Elgin rabbi aims to lead by example

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein of Elgin's Congregation Kneseth Israel talks to chamber members, shares skills she learned in her own business career

This story has been updated to correct terminology.

"If I'm not making people uncomfortable, I'm not doing my job," the rabbi of Elgin's only Jewish synagogue told members of the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce recently.

"There's a saying that we should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The prophets made people uncomfortable too."

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein, the spiritual leader at Congregation Kneseth Israel, spoke as the latest guest of the chamber's CEO Unplugged series. Chamber officials ask the leaders of local businesses and institutions everything from their theory of management to what kind of pizza they prefer.

Frisch Klein noted that the Hebrew Bible - what Christians call the Old Testament - "says not to eat pork twice. It says we are to welcome the stranger 36 times."

Before she studied to become a rabbi in middle age, she pursued a career as a marketing consultant in high-tech companies. One day, she said, she decided that "there had to be more than selling IBM on my company's services and leading my daughter's Girl Scout troop and running a family minyan service. I had to revisit the question of what I could do to make the world a better place."

Frisch Klein said one of the biggest challenges at CKI is its diversity.

"They say that if there are two Jews in a room, they have at least three opinions. Our congregation includes people ranging from Orthodox Judaism to classical Reform Judaism. And we have a of interfaith families."

She said the large number of interfaith marriages has been accommodated by setting aside 25 graves at Bluff City Cemetery that can be used by non-Jewish spouses. Normally, only Jews can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. "That was a big-deal change," she said.

CKI also now allows Gentile spouses to vote on congregational issues, and even to serve on the congregation's board, except as its chairman.

Asked what useful skills she learned from her business career, she said, "Listening deeply is still something I do every day. (But) I learned a lot of my leadership style as a Girl Scout."

Learning from the Bible, she said, "Moses and Pharaoh and, you could call God a leader, all had different styles of leadership. My style is a collaborative style, and I lead by example.

"I want to create a safe, nonjudgmental space," she said, but many rabbis are "not nice. Sometimes they're downright cruel."

Even in her own congregation, she said, one member said he was afraid to walk down the hall to the rabbi's office because it makes him feel like a student being summoned to the principal's office.

Frisch Klein said she blogs under the name "The Energizer Rabbi" and CKI has 200 "likes" on its Facebook page. But still "not a week goes by when someone doesn't say, 'Oh, there's a synagogue in Elgin?'"

She said one authority estimates there are 6,000 Jews in the Fox Valley who are not affiliated with any synagogue, but "I'm not sure where they are. We're still looking."

Asked what the toughest part of being a rabbi is, she said it's when she becomes suspicious that a child might be being abused.

As a clergyperson and educator, she is required by law to report such signs to the authorities, yet she's tortured by the thought of possibly subjecting an innocent family to such an investigation.

Among her revelations during the CEO Unplugged "Firing Line" round were:

• Her favorite movie: The Christmas classic "Miracle on 34th Street," which she admits is "a surprising pick for a Jew."

• Her favorite sport: Running

• Her favorite places in Elgin: Harvest Market, the Elgin Symphony and Gail Borden Public Library

• Something about her no one knows: While in college, she sang at Carnegie Hall as part of the Harvard-Radcliife Hillel Choir

• Cubs or White Sox? "The Red Sox," she said, because it would be a career-threatening move to prefer either Chicago team.

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