On Feb. 1, Congregation Or Tzion honored Rabbi Micah Caplan at the 2020 Congregation Or Tzion Gala for 10 years “as our rabbi, our teacher, our friend.”
Caplan joined Congregation Or Chadash in 2010, which merged with Har Zion Congregation to form Congregation Or Tzion in 2014. The rabbi grew up in Phoenix and previously served congregations in Florida and California. He is an avid sports fan and is known for his warm, personal outreach.
The Jewish News asked Caplan to reflect upon the last 10 years at Congregation Or Tzion. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
It’s been 10 years. That’s a long time to get to know a community and a congregation. What has been the most surprising thing about doing this job?
I think the most surprising thing is just the growth of the community. I had no idea when I first came here 10 years ago, when we had 90 families, that the growth of the congregation would be so wonderful, and not only the growth in size, but just the growth in spirit. The congregation has always had this amazing attitude towards Judaism and community, and we’ve really just continued to grow and build on that. It was a surprise to me that it happened so quickly during my first few years, and since then we’ve been able to maintain that attitude of participatory community and enjoying each other. It’s been a really great run so far and I’m looking forward to many more surprises along the way.
What makes the Phoenix/Scottsdale area Jewish community different from other communities you’ve worked in?
The easygoing-ness of the Jewish community. We have a lot of Jewish agencies in town, we have many congregations and we have collaborative efforts, we work together. I’ve been lucky as a rabbi in this community to work with a lot of different Jewish agencies and synagogues, and I have the utmost respect for my colleagues and the constituents of each organization.
I just think that other communities don’t always have that much collaboration. When I was a kid growing up here, I’m not sure that it was that collaborative among Jewish agencies, but right now you see the many Jewish agencies that are housed at the JCC, and our Board of Rabbis has become very close. And so I think with all of those variables, it certainly is a community that’s different than others. I’m very lucky that I’m a part of that, too.
How has local Jewish life and community changed in the last 10 years?
We have more kosher restaurants! I think it presents a larger buffet of Jewish life. There are so many cultural events, from film festivals to learning events from Valley Beit Midrash to congregational choice to working out at the JCC in Scottsdale to having kosher dining experiences to ... so many different choices. Like I said, a buffet of Jewish life, where 30 years ago, it wasn’t here.
It’s a large Jewish community now and kudos to us for building it and creating it and appreciating it. We are very, very lucky to have a community like this. There’s a lot of other people around the country who don’t have what we have.
What are the biggest challenges facing synagogues today?
I think the biggest challenge is finding connections for the unaffiliated and our younger community. We have to do some thinking outside of the box, finding opportunities that are connected to congregations but that go outside the four walls of our synagogues. Whether it’s going out to happy hours, going to sporting events, we’re looking for different things that I would say sneak in the Judaism. At our Young Family Shabbat, we bring in magicians and a reptile person, we bring in lots of different entertainment, and we also do Havdalah, we end Shabbat. We can sneak in that Judaism to start with.
It’s creating an opportunity for people to see Judaism rooted in community and not always just services. Synagogues oftentimes are associated with religiosity and services, and it’s a part of that, but a big part is also being part of a community and connecting with different people of all ages. It’s really about getting out there and finding ways to connect, it’s all about connection and relationships.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Everything! I love that every day is not the same. It’s relationships, I love having relationships with people, I love speaking with people, I love being with people, I love giving people a Jewish context to help them with life, and all of it, most importantly, is about having fun. Because if you don’t have fun doing something, it’s not worth doing it at all. I really love what I do, and I have so much fun with it.
How about least favorite?
Saying no. I love saying yes to everybody and I don’t like to sell myself short or disappoint, so sometimes saying no is a hard thing to do. But it’s important also to take care of one’s self in order to take care of everybody else. So sometimes I say no, but all too often I say yes.
If you were giving advice to a rabbi just starting out at a synagogue, what would you say?
Ensure that the relationships that you have are special. When you first come into a community, establish those relationships. Be who you are, be authentic, be yourself. And with that authenticity, the community will come to you, and hopefully it will last not just 10 years, but for decades. JN