TRAVERSE CITY — The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse believe they may be the country’s first UU fellowship to call a rabbi as their full-time spiritual leader.
Rabbi Chava Bahle of Suttons Bay was selected by a 144-5 vote to become the congregation’s third “settled” minister. She will be installed in the fall, replacing interim minister Cassandra Howe.
“It is with immense joy that I accept the call,” a tearful Bahle told the congregation after the vote that followed her Jan. 26 guest service. “Thank you, search committee, for being on the vanguard.”
Bahle is an ordained rabbi in Jewish Renewal and an ordained Maggid, a Jewish inspirational preacher and story teller. She has long been known in the region for her commitment to interfaith collaboration and her belief that people from diverse backgrounds can benefit from the insights of other traditions.
Besides founding Congregation Ahavat Shalom in Traverse City to meet the needs of area Jewish and inter-cultural families, she was the first non-Christian summer minister in residence at the Bayview Association of Harbor Springs. Locally she guest preaches at many churches of other faiths, co-officiates at interfaith weddings, and teaches world religions and other courses at Northwestern Michigan College.
She plans to continue as rabbi emeritus of Chicago’s Congregation Makom Shalom and the Chicago Interfaith Family School via Skype.
Bahle is respected by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse for her guest preaching, teaching and life cycle events over a period of nearly 20 years, said John Hoffmann, president of the search committee. She also worked with the congregation on community projects related to gay discrimination.
“When she’s come in the past, we usually have a full house,” Hoffmann said. “She has quite a following. People like to hear her. She combines humor and intellect and emotion. She’s pretty unique in many ways.”
The search committee first reached out to Bahle more than a year ago to see if she’d be interested in leading the membership of about 200, Hoffmann said. After a series of talks ranging from exploratory to serious, the group recommended her to the congregation for a week of “candidating” Jan. 19-26.
“One of our mandates was to do a survey and workshops to see what the congregation wanted. We developed a profile. It became clear that what we were looking for turned out to be what we already had,” he said.
Calling a rabbi to serve is unusual but not a “significant stretch,” said Keith Kron, transitions director for the international Unitarian Universalist Association. Some of the faith’s 1,000 or so congregations are led by laymen, others by UU ministers or ministers of other faiths.
“We are open to a diverse range of theologies and I think (in Traverse City) you have a congregation that was very comfortable with the theology of this rabbi, who feels very close to a Unitarian Universalist’s sense of the world,” Kron said.
Many of the seven UU principles are closely aligned to principles of other faiths, including Judaism. They include a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all, a commitment to justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
Hoffmann said the Grand Traverse congregation also was looking for a leader who would inspire and challenge the congregation, who would make it more visible by reaching out to the community, and who would offer “some sense of spiritual connection.”
“With UUs, that’s always tricky,” he added.
Bahle said she was honored and excited to be offered the opportunity, which was “deeply relational for us both.” She plans to commit to an ongoing course of education in UU history, theologies and other topics, but also will continue with her own Jewish education.
“The UU congregation will remain deeply committed to the Unitarian Universalist traditions. I will remain deeply committed as a Jewish individual and rabbi to my own traditions,” she said. “I believe that I can be a good and inspiring preacher and teacher and helper to the community. I also understand that my own Jewish practice will have to be met elsewhere. I do not intend to Judaise this congregation. Nor do I want to change who I am, because that is who they chose. I preach with my yarmulke and my prayer shawl, my Jewishness and Jewish identity, and I believe there are so many places where both religions meet.”
Bahle said she’ll focus on helping the congregation grow internally and assist in efforts to be an “incubator” for small-group ministry related to social justice, environmentalism, poverty, homelessness and other issues. She also hopes to bring a base of trust to the congregation, which has been in one form of transition or another for nearly 11 years.
“Externally, I would love to bring the incredible, powerful seven core principals of Unitarian Universalism to the community and greater world in a wonderful, loving dialogue-based way,” she said. “My highest hope is that this is a model for how the world could be. And that makes me happy.”