Rabbi Jonathan Biatch stepping away | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch stepping away

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch’s title will soon be followed by the word “emeritus,” but he doesn’t view that transition as his retirement.

Rather, Biatch said, he is “concluding and progressing.” On June 30, Biatch will finish his tenure as the rabbi for Temple Beth El in Madison, a Reform congregation serving about 600 households.

Biatch has been at the synagogue for 19 years, having worked there since 2005.

“Working with people, being with families undergoing sometimes joyous and sometimes painful life cycles, really the quality of the people has kept me here,” he said.

Raised in California, Biatch initially pursued a career in the field of broadcasting and spent a year in Israel working for a division of the Israeli Broadcasting Authority.

Upon returning to the U.S., Biatch completed a graduate degree in Jewish communal service and in the 1980s worked for Jewish Federations before he decided to become a rabbi, realizing he “would even be more happy working for a synagogue.”

An aspect of the work Biatch has enjoyed has been advocacy outside Temple Beth El. Being based in Wisconsin’s capital, Biatch said he has used his position to be engaged in statewide issues.

For example, he said, in 2006, a proposal circulated in Wisconsin to amend the state constitution to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. Biatch said he engaged his community to take a stand opposing the amendment, something he said religious communities don’t do with frequency. He also testified at the Capitol and connected with legislators representing the area to make his case.

The amendment passed but was struck down by the judiciary in 2014. Biatch reflects fondly on what he called the “social justice part of my work.” That is, applying Jewish principles in life.

The congregation is acknowledging Biatch’s efforts in that area. On April 14, Temple Beth El’s Mitzvah Day, board president Leslie Coff said the synagogue recognized the inaugural recipient of its Rabbi Jonathan A. Biatch Tikkun Olam Award.

“Rabbi Jonathan Biatch has been passionate about social action and social justice, following the legacy of Temple Beth El’s three other rabbis,” Coff said.

She said Temple Beth El “looks forward to growing and learning in its next chapter,” which will be led by Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit. He now works at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, California.

As rabbi emeritus, Biatch said he’ll meet with his successor, but he plans to follow a custom of being less visible at the congregation during the initial months of Prosnit’s tenure to facilitate the transfer of authority.

Biatch is not ready to stop working, though. He still has “a lot to offer a Jewish community,” he said.

Although he has not made any long-term decisions, Biatch knows where he’ll spend his first year after the transition. He has accepted a role as an interim rabbi for Temple Emanuel of Tempe in Arizona.

In that position, Biatch will assist the congregation as it transitions toward its next permanent rabbi.

The career move comes as his wife, Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, takes on a similar role. For the next year, she will be the interim rabbi for Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha, helping the congregation transition following the June 30 retirement of Rabbi Dena Feingold. Unlike his work as the leader of a Madison synagogue, Biatch does not anticipate his role in Tempe will involve advocacy in Arizona’s state capital of Phoenix. He expects his work to entail teaching classes and development of the Emanuel community.

“My job is to be a helper. My job is to be a leader,” Biatch said. “That shifts at various points for any particular member of the clergy. I’m looking forward to playing both of those roles – a leader and a helper, a guide and a rabbi for them, a teacher.”