Rabbi Ethan Seidel is a man of many interests: playwriting, piano playing, unicycling, bicycling, gardening, bread making, fire juggling, Scrabble playing. Some of these were part of Tifereth Israel Congregation celebration of Seidel last month, as he got ready to retire from the Washington-based Conservative synagogue after 28 years there.
“I felt like some kind of Chasidic rebbe with my Chasidim all around the street celebrating,” Seidel says.
While most of the 12-hour celebration was livestreamed, there was also a drive-by parade past Seidel’s house. Congregants cheered and waved signs while maintaining social distance. They also raised $30,000 for the synagogue.
“The whole day I was nervous, because my strengths are in-person. But the fact is, it was really, really lovely. And one of the organizers said some people thought it was actually better than in person. And you know, there was a lot of truth to that.”
Seidel, 62, was born in Cambridge, Mass., but grew up in Newark, Del. He studied piano and mathematics at Oberlin College and Conservatory and later moved to Washington, where he worked as a computer programmer. At the time, he was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, and decided to enroll in the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“I felt a calling. I felt a calling to help the Jewish people. I felt that I had skills that would make me a good pulpit rabbi. And I also felt, at least at the time when I was applying, there really weren’t enough Conservative rabbis to go around,” Seidel says. “It just seemed to be the right fit.”
He’s been a Tifereth Israel rabbi ever since. The first pulpit he served was Congregation Tifereth Israel in Lincoln, Neb. After four years, he moved back to the District to serve Tifereth Israel Congregation. Seidel describes the congregation in 1992 as one in decline that he helped turn around.
“It’s not that I did everything, but I was kind of the right person at the right time, and it really rejuvenated the synagogue, and I feel very good about how that happened,” he says. “So I feel it’s time for me to step back, because I want this to shul to remain strong, and it needs a different kind of energy right now.”
In addition to his love of juggling, Seidel has written and performed about 20 one-man plays, each about 15 minutes in length. He credits Ari Roth, a congregant and founding artistic director of the Mosaic Theater Company, for encouraging his venture into the theater arts.
Roth says the man-God dialogue, the heart of drama in the Bible, has been a focus of Seidel’s theatrical work.
“I have a deep appreciation for a creative rabbi who wasn’t just creating new melodies or liturgy,” Roth says. But [Seidel] was creating text for dramatic presentations and sermons and teachings to our Torah and he was totally unique in the area. I’m sure we’d be hard-pressed to find any other rabbi in the Greater D.C. area who was as creative and as textually steeped in Jewish learning as Ethan Seidel.”
Seidel says a lot of the inspiration for these plays comes from religious study.
“So I start writing a play when I’m studying some text. It could be from the Torah, but sometimes the plays are based on Talmudic stories,” Seidel says. “And I feel all of a sudden my eyes welling up with tears. And then I know there’s a play in here somewhere. I don’t always know why I get emotional about the text, but it’s a sign that something is important there.”
The last play he wrote and performed for the congregation was about a year ago. It coincided with the announcement of his planned retirement. It centered on the biblical friends David and Jonathan, as Jonathan, the son of King Saul, stepped aside to let David become king of Israel.
“I had 32 good years in the rabbinate,” Seidel says. “And I really only decided to leave because I started to feel that my skill set wasn’t quite the right fit anymore. Times have changed. And, though I think I had some good years, I think it’s time for somebody younger to take over.
“So many clergy leave well after the time they should go,” he continues. “People stay on a long time because they’re able. And I think I could have stayed on longer too, but I didn’t think I’d be doing the shul any favors, or myself any favors.”
Rabbi Michael Werbow, 11 years Seidel’s junior, became Tifereth Israel’s rabbi on July 1. Seidel said he plans to take a break from participation at Tifereth Israel for a year to let the congregation and Werbow bond.
Seidel says he is thinking of becoming a hospice chaplain. He’s also considering traveling around the country to perform his plays for other congregations and at rabbinical conventions. But at the moment he plans to take a break and contemplate his next steps as he reminisces on all he’s accomplished with the congregation.
“It’s really been one of the great gifts of my life to have had a chance to serve this congregation for 28 years,” Seidel says.