Meet Rabbi Wes Kalmar

As of Aug. 1, Rabbi Wes (Wesley) Kalmar, 36, is the new principal rabbi at Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah in Glendale. His predecessor, Rabbi Nachman Levine, is now rabbi emeritus.

Kalmar is a native of Baltimore, where he studied at Orthodox day schools. He did undergraduate and graduate study at Yeshiva University and was ordained there in 2000. In addition, he studied for several years at Yeshivat Ohr Yerushalayim in Israel.

He has previously served congregations in Jersey City, N.J., and New Haven, Conn. He is married to Jessica, nee Himelstein, who has a doctorate in neuropsychology. They have three children, ages 7, 4, and 3.

Leon Cohen spoke with Kalmar at ASKT on Aug. 15. Transcribed and edited excerpts of that interview follow:

What made you decide to become a congregational rabbi?

When I was studying in Israel for a few years after high school, I really fell in love with learning and teaching Torah. And I knew that I wanted to have a career that involved that somehow. But I also love working with people, and I wanted to have a career that involved that somehow. So the rabbinate seemed to be to be perfect fit, a perfect melding of those two.

You hadn’t thought about this during your elementary and high school years at all?

I thought about what I wanted to be. But I certainly didn’t decide until I came back to college. It did not come together for me until I was in Israel.

What was the process by which you came to ASKT?

I saw that there was an opening. I did a little research about the community and liked what I heard… I heard [there] were really excellent people here, that there’s a nice community, people who were looking to learn and to grow. And I was excited about that.

Why did you want to make a change?

I had accomplished all I could accomplish there in New Haven and was really looking for the next challenge, and for a different place to raise our kids. Our impression was it’s a really wonderful place to raise a family, in Milwaukee and in Glendale.

What did you like about the synagogue in particular?

I was very impressed that there’s incredible warmth here; people who immediately reach out to you, and a real sense of people wanting to grow spiritually. That there was a great opportunity to teach and to give of myself as a rabbi, in terms of pastoral needs.

How would you describe your approach to the rabbinate?

I think a rabbi has two jobs. One is to educate his community. The second job is really to take care of the needs of the individuals in this community, whether [those needs] are religious, pastoral… So my approach is to simultaneously attack on both of those fronts, to reach out to people … to listen to them, and to understand their needs, to address their problems.

What were the accomplishments you are most proud of at the other two synagogues that you served?

I was most proud of the strong and deep connections that I made with people… In terms of education, I was very proud of the adult education programming that I set up. It was incredibly popular; people looked forward to classes and programs and lectures.

At the same time, I was very proud of helping people through their times of need, times of crisis. There are many specific instances…

[For example,] I helped [one] person work through issues of anger with Judaism, disaffection with Jewish leadership that they’d experienced until then. Helped them back to being comfortable in a synagogue setting [and] being part of Jewish community…

Did ASKT leaders say there was anything in particular they wanted you to be working on? And what are your aims and goals?

I think that people are certainly looking to grow the shul community; and within [it] to continue the tradition that there’s been here of learning and high level adult education. The shul here has been very blessed for almost 25 years to have Rabbi Nachman and Rebbetzin Leah Levine, who have built up the synagogue and done so much here. And I want to continue their good work, and to keep growing the synagogue as they have.

I would very much like to introduce some great youth programming for all different age groups. I think this synagogue is one that is very attractive to young couples, in terms of the neighborhood [and] of the people that are here [and] the schools. There’s tremendous potential for attracting young couples with children…

I’m also very excited to be able to offer some exciting and dynamic adult education programming, classes and lectures, that will provoke people to turn off the TV, get up and come to the synagogue… I think I’ve had a lot of success as a teacher, being able to teach in a way that bridges the gap between those that have a weaker background in Jewish studies, and those who have a stronger background, in that I’m able to offer a presentation which has something for both…

You and your wife are a two-career couple. Did you come here in anticipation that she would be able to find work in her field?

She’s very talented, and there are a lot of universities and medical centers in this area. I feel confident she’ll be able to find something.

But yes, we’re primarily coming here because of the opportunity for myself as rabbi, but for herself also as a rabbi’s wife, because we’re really very much a team when it comes to working with a community. She’s from a family of many rabbis. She knows what it means to be in a rabbinic family.

I think that covers my questions, unless there is something you want to say that I didn’t think to ask.

I think we just feel very blessed to be here. Our impression of Milwaukee and Glendale is that people are incredibly nice and incredibly warm. From the people we meet in airport when we landed here, and the people we come in contact with in the store, especially the people that we’ve met here at ASKT. I’m very excited and pumped to get things going and to build and to grow.