Phil Bressler is not your father’s rabbi.
The 34-year-old Minnesota native, a recent rabbinical school graduate who took over as spiritual leader of the Corvallis-based Beit Am congregation in July, has a casual manner that sits comfortably alongside his youthful exuberance.
He describes himself as the type who’d rather chat with a member of his flock at a coffee shop than sit down for a formal meeting in his office.
“There’s been a bit of a generational shift among rabbis — more of us go by our first names than last names now,” Bressler said. “My rabbi growing up was Rabbi Cohen. You would never think of calling him Norman.”
Growing up in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka, Bressler was raised in the tradition of Reform Judaism. Despite the Reform movement’s liberal leanings, he formed an image of rabbis as older men with a certain aloofness who spoke with the voice of authority. But times change.
“That’s not necessarily what people want anymore,” Bressler said. “People are looking for a personal connection with their rabbi.”
That seems like a good fit for Beit Am, whose previous rabbi — Benjamin Barnett, who left last year to take a position with a Portland synagogue — was cast in a similar mold.
As was also the case with Barnett, Beit Am is the first posting for Bressler, who was ordained as a rabbi this year after graduating with a degree in Hebrew letters from Hebrew College in Boston. He describes the school as “pluralistic.” Rather than following the tenets of any one branch of Judaism (such as the Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements), the college encourages a broader view that embraces many different Jewish traditions.
Again, Bressler believes that makes him a good fit for Beit Am — and Beit Am a good fit for him.
“Folks here have no interest in movement affiliation — partly because we’re the only synagogue in town,” he said.
Serving roughly 150 families, Beit Am is the only Jewish house of worship between Salem and Eugene. Bressler believes that carries a responsibility to welcome people from all branches of Judaism.
“That’s what more and more American Jews are interested in, to stop putting Jews in boxes,” he said. “Here at Beit Am … everybody is just living the Jewish life they want to live.”
That idea is reflected in the variety of services offered at the Corvallis synagogue, which regular religious observances in the Conservative, Reformist and Renewal styles.
“Honestly, I love that,” Bressler said. “It gets boring to do the same thing the same way all the time. I love to learn and grow in new ways with people.”
Bressler comes to Corvallis at a critical time in the history of the Beit Am. After more than 30 years of operating out of a converted house on Northwest 35th Street, the congregation broke ground last year on a 6,700-square-foot structure.
While it won’t be fancy, Bressler said, it will serve the growing congregation’s needs, with a full kitchen, flexible spaces for worship, meetings and education, and plenty of room for holiday celebrations.
Beit Am wasn’t really on Bressler’s radar when he first starting looking for rabbinical postings — he and his wife were hoping to find something close to his family in Minnesota or hers in Utah — but he was intrigued when a colleague told him about the opening. After visiting Corvallis with his wife and daughter, it became clear that this was the right place.
“It turned out to be exactly what I needed, and what I wanted — a place where I can be myself, which is a Jew who’s not committed to boundaries,” Bressler said.
“I don’t have any grand design of remaking the Corvallis community to align with some sort of vision I have in my head, but I also know I don’t want to go backwards,” he added. “I want to live in the world we have right now, which to some extent I think the Corvallis community is already doing.”