When rain threatened to wash out Greenport’s Arbor Day celebration on Thursday, Rabbi Gadi Capela opened the doors of Congregation Tifereth Israel synagogue on Fourth Street to shelter the ceremony.
Born and raised in Israel and educated in New York City, Rabbi Capela said the community has been equally welcoming to him since moving to Greenport in March to begin his new job as the synagogue’s rabbi. He has already made fast friends with community members and local religious leaders.
“We don’t just work together, we enjoy lunches and we’ve formed personal relationships with each other,” he said. “Part of what attracted me here is how beautifully everything is kept. I thought if they keep care of the trees like this they must take good care of people, too.”
Rabbi Capela’s road to a life in religion was not a typical one.
Raised in a Jewish Orthodox family in Israel, he came to the United States at age 22 after spending four years in the Israeli Army, three of which were mandated. He signed on for an additional year to complete his officer training, he said.
Continued education initially drew Rabbi Capela to the United States. He studied at Yeshiva University in New York City and went on to become a successful banker at a mid-sized Manhattan firm, but he never lost sight of his faith.
He decided to pursue his master’s degree at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and began teaching Hebrew scripture, in particular the Book of Genesis, at Our Lady of the Island Catholic shrine in Manorville.
It was there where he met Ellen Harbes, a parishioner St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport. As his graduation from the seminary drew closer, Ms. Harbes encouraged Rabbi Capela to seek employment at Greenport’s Congregation Tifereth Israel. “Even before I started I had a recommendation from the Catholic church,” he said.
Still, Rabbi Capela said he struggled with leaving the corporate world.
“I loved my job; I wasn’t sure that I actually wanted to do congregational work,” he said. “A turning point came when I was at the office and thinking about studying, but when I was studying I didn’t think about the office. I was hesitant, but when I found Greenport it was a match.”
In March, Rabbi Capela replaced Rabbi Myron Fenster, who had come out of retirement to serve the synagogue as an interim rabbi.
“It took them five years to find a rabbi and there was a match on both ends,” Rabbi Capela said. “I didn’t want to be in a big synagogue and be very official, I wanted a one-on-one relationship with people and that’s what I’m getting here.”
Congregation Tifereth Israel was built in 1903 by a group of enterprising Jewish vendors seeking new markets. They arrived in Greenport by way of the railroad and purchased the lot on Fourth Street for $1,430. The building has been expanded several times, however the primary 20-by-30-foot sanctuary remains mostly unchanged from the founders’ original design. In 2006 the sanctuary was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The synagogue has traditionally welcomed those of every faith for social events and religious education classes. Rabbi Capela said he looks forward to honoring that history.
“Interfaith to me is one of the cornerstones of being a rabbi,” he said. “It is not just for the Jewish community, it’s really about being embracing and being embraced by the general community. In scripture, God says ‘My house is a house of prayer for everybody,’ and that’s what I want to create.”