By Lee Chottiner
Above all else Rabbi Michael Wolk did in Louisville, he will always remember this town as the place where he met his wife.
The year was 2012. Wolk, a Long Island native recently ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, had just arrived in Louisville to take up his new pulpit at Keneseth Israel. One night, he was at a KI Sukkah party.
Heidi was there, too. Clearly, they hit it off.
“Shortly afterwards, she messaged me on Facebook and offered to show me around Louisville, and I took her up on the offer.”
Eight years and two children later, starting his family is a highlight of Wolk’s time at KI, but not his only one.
He will remember the synagogue as a place where he could grow as rabbi, experimenting with the liturgy, broadening the participation of women, non-Jewish spouses and other components of the KI family.
Wolk, 36, delivered his last sermon at KI on Saturday, June 13. He and his family left days later for Charlotte, North Carolina, where Wolk will assume his next pulpit at Temple Israel.
In his parting interview with Community, Wolk reflected on his time at KI and the changes there.
For starters, he said, it’s a congregation that’s not afraid to change.
Originally Orthodox, KI left the movement when congregations were pressed to give up mixed seating.
“They called themselves traditional for a while before becoming Conservative,” he said.
So when Wolk, the son of a cantor and grandson of a rabbi, arrived here, he found a congregation where he could try new things.
“I feel like I have had an incredible amount of flexibility with liturgy, with ritual, with practice with experimenting within the services, within the congregation itself.”
Some rituals went away while he was here, such as dukhaning, the priestly blessing by kohanim during the High Holy Days and festivals. But new traditions took hold.
“He found a way to challenge us to try new things while always keeping the foundations of tradition strong,” said Cantor Sharon Hordes. “While we don’t know what the future will bring for us, I believe we are a more solid, stable congregation because of him.”
Women became more active in worship over the past eight years, WoIk said, noting that women in the Conservative and Reform movements, at this point, are “more motivated than men to learn liturgical skills.”
And non-Jewish spouses, even non-Jews who have found their way to the synagogue on their own, are playing greater roles in congregation life.
“In New York, if someone converted to Judaism, it would probably be because they were marrying somebody,” Wolk said. “Here, I found a lot of people are reaching out on their own, to try to discover something.
To illustrate the evolving role of the non-Jew and convert in synagogue, Wolk once asked two Jews by choice to speak to the congregation about their spiritual journeys during a High Holy Day Musaf service.
“It was very powerful for the congregation to hear from people they see all the time and learn about their backgrounds and how they came to Judaism,” Wolk said.
“He helped to attract new members who have since become part of the fabric of KI,” Hordes said.
At first, Jewish life in Louisville was different from what he knew back in New York.
“I’m from Long Island, where everything in the Jewish community is post-war,” he said. “So I wasn’t used to Jews who have been in the same place for four or five generations, since the 1800s, who could talk about remembering their grandparents who founded the synagogue downtown on Floyd and Jacob.”
In other words, Jews here seemed “less transitory” than those in the suburbs of New York City.
“It felt very solid,” Wolk said. “At the same time, they’re also looking for a new identity.”
For Wolk, at least part of that identity should be the establishment of another Jewish day school (Chabad and the Orthodox already have their own), which, in fact, is one reason the Wolks decided to move.
But if another day school is in Jewish Louisville’s future, it should be established “for the right reasons,” he said.
“Many people have said, ‘Oh it would be great if we had a Jewish day school here,” Wolk said. “The question that Louisville Jews should ask is, do they want a Jewish day school here to keep clergy in town? Or do they want a Jewish day school because they think it’s important for their own children or grandchildren? If it’s the first, if it’s just to attract or keep clergy, then it doesn’t stand a chance.”
He also said congregants must think about what they want from their synagogues.
“Any community has a limited lifespan if it continues to rely on people who show up for services two or three times a year and pay bills, what does Louisville need?” he asked “Louisville needs, like every other place, to actively engage those people and realize they are going to be or die.”
He reserved his parting advice for the community as a whole, urging the organizations that make up Jewish Louisville to find new ways to work together. Progress has been made on that front, he said, but more must be done.
“I understand why it’s hard, because we do compete with each other on some level,” Wolk said, “but that’s got to be in the past.”