Bittersweet Goodbye for Rabbi Novak of Israel Congregation
Though Novak began his career in communications, he eventually felt drawn to a higher calling.
"For many years I sort of did my thing and made a good living, and I was really prospering in Los Angeles, but it was always nagging on me that I had too big of a footprint on the world for one person," said Novak. "Ever since I was five years old I had wanted to be a Rabbi."
Reflecting the tone of uncertainty in the United States following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Novak felt compelled to make some changes in his life.
"After the twin towers were destroyed I did a deep examination of my life, and I decided I wanted to do something meaningful," said Novak. "I gave up a profitable communications consulting business in LA and went to Rabbinical school."
Novak attended the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, receiving his master of arts in 2005 and his ordination in 2007. Soon after, Novak was hired by the Israel Congregation of Manchester for his first full time position as a Rabbi. His first order of business was connecting with his congregants.
"People have an image in their head of what a Rabbi should be, and I had to figure out how that would work for me," said Novak. "A Rabbi has to have the right combination of accessibility and comfort, without acting too familiar.."
"I'm not Jewish, so when I started here I didn't know a whole lot about the Jewish faith," said Lisa Bendik. "I'm a major question asker, and what I love about the Jewish faith and Rabbi Novak in particular is that every time I had a question, he never hesitated or rolled his eyes — he always asked what I wanted to know and tried to help." Through his role as Rabbi, Novak has found ways to inspire change in his own life as well as those of his congregation.
"I wanted to grow personally and religiously, but also as a human being," said Novak. "My goal was just to always continue to grow, and always be what I call a religious humanist which means always putting the needs of the person in front of me first before anything else."
For Novak, that meant always being available to both his congregants and those who were just passing through the Synagogue.
"He's been extremely well regarded by many people, especially at a time of loss," said Rosalie Fox, a member of the Israel Congregation of Manchester. "He's been a great source of comfort to those that have faced losses, and he has great pastoral care skills."
"People have privileged me by allowing me into the most private corners of their lives," said Novak. "Anyone could come to me with anything and know that they wouldn't find judgement — that they would find a human being with two ears and a warm heart willing to take them in and hold them in whatever they had to bring."
In the interest of maintaining that accessibility, Novak emphasized a more pluralistic view of the Jewish faith during his time as Rabbi.
"Part of what I think has been a fine attribute of this Rabbinate is that anyone can walk through our door and I will interrupt whatever I'm doing to greet them and give them a tour," said Novak. "To make it a place that people want to feel comfortable in, empowered to know what they're doing — all of those things go into the recipe."
Under Novak's leadership the Israel Congregation has been actively involved in a multitude of social justice issues, and Novak himself has served the community through the Interfaith Council of the Northshire, the Manchester Food Cupboard, and the Manchester Library.
"Social responsibility is part of what is means to be Jewish, and for a lot of people that's their full on definition of it, they just understand that their role is to improve the community around them," said Novak. "For others, it's a combination of prayer and learning."
"Social justice is a cornerstone of Judaism. Jews more often than not are concerned with social engagement with the world, and pursuing peace and justice," said Fox. "There is a concept in Judaism, Tikkun Olam, which means repairing the world, and that's what we've tried to do in our community." Facing the end of his time as Rabbi of the Israel Congregation, Novak will miss the personal interactions with his congregants most.
"Every encounter has been meaningful, whether it's been in the sanctuary through a prayer service, here in my office, or through a special event," said Novak. "They're great people and the synagogue has a solid foundation, and as more people continue to come to the area and walk through our doors they will hopefully experience what it is to become part of this congregation."
After ten years of service, Novak feels that the time has come to move on. "I'm ready for another bite of the apple, but I'll still be doing some independent work as a Rabbi," said Novak. "I'm also going to go back to my previous incarnation as a communications strategist, so it'll be a combination of both being able to serve the Jewish people and also make a living in communications." In July the Israel Congregation of Manchester will be welcoming their new Rabbi, Georgette Kennebrae, who will be ordained in June by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Penn. Like Novak, Kennebrae is a second-career Rabbi.
"Moments of transition are always exciting," said Rabbi Emeritus Michael Cohen. "As we look back on where we've been, and all that Rabbi Novak has done for us in the last ten years, we also look forward to Rabbi Georgette joining us."
"It's bittersweet to leave," said Novak. "But if it wasn't bittersweet, it wouldn't be a good leaving."
Reach Chersise Madigan at 802-490-6471.
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