BY GAYLE JOHNSON
FOR LNP | LANCASTERONLINE
The Torah commands Jews to abstain from working during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The holiest day in the Jewish religion starts at sundown Wednesday and lasts for 24 hours. Jews should spend that time praying to God for forgiveness for sins committed during the year.
One married couple, however, will do both.
East Petersburg residents Rami Pavolotzky and Daniela Szuster, originally from Argentina, live together, pray together, and share rabbinical duties at Temple Beth El, a Lancaster conservative synagogue. In addition to work, the couple share household and childcare tasks and bring son Uriel, 15, and daughters Meital, 13, and Yael, 10, to religious services and social events as often as they can.
“We enjoy working together and leading services,” Szuster says.
It’s a beautiful thing to do,” Pavolotzky adds. “We approach Judaism and marriage the same way, with love, care and respect.”
“This is unique,” says Steven Gordon, temple president. “They came to us as a family.”
Beth El relocated Pavolotzky, Szuster and their children from Costa Rica. The process took a year to complete, and the new rabbis started work in November 2015.
“The congregation has totally accepted them,” Gordon says. “It is moving to see the family together.”
“We like the quiet (of Lancaster) and the congregation,” Szuster says. “It’s a nice place to raise our kids.” The family could do without cold weather, though.
“We felt welcomed,” Pavolotzky says. “All the people seemed very open.”
Pavolotzky and Szuster split duties at Temple Beth El most of the time. If Pavolotzky attends a temple board meeting at night, Szuster takes care of their kids. One will give a Shabbat sermon Friday night; the other will talk Saturday morning. They take turns writing the messages.
On Yom Kippur and other major holidays, though, the couple will work and pray together. “They bring an enthusiasm for what they’re doing,” says congregant Dolly Shuster. “It’s an absolute delight to watch them interact when they share the bimah (pulpit).” She also relishes watching the couple’s children grow up. Rarely do Jews get to watch their spiritual leaders interact in this manner. “They share prayers and divide everything.”
Jewish theological seminaries and rabbinical associations say they rarely keep track of how many married rabbis share a synagogue.
A shared passion
Pavolotzky met Szuster in rabbinical school in Buenos Aires, and the couple married in 2002 in the same building where they studied, Seminario Rabbinico Latinoamericano Marshal T. Meyer. They received their rabbinical degrees a year later.
“It’s very nice to find someone to share your love and your passion,” Szuster says.
“It was natural,” Pavolotzky adds. “We spent so much time together. I wasn’t looking for someone who was a rabbi. It just happened.” The pair then went to Israel for a year to obtain master’s degrees.
Being married and a conservative rabbi presents some problems, though. For instance, the couple follow a Jewish rule that says they can’t drive or ride in vehicles on the Sabbath or any holiday. This means they walk to temple, and it can be difficult to find two conservative congregations within walking distance of one home, Pavolotzky says.
The pair first worked together at a temple in Costa Rica in 2004. “It was a learning process,” Pavolotzky says. “It makes a difference to have someone to talk to, someone to get ideas from.”
After 10 years with B’nai Israel, the congregation in Costa Rica, the couple looked for a larger Jewish population either in North America or Israel. They searched for a safer place with more educational opportunities for their children. “We were in Costa Rica for many years,” Szuster says. “It was enough.”
The couple also needed a congregation willing to support them in applying for a religious visa while having tolerance for rabbis who originally spoke a different language. “Our English wasn’t as good as it is today,” Pavolotzky says.
Lancaster proved a good fit.
“We were looking to hire for a single position,” Gordon says. The previous rabbi retired, and congregants liked that Pavolotzky and Szuster offered different views.
Some 200 Temple Beth El families know Szuster as Rabbi Daniela and Pavolotzky as Rabbi Rami. “We have different styles,” Szuster says, explaining that some congregants feel more comfortable with her while others reach out to her husband.
Gordon agrees. “They have different perspectives,” he says. “Congregants may identify with one or the other.”
Congregants and the administrative staff also work hard to refrain from taking advantage of Pavolotzky and Szuster simply because each is a conservative rabbi.
“They are lovely people,” Gordon says.