Rabbi David Thomas
Rabbi David Thomas has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El since 2001—and he considers himself one of the luckiest rabbis in the world. “It’s the only place I know of where my own spiritual and intellectual needs can be met while serving the congregation.”
Rabbi Thomas received his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1998—but his path to becoming a rabbi, and coming to Beth El, was truly an unorthodox one. Active in his Raleigh, N.C. congregation as a teen, he attended youth group, Jewish summer camp, and the Reform movement’s youth leadership program at Kutz Camp. “When I was a teenager, everyone knew I’d be a rabbi—except me.”
College, he says, was a crossroads that both deepened and challenged his Jewish connection. He majored in Hebrew and Semitic studies at the University of Wisconsin. At the same time, his interest in philosophy instilled “a healthy skepticism and doubt.” He even spent a college year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Upon graduation, armed with a degree in Biblical Hebrew, he might have easily chosen to go on to rabbinic school, as did many of his friends.
Instead he made aliyah, moving to Israel and became a freelance sound engineer for television and film, a talent he learned during his year at Hebrew University. His skill in the profession grew and in 1981, after working for several international news organizations in the Mideast, he became Manager of Crew and Equipment Operations for ABC News, based in London, overseeing logistical support for all news operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East (working closely with Peter Jennings in the process). That year, he also married his long-time sweetheart, Marcy. By 1983, the couple moved to New York, and he worked freelance for such prestigious programs as 60 Minutes, NOVA, and Nature.
When their first child, Eve, was born, the couple affiliated with the congregation where Marcy grew up in Chappaqua NY, and Thomas, who says his secular career nearly “killed any religious impulse within me,” gradually found a desire to nurture his own personal growth. “I really became engaged in the congregation once we had children; I can truly say I came back to Judaism seriously because of my marriage and our kids.” He served on the Temple Board, and his engagement in synagogue life led to a disenchantment with his chosen career. After several years of deep involvement, and encouragement from the rabbis in his life, he retired from television, humorously adding, “I found the only way I could get off the Board was to go to rabbinic school.” So at the age of 36, he re-discovered the path that others had predicted for him in his teens—entering Hebrew Union College (HUC) and returning to Israel as a first year student. While in Israel that year, he also received Certification as an Israeli tour educator from Meltiz, the Institute for Jewish-Zionist Education.
Back in the states as a rabbinic student, Thomas somehow found time to be a youth group advisor, a religious school teacher, to lead classes in a “Taste of Judaism” offered under the URJ’s Outreach Department, and create and teach a unique weekly study program for MetroNorth commuters to New York City, “Torah on the Train.”
He served as a rabbinic intern at his home congregation in Chappaqua, Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, and upon ordination became its Assistant Rabbi, then Associate Rabbi, working with Rabbi Chaim Stern, of blessed memory.
The choice to come to Congregation Beth El of Sudbury matched his strong belief that his mission in the rabbinate was to work in a community with families who seek “deep, significant relationships with others over the long-term,” one which is open to new ideas “within the framework of our sacred tradition.”
Here at Beth El, Rabbi Thomas’s vision and work has included:
- a strong commitment to social justice (he is especially proud of enabling the launch of the award-winning Metrowest Free Medical Program, the first synagogue-based free medical service for the uninsured in the US, as well as his leadership in other local programs working on social justice, pluralism, domestic violence issues and interfaith understanding);
- a deep belief in congregational learning (he initiated the highly successful Beit Midrash program, a community of adult learners, as well as worked with the Director of Congregational Learning to start a unique family educational program that received a major national grant);
- intensive outreach work with people interested in conversion to Judaism, and creating a welcoming atmosphere for intermarried families;
- a special focus on teaching children and young people, from pre-school, to Beth El’s unique Torah Class for pre-bnai mitzvah students, working one-on-one with those students, and our Siyyum class for seniors, marking the end of their high school learning.
Rabbi Thomas’s connection to Israel remains strong. He’s led congregational trips there, as well as supervised the implementation of Project HiBuR, an exchange program for Beth El high school students with students from Chugim High School in Haifa, Israel.
Recently, he was selected as a Fellow for the prestigious Rabbinic Leadership Initiative of Israel’s famed Shalom Hartman Institute, an intensive three-year program that trains an elite cadre of North American rabbis to serve as religious and educational leaders in their communities.
“There are so many wonderful things about Beth El that energize me,” he says, “that make me love my work. Beth El is a spiritually committed community where we all teach and learn from each other. I can’t imagine a better place to live and grow as a Jew. It truly fills my soul.” It’s why he feels he’s the luckiest rabbi in the world.