By Amy Wenk
Ahavath Achim Synagogue has a newly ordained assistant rabbi, Laurence Rosenthal, who brings to the synagogue on Peachtree Battle Avenue in Buckhead a variety of experiences and an eagerness to connect with the members, who will begin celebrating the Jewish High Holidays on Sept. 30.
“Rabbi Rosenthal brings strength in a number of ways to our congregation,” Senior Rabbi Neil Sandler said. “He brings energy. He brings new ideas. He brings perspective and a tremendous commitment.”
Rosenthal and wife Brooke have two children, Avram Eli, 2, and Ariela Michele, 2 months.
A native of Los Angeles, Rosenthal spent his childhood immersed in the arts. At 10, he became interested in magic, especially sleight-of-hand tricks. By 13, he was a junior member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, an exclusive club for magicians.
As a young adult, Rosenthal played the drums and guitar in several bands. He spent 10 years as a studio musician, assisting aspiring artists with their albums.
It was during this stage in life that Rosenthal began to contemplate religion. He said he would have long talks with a bandmate about spirituality. That friend, Kurt, is now six months from becoming a Catholic priest.
Rosenthal studied psychology at the University of Southern California. He ventured into neuropsychology and, after school, landed a job at the National Institute for Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health. Rosenthal studied the effects of methamphetamine on the brain by observing patients withdrawing from the drug.
“It was interesting, but it was at that time that I started becoming more involved Jewishly and studying Jewish texts,” the 33-year-old said. “I decided psychology just wasn’t for me. It just wasn’t my path in life.”
Rosenthal said he was raised in a rather secular Jewish home, so he compensated by learning everything he could about Judaism. Six years ago, he began studying at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
“One of the things I was looking for in psychology was the ability to learn about the human condition and to in some way be a part of it and help it along,” he said. “I was studying psychology for that purpose. I wasn’t finding exactly what I was looking for.
“What it turned out I was looking for was not just to stand on the sidelines as an observer and document the human condition. I wanted to be part of it, a full participant. It was becoming a rabbi which afforded me that.”
While at the Ziegler School, he served as the rabbinic intern at Adat Ari El in North Hollywood and at Congregation Beth Meier in Studio City. Those experiences inspired him to create and lead the Conservative Kollel, a community that allowed people to express their Jewish identity through learning.
“One of the ways that I became involved again in Judaism was through learning,” Rosenthal said. “I feel like learning is an authentic way for interacting and experiencing God, so I started this organization, which basically learns.”
Rosenthal had to abandon the program when he moved to Atlanta in July.
“There is a hope, deep in my soul somewhere, that one day I will get the kollel back up and running,” he said. “The ideal version is that there would be these Conservative kollels in every congregation and in every Jewish community, offering people a new entryway in Judaism, a new entryway into having a relationship with God.”
The rabbi joins a congregation that went through turmoil this year. His predecessor as the No. 2 rabbi, Irit Printz, sued the synagogue over her treatment and employment terms, then dropped the lawsuit in favor of arbitration and parted ways with Ahavath Achim.
“The congregation, for the most part, has really welcomed me,” Rosenthal said.
He said that although synagogues are organized on a corporate model with a board and executive staff, they operate as families, and people’s feelings get hurt.
He said Printz’s split with the synagogue was like a divorce. “There were people who loved her. There were people that didn’t love her so much,” he said. “I’m the next girlfriend or boyfriend that comes in after that kind of situation. It just becomes complicated. I can either be their next problem, or I can be part of the solution to help them heal. I hope to be the latter, but time will tell.”
As assistant rabbi at Ahavath Achim, Rosenthal will aid Sandler in a variety of duties, including weddings, funerals, hospital visits, and Sabbath and holiday services. He also has the task of attracting more young professionals to the synagogue, which is one of the largest in the Conservative Jewish movement but has struggled with membership as the center of the Atlanta Jewish community has shifted northward.
Ahavath Achim will attract those young professionals by starting more programs geared toward them, Rosenthal said. Already, he has “Sushi and Spirituality” scheduled once a month, beginning at the end of October.
“It’s a real blessed life,” Rosenthal said about his new role. “It’s a life of service to God. It’s a life of service to the community.
“On a personal level, it’s really allowed me to not just have my own individual voice, but a worldly voice. That is what being a rabbi has afforded me, which has been a profound experience.”