Conversations with a Jewish Rabbi and a Mormon Bishop, Part II

Rabbi Morris Zimbalist is the rabbi of Montebello Jewish Center in Montebello, New York. He was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2002 and was the recipient of the Lillian M. Lowenfeld Prize for excellence in the field of practical theology. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Rabbi Zimbalist grew up in the Conservative movement and was very active in his synagogue, participated in United Synagogue Youth and attended both Camp Herzl and Camp Ramah. He firmly believes in the importance of living a Jewish life and that there must be continuity in Jewish education from the classroom, to the synagogue and in the home. Rabbi Zimbalist graduated from Boston University where he earned a B.A. in Psychology and a minor in Political Science.

Bishop Paul Hirst is the bishop of the Brainerd Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Brainerd, MN. He was ordained and set apart on April 29, 2007. A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, he was baptized a member of the LDS Church when he was eight years old and served a two-year full-time mission for the Church in Finland. Bishop Hirst graduated from Brigham Young University, receiving a B.S. in civil engineering, and from the Washington University (in St. Louis) Graduate School of Architecture, receiving a masters of architecture. He is a licensed and practicing architect.

How did you come to be a member of the clergy in your religion?
Rabbi Zimbalist: I always felt the strong need to help others, and being raised in a fairly observant Jewish home, I was ingrained with the core religious value that we should care for one another. While in college, I pursued psychology, which gave me a deeper understanding of people but left me with a certain sense of a religious void. So I took my passion to help and the insights from the study of psychology and pursued Judaism from a more serious and in-depth perspective. The rabbinate seemed like a natural and logical path.

Bishop Hirst: I was “called” to the position by the Duluth stake president, who received approval for the call from the First Presidency, the highest governing body of the Church. This is not a call you can “sign up for” or volunteer. You usually don’t directly know you’re being considered until you’ve been called.

What education and/or training have you received or do you continue to receive?
Rabbi Zimbalist: I graduated Boston University with an undergraduate degree in psychology and a minor in political science. I then attended The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in Manhattan (a six-year program), in which I earned a Masters in Judaic Studies and was ordained as a rabbi. I am currently finishing a two-year program, studying the laws and acquiring the skills to write writs of Jewish divorce (a get). For four of my six years there, I served as the student rabbi at Congregation Sons of Israel in Amsterdam, NY, a very small, elderly and loving community near Albany. I assumed all rabbinic duties there, and Alison and I went there twice a month and for all Jewish holidays so that I could lead services, visit the sick, etc.

Bishop Hirst: There is little formal training. We receive a “Church Handbook of Instructions” that outlines the basic policies and procedures for the Church. Additional administrative training is available from the stake president, other stake leaders and online at the Church’s web site. Ecclesiastical training, however, comes through experience in the Church, personal study, and occasional leadership training meetings provided by the leaders of our stake (a stake is a group of congregations in a geographical area).

How many families/members in your congregation?
Rabbi Zimbalist: We have 270 families in our congregation, approximately 950 individuals.

Bishop Hirst: We have about 250 families in our congregation, which is called a ward, with about 475 members. Ward boundaries are determined geographically.

When and how do you participate in Sabbath worship?
Rabbi Zimbalist: The Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) begins at sundown on Friday evening and ends an hour after sundown on Saturday evening. I conduct worship services on Friday evenings, which last approximately one hour. Services are primarily in Hebrew, and the liturgy focuses on welcoming in Shabbat. On Saturday mornings, services last approximately three hours. We read from the Torah (the Old Testament), and I deliver a sermon on a teaching from the Torah or the books of the prophets. The liturgy includes morning hymns (psalms), the daily morning prayers with special inclusions for Shabbat, a service centered around the Torah, and an additional service for Shabbat. After services, the entire congregation shares lunch together.

On a personal level, the Sabbath is a time of complete rest in which I refrain from normal work day activities. For example, I do not use the car, computer, telephone, etc. on Shabbat. I do not turn on appliances or cook, write, or spend money. In Judaism, there are 39 major categories of work that are prohibited on Shabbat, all of which were derived from the work that our biblical ancestors did as they constructed the Tabernacle.

Bishop Hirst: For us, sabbath worship is very personal. As a church, we try and keep the sabbath, which means avoiding certain things and making an effort to do other things. There aren’t any hard rules about keeping the sabbath. The doctrine is that we take one day a week (Sunday) to rest from our wordly labors and spend time on more spiritual things. We’ve been asked to avoid working (where possible), shopping, recreating, etc. on the sabbath. We’ve been encouraged to attend worship services, spend time studying the scriptures, visiting the sick and lonely. The principle is to do those things that increase our spirituality and draw us closer to God, and avoid those that don’t. I would add that it is probably one of the most difficult commandments for our members to keep.

Our main meeting on Sunday is sacrament meeting. The most important aspect of the meeting is the partaking of the sacrament (or communion). Since it’s an ordinance, I make sure it’s conducted properly. We sing hymns, occasionally conduct business and hear messages from members of the congregation previously invited to prepare remarks. Once a month, we have a “testimony” meeting where members of the congregation are able to bear testimony of various principles of the gospel-what they’ve learned and know spiritually.

What are your responsibilities for the Sabbath worship?

Rabbi Zimbalist: I conduct services, read Torah, deliver sermons, sometimes lead congregational prayer, and sometimes teach study sessions.

Bishop Hirst: My primary responsibility is to preside at the sacrament meeting, making sure that it is conducted appropriately. I share the sacrament meeting conducting duties with my two counselors. We rotate each month. The person responsible suggests who speaks and makes the invitations. We ensure those asked to speak know where to get their information and stay on topic and within doctrine. I also can, and do, occasionally take a few minutes at the end of the meeting to teach, exhort, expound or encourage the members in attendance. When it’s my month to conduct, I have the opportunity to also bear testimony at the beginning of the monthly testimony meeting.

Rabbi Zimbalist and Bishop Hirst will continue this conversation on Wednesdays throughout April. A new entry will be posted next Wednesday, April 16. You may read previous entires here and are welcome to share your comments below.


  1. Carrie Jensen
    Apr 9, 2008

    It is amazing how different various religions (and their leadership) can be. While at the same time, they are all have a similar goal, working to bring peoples closer to God. I am grateful for the leaders of my church as well as all those in other religions who bring people closer to their Heavenly Father.

  2. allysha
    Apr 10, 2008

    I really enjoy reading the answers next to each other. Very interesting.

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