Rabbi Gersh Zylberman knew he wanted to be a rabbi at the age of 15. Shortly after his Bar Mitzvah, he served as the accompanist at a synagogue in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, where he then served as choir director. Because there were no local rabbinic training programs, he did what many young Jewish boys do: he went to medical school and became an active lay leader in his congregation.
After graduating from Monash University to complete his training as a physician, doing his residency in Australia in a variety of specialty areas in a leading hospital, and considering his options for specialization as a practitioner of medicine, Rabbi Zylberman realized that he wanted to spend his life working with Jewish people. He took a year off and spent it at Hebrew Union College Jerusalem. When he came back to Australia, he met Rayna Gevurtz, a rabbinical student from Cincinnati who was doing her internship. He asker her a lot of questions about the rabbinical school program and then one more: “Will you marry me?” The rest is history, a history that has brought them to Temple Bat Yahm for the second time.
The couple had a one-year honeymoon in Jerusalem with both attending rabbinical school. Rabbi Gevurtz accepted a position at a Cincinnati congregation after her ordination, but the couple wanted to be closer to both sets of parents. She became the assistant rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm while he finished his schooling at the LA campus of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and served as a rabbinic intern at TBY. After three years, he accepted a position at his home congregation, Temple Beth Israel in Australia, when he was ordained, “to help fulfill my obligation to my home community.”
Five years later, the couple is back – along with two lively redheaded daughters, Adira (aged 4) and Noa (aged 2), as Rabbi Zylberman assumes the position of associate rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm.
“The rabbinate is an extension of the practice of medicine,” said Rabbi Zylberman, who is more commonly called Rabbi Gersh. “It’s a healing profession – the healing of individuals, families, communities, and the world. Judaism can provide a framework for a life filled with joy and healing when we need it.”
As part of his duties in Melbourne, Rabbi Zylberman was the coordinator of the Victorian Union for Progressive Judaism’s Introduction to Judaism program, a member of the Alfred Hospital Ethics Committee, the Zionist Council of Victoria and the B’nai Brith interfaith committee, and sat on the board of the local Progressive Day School, The King David School. He also served as an honorary chaplain in the Victoria Police. Rabbi Zylberman developed young adult programming and supervised liturgical and musical transformation as well as serving on the editorial team for the World Union edition of the prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah. He described his and Rabbi Gevurtz’s involvement with young adults and family programs as highlights of their work.
In addition, Rabbi Zylberman set up a website in order to “connect people with one another, and with the whole Jewish world.” He wants to use technology in a similar fashion at Temple Bat Yahm by creating a blog, doing webcasting of services, setting up a technical center for Hebrew school students, and obtaining webcasts from Hebrew Union College campuses. He sees the temple as a Jewish community resource with community organizations such as AIPAC, BBYO, Hadassah, and Women’s Philanthropy holding meetings on Temple Bat Yahm’s spacious campus. More importantly, he wants to do a “family-friendly audit,” involving young families by offering such amenities as toys at the back of the synagogue, toys in the rabbi’s office, changing tables, and a crying room.
Another important facet of Rabbi Zylberman’s mission is bikur cholim, or pastoral care for the congregation. “Through counseling and engaging people in the community to support each another, congregants will feel support coming from the Temple Bat Yahm family,” he said. “We’ll do things like bringing people together to make veggie chicken soup. There will be soup makers and soup deliverers. It will be a great opportunity to get the teens involved in synagogue life.”
Rabbi Zylberman also emphasized that he wants to “make people feel involved through music – with preschoolers at Camp Yahm Yahm and a teen choir. It’s part of creating a warm and welcoming community.”
“First and foremost, I want to support people in making positive Jewish choices,” Rabbi Zylberman said. “I put a lot of emphasis on families with young children, as well as younger and older kids. I also want to help interfaith couples build Jewish homes and raise Jewish families by being involved with the preschool, religious school, and youth programs. It’s important to help people with the choices they are facing, especially high school kids.”
With a clergy team that “complements one another,” and with “the skills and talents to reach out to a broad variety of people,” the new associate rabbi is eager to be involved in Torah Study every Saturday at 9 a.m. “We genuinely missed that in Australia,” he said. He hopes to involve Rabbi Gevurtz in activities that match her availability, quipping that he is the “senior rebbitzen in the family,” because she was ordained first. Rabbi Gevurtz served as the rabbi of The King David School in Melbourne before joining Temple Beth Israel’s rabbinic team in 2007.
“One of the things that attracted us is the embrace of the motto ‘Strength of Tradition, Warmth of Community,’” Rabbi Zylberman concluded. “We take that seriously, and we want the community to feel that warmth. It takes the efforts of the whole team and a whole network of people to create a temple community.”
In August, described by Temple Bat Yahm Executive Director Bill Shane as “welcome month,” the community is invited to meet Rabbi Zylberman and his family. Every service will be in the outdoor amphitheater and will be followed by dinner. For more information, call Temple Bat Yahm at (949) 644-1999 or visit www.tby.org.