COLLEYVILLE, Texas -- For Jeff Brown, studying to become a rabbi has been quite a journey - and not just in the spiritual sense.
For the last two years, the 25-year-old scholar from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati served as student rabbi at a Reform congregation in this Dallas suburb - roughly 1,000 miles away from his school.
"I can give you tips on flying," joked Brown, who spent two weekends a month with the 70 families of Congregation Beth Israel.
Fellow student Shana Goldstein worked with a congregation in Natchez, Miss., while classmate Daniel Septimus still leads monthly Sabbath services in Rapid City, S.D.
They're all part of a group of about 50 Hebrew Union students who, as part of their studies, travel to congregations from the Rockies to the Everglades to help Jewish communities too small to support a full-time rabbi.
"The students love it," said Rabbi David Komerofsky, the college's dean of students. "They get real, practical experience. For the congregations, they're helping to train the students, but also get the services of a rabbi."
Brown, who grew up in the New Jersey suburbs outside Philadelphia, enrolled at Hebrew Union in 2000 after earning an undergraduate degree in English literature and Judaic studies from George Washington University. Like most Hebrew Union rabbinical students, he spent the first year of the five-year program in Israel, where he learned conversational Hebrew.
He had never visited Texas until he accepted his internship with a congregation comprised mainly of Jewish "immigrants" from the East and West coasts.
"Monday through Thursday, I live the life of a typical graduate student," Brown said. "But Friday, duties shift and I get on a plane and fly down to Texas. And for 48 hours, I'm Rabbi Jeff. I'm presiding over worship services. I'm teaching classes. I'm officiating at life-cycle events - all the things that a regular rabbi does."
Colleyville - within earshot of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport - is a predominantly Christian community of about 20,000. It's in Tarrant County, where the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Jews represent a tiny fraction of the 1.4 million total residents.
Until a few families started Congregation Beth Israel about five years ago, Jews in the northeast part of the county drove 20 miles or more to worship.
"We're on our way to 100-plus families, at which point we'll be large enough to have a full-time rabbi," said Lew Friedland, the congregation's president.
For now, the congregation relies on student rabbis such as Brown, who performed the bar mitzvah for Friedland's 13-year-old son, Sam.
"The advantage of having a student is that they are absolutely high-energy. Everything is a new experience for them," Friedland said. "I'd say the only downside is that they don't have the life experiences that a more mature rabbi would have."
For the students, the program offers a practical side to the history and theory that dominate classroom instruction.
"When you get to the congregations and live the life of a rabbi, it's not just theoretical anymore," said Goldstein, 28, who served a year as a student rabbi in Ishpeming, Mich., and two years in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., before her Mississippi assignment.
She was ordained this month and starts her full-time assignment as assistant rabbi for Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday.
Septimus, 25, from Houston, flies once a month to Rapid City. Twenty-eight families worship at the Synagogue of the Hills, which is accustomed to welcoming a new student rabbi every few years, he said.
"They understand where the rabbinical student needs to go and how they can help him get to that point," said Septimus, praising the tiny South Dakota congregation's dedication to maintaining a Jewish culture.
Brown, who will graduate next year, won't return to Congregation Beth Israel for a third year. He said the twice-monthly weekends away from his wife, Amy, had been difficult. "Travel makes men wiser, but less happy," said Brown, who plans to teach part-time in the Cincinnati area.
In a farewell sermon in May, Brown likened himself to Moses, expressing his sadness that the Texas congregation - which is just a few months from getting its own synagogue - will enter "the proverbial Promised Land" without him.
"Thanks for teaching me what it means to have a flourishing Jewish community in a part of the country that sometimes doesn't feel so Jewish," Brown told the congregation.
On the Net:
Congregation Beth Israel: http://www.congregationbethisrael.org
Hebrew Union College: http://www.huc.edu
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