BY LEE ANN SANDWEISS
Rabbi Brian Besser avoids the adjective “traditional” when he discusses Judaism, and he’s quick to tell you why. “There are many traditions in Judaism and no one is superior to any other. I know, because I have immersed myself to one degree or another in all streams of Judaism.”
Besser is Bloomington’s new rabbi; he has been serving Congregation Beth Shalom since July 2012 and was officially installed as rabbi in a ceremony this January.
For the 51-year-old New Jersey native, it has been a long and winding road to Bloomington and Beth Shalom. Raised in a Conservative Jewish household, he admits to falling away from Judaism while a student at Harvard University but then reconnecting to it through his involvement with a gay Reform synagogue in San Francisco, where he lived in the 1990s and where he met his partner, Joe Bocchino, a professor at George Washington University. Along the way, Besser studied Talmud and Chassidic literature with an Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem and explored Jewish renewal at Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality.
In 2000, Besser moved to Stowe, Vermont, where his family had a second home during his childhood, and he began serving the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe (JCOGS) as a spiritual leader. It was at this point that Besser seriously began thinking of the rabbinate, and in 2004 he entered Hebrew College Rabbinical School, a transdenominational institute in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, where he was ordained in 2010.
All the while he continued to lead JCOGS. During his tenure, the community evolved from a group that met in a rented space to a congregation of 170-plus families with a new-construction worship center and the first Jewish cemetery in Lamoille County, Vermont.
In 2012, after a long national search, the congregants at Beth Shalom knew they had found their new spiritual leader. Since his arrival, Besser has been engaged in the 24/7 duties of a rabbi. He has been getting to know Beth Shalom families on a personal level over dinner at many of their homes.
“This community is a great fit for me,” says Besser, an avid hiker who bikes to work from the east-side condo that he shares with Bocchino and their Maine Coon cat, Irving. “Our challenge here is to meet the needs of a very diverse group of people. Beth Shalom is technically Reform, but if you scratch the surface you’ll find the members come from many traditions. Everyone is passionate and invested. There is a high level of intellect, and the congregation is infused with all of the things that make Bloomington so special.”