrew letters. He led Chavurat Kol Shalom in Bainbridge Island, Wash., served as president of the Washington Coalition of Rabbis and co-chaired a unity coalition for clergy of diverse faith, and served seven small congregations in the state.

He was the director of the Union for Reform Judaism's Mid-Atlantic Council, from 2001 to 2009, and most recently was the interim executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Beth El is spiritual home to about 100 families.

Several congregation members said they enjoy his attentive, at times informal, style.

Sperling has brought his guitar in for services, and Mrs. Sperling, a flutist, has played as well.

"He is obviously a scholar," said Betty R. Barr, a member of the congregation since 1948 and its former president. "The way he conducts the services is very pleasing. Very rewarding. It's just like a religious service should do. It brings out the best in you."

Barr said she was looking forward to a continuation of adult education programs offered at Beth El, and "offering to congregants a variety of things that they can do for self-enlightenment."

Nolan said she hopes to build on the congregation during Sperling's tenure -- something Brown has said he hoped for -- and drum up support for planning a renovation to the congregation's building.

The synagogue attracts the faithful from a wide area, with some coming from West Virginia, Maryland and elsewhere in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, said Nolan, calling it "a big responsibility."

Sperling agreed.

"Everybody has their own take on what it means to be the only [synagogue] in a rather large geographic area," Sperling said, stressing "the importance of inclusivity" of those from a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds.

Sperling's son, Eli, 26, recently returned to the United States from Tel Aviv University, and will speak at Beth El Congregation on the Middle East conflict on Monday. The community is invited to the forum.

Eli Sperling received a master's degree in contemporary Middle Eastern history from the university, and has studied Middle Eastern history and the Israeli-Palestinain conflict extensively.

The forum begins at 7:30 p.m. at Beth El Congregation, 520 Fairmont Ave., Winchester.
Upcoming religious forum

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