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Ashland's Temple Emek Shalom welcomes new rabbi

The new rabbi of Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland is a meditation teacher, a former timber framer who likes to build sacred spaces, a great-grandson of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a reconstructionist in the Jewish tradition, meaning he seeks to keep shaping the synagogue's values of compassion and humanism.

"You can build a fence and decide who's in or out — or you can build a fire and see who comes," says Rabbi Joshua Boettiger. "I like the second path. It's a path that works."

Newly arrived in Ashland from six years as rabbi in Burlington, Vt., Boettiger will lead his first services here at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3, and 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 4. The Temple is at 1800 E. Main St.

He replaces Rabbi Marc Sirinsky, who retired recently after 18 years at the temple.

Temple board president Michael Schames lauded Boettiger's "genuine warmth, intellect and insights that are going to be extraordinarily well received (while) meeting the needs of the congregation in ways that are familiar and with a comforting aura. ... We look forward to his leadership in bringing different perspectives and new and innovative programming."

Boettiger says he recognizes and welcomes the spectrum of "seekers" — those who come for services, prayers and holiday traditions, those wanting a "cultural touchstone" and activists seeking to work acts of kindness and justice in the community.

"It's not a great idea to come and say, 'This is what I want to teach,' " Boettiger says. "I plan more of a one-on-one in the congregation and the community, asking people what they want, what they are drawn to, what they are struggling with and make program steps based in that, not just ideology."

A graduate in comparative religion at Bard College in New York, Boettiger, 38, grew up in Massachusetts and Sonoma, Calif. He and his wife, Vanessa, have an infant daughter, Paloma, and wanted to be near family on the West Coast, he says.

"We felt really met by the folks in the congregation, like a kinship, and there was no pro or con about Ashland, only pro. What drew me at the kishkes level (gut feeling) was that this community seemed familiar. We're thrilled, kind of giddy."

Boettiger plans to continue his passions in timber framing, meditation retreats and poetry, as combined with prayer, he says.

He is a graduate of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and wrote his thesis on sacred spaces "as a lens of how they define the sacred," with special interest in Judaic and Islamic sacred spaces.

Boettiger notes a passion for working in wood, a talent passed from his father, to build artist studios, meditation spaces, sukkahs (temporary wood shelters, symbolic of the wandering of Jews freed from slavery in Egypt) and chuppahs (wedding canopies).

Work as a rabbi has kept him away from timber-framing lately. "My hands are embarrassingly non-calloused these days," he says.

(Correction: This paragraph has been corrected to accurately reflect Boettiger's statement.)

Noting Temple Emek Shalom's sanctuary with stained glass, Boettiger says, "It's also wonderful for the community to get its hands in the earth and make sawdust" as a way of bonding and defining the meaning of the sacred that will be practiced there.

He teaches workshops in the planning and building of sacred spaces, and leads weekend or weeklong meditation retreats.

Boettiger is descended from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt by their first child, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, who married John Boettiger. Their son, also named John Boettiger, is Joshua's father. His mother, Janet Adler, is Jewish.

When he was ordained, some kinfolk cheered the arrival of a "Roosevelt rabbi," but Boettiger brushes off the connection, noting he never met them, doesn't remember his grandmother Anna and "it hasn't been that much of a factor in who I am, except I'm deeply moved by how Franklin and Eleanor lived their lives and contributed to the country and the world. ... He was so beloved and she was called the First Lady of the World.

"I'm a little uncomfortable speaking from any vantage point as a Roosevelt, per se. The most fundamental principle that Franklin and Eleanor stood for was that we're a nation of human rights and that humanistic leadership guides this country, as reflected in our social programs — and I feel that compassion and humanism here in Ashland."

Boettiger says he felt selection committee members were seeking "a spiritual leader who would build on what they've created ... and help it be a spiritual home for all who feel called to it, a vibrant community of seekers, rooted in the ethics and practices of Judaism ... a place where you don't check your intellect at the door — or your soul."

Email John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Joshua Boettiger is the new rabbi at Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland after serving six years as a rabbi at a Vermont synagogue. - Julia Moore