By Shelley A. Sackett
SWAMPSCOTT — About a year ago, Congregation Shirat Hayam President Ruth Estrich knew the synagogue would be hiring an executive director. The board of directors had included the salary in their budget and generated the revenue to fund it.
The Swampscott synagogue didn’t have to travel far to find the perfect fit: Deb Schutzman has worked at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly for 18 years, the last 15 as its executive and education directors. B’nai Abraham is just over 7 miles from Shirat Hayam.
It has been a while since Shirat Hayam had an executive director, and Estrich, a retired corporate executive, knew what the synagogue needed.
“We were looking for a seasoned professional, someone who would be capable of leading our employees, working collaboratively with our clergy, being the face of our congregation with our congregants, and supporting our board and our volunteers,” Estrich said.
In addition, the synagogue wanted someone who would honor Shirat Hayam’s history; create unprecedented growth for the future and attract new members; increase revenue; and provide all segments of the community with a place to call home.
“A piece of cake!” Estrich said with a laugh.
The next step was to craft a contemporary and comprehensive job description. The Shirat Hayam human resource committee – after gathering information from congregational stakeholders – created a draft. They vetted it with two national organizations: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism – the major congregational organization of Conservative Judaism in North America – and the North American Association of Synagogue Executives.
Estrich heard about Schutzman through “good old-fashioned networking.” They connected online and set up an in-person meeting.
“I knew immediately and absolutely our search was over. It felt bashert [Yiddish for “meant to be”], like the missing piece of our puzzle was in place,” she said.
Schutzman, who was born in Lowell and lives in Gloucester, brings expertise in community building, facility management, and strategic planning. She also has a deep love for the Jewish community of the North Shore. During her years as executive director at B’nai Abraham, she participated in hiring a new rabbi, a successful merger, increasing adult education programming, adding music to services, and launching a capital campaign.
While Schutzman loved her tenure at B’nai Abraham, she was ready for a change. “Shirat Hayam faces the same challenges as other synagogues. We all need to get people back into the building,” she said.
Although she acknowledged that the pandemic made attending services virtually both easier and more acceptable, “Nothing compares to being physically together. Shabbat is just not an ordinary experience at Shirat Hayam. There is an energy when we are physically together that makes it very special.”
One of her greatest joys at B’nai Abraham was her involvement with the religious school, and she especially loves watching kids come into the sanctuary at the end of Shabbat services and high-five Rabbi Michael Ragozin before chanting the blessings over wine and challah.
“Children are our greatest gifts. While teaching them, we are reminded about what is truly important and meaningful in life. The value of that teaching experience for me was priceless,” she said.
As executive director, Schutzman’s first focus at Shirat Hayam will be assessing its staffing needs. “Shirat Hayam has an incredible staff who have worked tirelessly over the past few years to hold things together during very unusual circumstances,” she said. As the congregation turns the corner on the pandemic and its ramifications, the needs of the community require reevaluation.
“Synagogue life has changed. How we communicate and interact is different now, and we need to ensure that we have the people in place with the skills to meet those needs,” she said.
Schutzman’s longer-range goals are to stabilize the operations side of the synagogue; improve communication; training and support for staff; address deferred facility maintenance; and plan for the future.
“I want to help fill the building not just for services, but for educational and social programming, life cycle events, and celebrations,” she said.
Schutzman attended Hebrew day schools from kindergarten through ninth grade. She lived in Israel for two years during high school and graduated from the New England Academy of Torah in Providence. She studied business administration at Stern College of Yeshiva University in Manhattan and UMass Lowell, after which she spent 12 years in retail store management for Macy’s and Filene’s Basement before joining B’nai Abraham.
She is the proud mother of Benjamin and Andrew and loves kayaking on the Annisquam River from May though November, “especially at sunset.”
With her term as president nearing its end, Estrich will be leaving on a personal high note with Schutzman at the organizational helm. “I’d say that with Rabbi Michael, Cantor Sarah and Deb, we’ve got the dream team and the sky’s the limit. I can’t wait to see where they take us,” she said.
Janis Knight (left) and her Israeli counterpart from the Boston-Haifa Connection, Yael Danielly.