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Keeping the Faith

Adam Miller was home from college when his temple’s rabbi, Rabbi Sherman, posed a question that changed his life: “Adam, how are things by you?”

Miller unloaded on the rabbi, telling him that he had no idea what to do with his life. Well, the rabbi asked, what do you like to do? Study, teach, talk with people, kids. “Why don’t you be a rabbi?” Rabbi Sherman asked.

“I looked back at him and said, ‘I don’t know,’” Miller recalls. “Why don’t I be a rabbi?”

And so Adam Miller is now Rabbi Miller. More importantly, last summer he became Rabbi Miller of Temple Shalom, the largest Jewish congregation in Naples, with 550 families, and of which I am a member.

Miller arrives in Naples at a crucial juncture for its Jewish community. Between 1992 and 2007, according to the American Jewish Committee, the Naples Jewish population almost doubled. However, it remains a small minority in Collier County and, as 2009’s “Kick a Jew Day” at North Naples Middle School reveals, an often misunderstood one.

Moreover, Miller represents Temple Shalom’s second attempt to replace Rabbi James Perman, who led the congregation between 1993 and 2006, but returned to the temple, when needed, in 2008.

Married to Jennifer Siegal-Miller, a lawyer, with twin three-year-old boys, Miller arrived from Temple Beth Am in Framingham, Mass., and is already expanding Perman’s foundation by reaching across faiths, striving to strengthen the local Jewish community and opening channels of communication in the secular world. 

Q: Why did you come to naples?

A: I was drawn here because of the diversity of the place. Everyone comes from different places and has new ideas to share with the Naples community.

Certainly the beaches and the golf were a bonus. 

Q: What was the biggest disappointment?

A: I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish, but there haven’t been any great disappointments. Have there been little surprises? Perhaps.

Honestly, I came in with my eyes very wide open. I did a lot of homework.

Q: Best surprise?

A: It lived up to the hype that [the congregants] really want to welcome us as part of their congregation. It’s one thing to say it during the interview process, for the search committee to say all that, but for every day to have people say, “We’re so happy you’re here,” and to really mean it, is special.

Also, a number of [leaders from other faiths] have reached out to me here, everyone from Rev. Michael Harper down at NCH to Rev. Terry Wemberly at Moorings Park. I’ve had people come from different Christian congregations and really reach out to me. Rev. Ron Patterson has been very generous. It speaks to the sense in the religious community of camaraderie and realizing the bonds that are there.

Q: You seem very interested in building relationships with other faiths.

A: In the past I’ve had a lot of experience going into communities and building relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish religious communities. I created a program when I was in Westchester [a suburb north of New York City] that brought together Jewish, Christian and Muslim teens to study together about the different traditions.

We would go to each house of worship. They would learn about the basic culture there and the religious beliefs, and then they’d witness a service to see what it was like there, to break down some of the stereotypes. A lot of those kids ended up writing about that in their college application essays, because it had been such a transformative experience.

Q: Will you do something like that here?

A: I’ve already started some of that type of work. We had the author James Carroll come by Temple Shalom in March in a partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Also, I was a part of the U.N. Holocaust Day a few weeks ago that was held at [Naples United Church of Christ].

Q: How about in the secular community?

A: I see my role as being an advocate for helping others learn about Judaism. For example, last summer when the question came before the school board of having a football game on Yom Kippur, when I was asked to come and talk that day, I did so with the understanding that, “Here’s an opportunity for us to learn
from each other.”

Q: How did that end up?

A: While they weren’t going to make any changes last year, they opened the door to dialogue and conversation.

It was a step forward. I know this year it’s actually going to happen again, Yom Kippur falls on a Friday night, and we started a conversation early on. There’s resistance to it. Change should produce tension. But that tension now opens the door for further discussion.

Q: What’s your biggest challenge?

A: With the growing Jewish population, you now have other congregations that are located here in Naples. Our goal is to work together in the community.

[Rabbi Perman] definitely laid the foundation for a lot of the wonderful things that we do at Temple Shalom. Coming in, my goal is to enhance the way that we are doing things, and continue to grow and develop and build on the base he laid. While he was there, they created Mitzvah Day, which is, every year, going into the community and helping, whether it’s helping with acts of charity or whether it’s helping with different projects. It’s a day of giving back to the community.

Q: How?

A: One of the big things it does is feed the kids. They come in and set up an assembly line where you make little meal packs that feed families who are impoverished. We made more than 50,000 of those on Mitzvah Day to be given out.

We had a student this year who had her bat mitzvah—she turned 13—and in her speech, she said one of the most powerful things for her was being there on Mitzvah Day because later in the year she was at school and noticed that they had food packets she made available for kids whose families were struggling.

Q: How do you know you’re the right rabbi for the job?

A: Inevitably, when you come in as a rabbi, there’s always going to be those 10 people who knock on your door the first day and say, “Rabbi, welcome to the congregation. Here are the five things I think you should be changing immediately.” And then the other 10 people come by and say, “Rabbi, so glad to have you here. Here are the 10 things you cannot change under any circumstances because this is who we are.”

I was able to diffuse that by engaging them in different meetings, and I think we’ve already seen some things come out of that. We’ve started to see a little bit of a change even to the way we start our worship services, which is that I have everyone turn to their neighbors, introduce themselves and wish each other a good Sabbath.

You’re always looking ahead. Because you know that this year change might be small. But next year you can do a little bit more. And eventually the congregation begins to take on some of your vision as a rabbi, while you’re also beginning to take on some of the congregation.

—Elliot Singer is a member of Gulfshore Life’s Community Advisory Board.

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