Jeff Newman, a congregant at Temple Beth Am of Merrick and Bellmore for 35 years, said that the first word that came to his mind when describing newly installed Rabbi Mickey Baum was “haimish.”
“He’s a down-to-earth person, a real person,” Newman said. “He’s not trying to look like he’s above everybody — he is everybody. And that’s one of the things we looked for.”
Newman chaired the selection committee that swung into action when the temple’s rabbi of 30-plus years, Ron Brown, announced that he would retire in July. Members of the committee understood the gravity of their decision, Newman said, and although Baum, who already served as Beth Am’s director of education, came immediately to mind, a process played out that ended with an overwhelming vote of the congregation to install “Rabbi Mickey.”
“We did our due diligence — it wasn’t a shoo-in for Rabbi Mickey,” Newman said. “We told him, ‘You’re on the list, but it may not be you,’ and he totally understood.”
Baum has been a member of Temple Beth Am for 20 years, Newman said, and has been involved in Jewish education since 1987. He also served as rabbi when Brown was away on two extended sabbaticals. Bringing both a teacher’s and rabbi’s perspective bodes well for Baum’s future as spiritual leader of the temple, Newman said.
“He brings a lot to it,” he said. “Not a lot of rabbis have that kind of experience, the pulpit and the religious school, when they take on this role. Usually it’s very heavy on one side and light on the other.”
As churches and temples face declining membership and Beth Am’s leadership realizes “millennials don’t want brick and mortar,” Newman said that Baum is likely to bring new ideas for getting the number of dues-paying members back to where it was. “We had, at one point, almost 650 families, and we would really pack them in for the High Holy Days,” he said. “It was an awesome feeling, to see that many people, but it’s declined over the years.
“I’m 72 years old. How are you going to keep me as a dues-paying member, and not just walking in on a Friday night and it’s open?” he added. “How do we keep other people?”
Baum, Newman said, has what it takes to retain members and promote the temple. “He’s got the personality for it,” he said. “He’s young, he’s vibrant and he and the cantor work beautifully together.”
On Tuesday, Baum said he did indeed have plans to make temple services “a little more uplifting” and to gear them more toward younger families.
“This isn’t their grandparents’ synagogue,” he said.
Baum was formally installed on Dec. 8, during Shabbat service, and afterward, he joined the congregation, along with his family, greeted well-wishers and thanked those who came to support him during what the temple called a “super oneg,” with coffee, a celebratory cake and pastries.
Baum said he was honored and humbled to have been selected to lead the temple where he “basically grew up.”
“I am a teacher, and I’m also going to be a special friend for the congregants here, and for the students here,” he said. “We’re going to dance together at joyous events and console each other at times of grief.”