Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, D.Min. ‘05, ‘21

Scarsdale Synagogue - Temples Tremont and Emanu-El

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, D.Min. ‘05, ‘21 of Scarsdale Synagogue – Temples Tremont and Emanu-El focused his Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) project on how to better discern the emotional and spiritual impacts of the early months of the pandemic on temple members and the congregation as a whole.

He shares, “With the help of gifted faculty advisors and mentors, I used several different tools of statistical analysis to make sense of the data I collected. At its core, the D.Min. program and curriculum explore human beings and their communities at the intersection of both the psychological and the spiritual. My project sought to bring the associated literature and methodological tools of this approach to the question of COVID’s impact on our community.

I had initially entered the D.Min. program with the idea that I would study the psychological impact of the Adult Education experience (more specifically: weekly Torah study) in typical Reform synagogue life. But with the advent of COVID-19 at the moment that my writing was beginning in earnest, it seemed imperative that I shift gears and choose a more timely topic.

During a moment in time when it was not safe or feasible for folks to come together in person, clergy and community leaders around the world were forced to imagine innovative ways to bring folks together. Beyond the technology, we grappled with questions that primarily revolved around relationship building. Today, we are back to worshipping together in person (masked and vaccinated), but continue to offer an online option because the community has shifted and some expect that from now on. One of the most interesting findings for me was the data around online versus in-person worship trends. Like many communities, we realized early on in the pandemic that Zoom was a powerful tool and that a certain segment of our congregation would prefer/expect to join online in the future.

I was curious about the profile of congregants who were most invested in future online options. I had hypothesized at the start of my research that congregants who tended to be on the margins of synagogue life (who prayed with us less often, for example) would more strongly prefer keeping online options in the future. My thinking there was that online access was/is a much lower barrier to synagogue engagement as compared with the routine of getting dressed up, traveling to the synagogue, being with us in person for the service, and then traveling home again. But the data suggested that the opposite was true! Those who were less active in synagogue life indicated a much stronger preference for returning to in-person programming. My survey did not ask participants why, but I wonder if some of that is tied to relationality. If folks who come less often to services are also less relationally connected to their Jewish community, then perhaps they perceive in-person programming as a necessary vehicle for the authentic development of new relationships. As a synagogue that strives to be ever more relationally connected, this data challenged us to revisit presumptions about who our congregants are, and the best ways to meet their relational and spiritual needs as we move into the future.

The Doctor of Ministry program was invaluable. First and foremost: the opportunity to return to the classroom, and engage on a regular basis with top-notch faculty and classmates was a gift. After 15 years in the active rabbinate, I was hungering for an intellectual experience that would inform the next phase of my professional life. More specifically, I was ready to do a deep dive into every aspect of the pastoral counseling experience. The work I had done in this area as a seminary student had been invaluable. But after 15 years of actually sitting with people, hearing their stories, and sharing in their challenges, I was looking for a more sophisticated understanding of human psychology, and of the unique role I, as a pastoral counselor, could play in accompanying my congregants on their life journeys.”

Rabbi Brown recounted some fond memories: “I have many warm and wonderful memories of the College-Institute – spending my first year in Jerusalem in the Rabbinic program in 2000-2001; the moment that year when my (now) wife and I announced our engagement and the entire student body and faculty spontaneously got up in the middle of the service and danced around us and sang in celebration! And of course the joy of my Ordination in Cincinnati in the spring of 2005. One of the highlights of my D.Min. experience has been the chance to spend time on the New York campus, an experience I never had as a Cincinnati rabbinic student! But most of all: I kvell and take pride in the students I have been lucky enough to recruit and/or mentor into the College-Institute, with the assurance of knowing that the study of Torah continues.”