Beacon synagogue begins search for successor 

Rabbi Brent Spodek is leaving the position this summer to focus on counseling. Photo by Valerie Shively
Rabbi Brent Spodek is leaving the position this summer to focus on counseling. (Photo by Valerie Shively)

Brent Spodek knows that marriage isn’t easy. 

After his wife, Alison, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2013, Spodek says he learned valuable lessons about communicating with his partner. When the couple would argue, Spodek said he found himself employing the “Beck defense.”

“I would basically say, ‘I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?’ ” he said, recalling the refrain from Beck’s 1994 hit. In other words, Spodek would apologize without actually taking responsibility for how his actions had impacted his wife. 

“I was putting my partner in the position of having to reassure me that I wasn’t so bad,” he said. 

In time, Spodek learned that the pattern was a common one that couples experience. He began taking responsibility for his woe-is-me feelings and concentrated on taking care of his relationship with his wife. 

Spodek, the rabbi at the Beacon Hebrew Alliance (BHA) for the past 13 years, announced last month that he will step back from the position as of July to become a full-time premarital counselor. He will transition into the role of rabbi emeritus at BHA. 

Spodek began working with couples in 2018, after the “emotionally intelligent communication” he’d learned while his wife recovered began showing up in his rabbinical work. 

He credits a bride-to-be who was a therapist with leading him to the Gottman Institute, where founders John and Julie Gottman teach a “research-based approach to relationships.” The bride “told me that if there were more people doing what I was doing, then there would be fewer people showing up in her office,” he recalled. 

Armed with that training, the counseling work that started as a side gig grew exponentially. Once Spodek steps aside this summer, he is expected to lead Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services once a month and officiate at some “lifecycle” events, such as weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, but his primary focus will shift to the work he calls “preventative medicine.”

“I’m not the guy who will come and cut your shirt off and put the paddles on your chest,” he said. “I’m the guy you meet a few years earlier who suggests you start running and cut salt out of your diet. I’m able to go deep into peoples’ spiritual and psychological lives. It’s work that has transformed my life, and I’m excited to do it with other people.”

Spodek said one of the things he will miss most about the job is spending time at the synagogue's preschool.
Spodek said one of the things he will miss most about the job is spending time at the synagogue’s preschool.

Beacon Hebrew Alliance, which was founded in 1921, plans to create a committee to search for a new rabbi, said Jesse Lunin-Pack, its president. “We have had many more people express interest than could possibly participate” in a search committee, he said. “People are excited to have an influence on the process.”

Lunin-Pack said he’s happy to see that enthusiasm, because “we want to make sure that the full spectrum of BHA’s diversity is represented in our search.”

For the next several months, Spodek will lead Sunday Shacharit services twice monthly. Zachary Bernstein, an intern from the Jewish Theological Seminary who filled in when Spodek was on sabbatical last year, and Luke Wygodny, the synagogue’s musical director, will each lead services once a month, and other lay leaders may fill in occasionally. 

Lunin-Pack said there’s a “rabbi-hiring season” after seminary graduations in May and June, but he’s reluctant to put a timeline on the search. “It’s very, very important to me that we hire the right person, not the first person,” he said. 

For Spodek, who says that he and his family will remain active members of the congregation, the change is bittersweet. 

“There’s a familiarity and a comfort about being in a place for a long time, and I wasn’t in any hurry to give that up,” he said. “But I have other things I want to contribute to the world. I’m excited to do that, but there’s also a sense of loss, a sense of grief.”

The “other thing” that he wants to contribute is helping people learn how to deal with adversity and to forgive. Spodek noted that people often seek counseling when they’re in crisis, but not so much when all is well. 

But by recognizing that all relationships are bound to experience friction, he hopes to create healthier partnerships by teaching couples how to address tension. Feedback over the years for the counseling work has been “overwhelmingly positive,” he said. 

Although clearly enthusiastic for what is to come, Spodek realizes that he is taking a leap into the unknown. One of his goals while on sabbatical (he and his family spent 4½ months in New Zealand) was to confront fear. 

“Human beings will take comfort over growth every time,” he said. As he moves into the next phase of his life and career, Spodek is “trying to figure out how to live focused on potential, not on fear.”

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Simms has covered Beacon for The Current since 2015. He studied journalism at Appalachian State University and has reported for newspapers in North Carolina and Maryland. Location: Beacon. Languages: English. Area of expertise: Beacon politics

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