For Rabbi Scott White, the journey toward becoming a Jewish spiritual leader began during his junior year of college, while he was studying abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"The story of the Jewish people to me is a heroic story," recalled White. "The state rose on the ashes of the Holocaust, like a phoenix from the ashes. It was like a rebirth. When I was there, you could really still feel the birth energy of the State of Israel."
So potent was the experience that White returned to Israel the summer after he graduated from Kansas University in 1979 with a degree in journalism. There he spent time at an Orthodox yeshiva, or religious school, studying the body of Jewish Scripture and knowledge known as the Torah.
White, who was seeking answers to the questions he had about life, discovered that Orthodoxy was not the right path for him. He found, instead, that the Conservative movement offered the open-minded approach to traditional Judaism that he was looking for.
White, a native of Kansas City, Mo., decided to enter into study to become a rabbi. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City in 1986. The seminary serves the Conservative movement of Judaism in America.
Years later, White's voyage of faith has brought him back to Lawrence, where he is now serving as rabbi of the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive.
White splits his time between his new position at the Jewish Community Center, which he began Aug. 1, and working on a part-time basis as the rabbi of B'nai Sholem in St. Joseph, Mo., where he has served for six years.
He's pleased to find himself renewing his ties to the city where he spent his college years.
"Of course, I've always felt a sentimental connection to Lawrence, having been a student here. I'm thrilled. It's good to go back to the Merc (Community Mercantile Co-op, 901 Iowa), Joe's Bakery and Free State Brewery," he said.
Though White , 45, will continue to live with his wife, Civia, and two sons in Kansas City, Mo., returning to Lawrence each week to work has brought back some fond memories of his younger days.
"I had a regular table at The Hawk (1340 Ohio). I lived down the street from it. I had a wonderful time at KU maybe too good a time," he said, laughing.
Energy and enthusiasm
White gave up a longtime teaching position at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, a Jewish day school with about 330 students, to accept the position at the Jewish Community Center.
He replaced Rabbi Judith Beiner of Overland Park, who served the center on a part-time basis from February 1997 until the end of June. She left the position to move with her husband and three children to Atlanta.
Beiner was the first rabbi to serve the center on a permanent, year-round basis. Before that, the congregation had been led by lay people since it was founded in the 1950s. The center has about 250 members, including approximately 80 families.
Beiner and White were colleagues for several years at Hyman Brand, where they both worked as teachers. That's how White found out about the opening for a rabbi in Lawrence and grew interested in it.
"Judy was very concerned that there be continuity. She was the first rabbi here, and she felt the community had grown by having one. She didn't want there to be a hiatus (without a spiritual leader) and lose the momentum the community had," White said.
"She thought the position might be something I might want to ponder as a change of pace from teaching."
Beiner had always spoken highly of the Lawrence congregation, and White said he understood why.
"The people here are very warm. They have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and there's an openness to experimentation," he explained.
White's first pulpit after ordination was in Warwick, R.I., where he served from 1987 to 1991. He then accepted a position as the rabbi of a synagogue in Charlotte, N.C., from 1991 to 1994.
White taught Judaic studies for eight years at Hyman Brand, where his wife continues to teach first grade.
Open to everybody
White already has some ideas about what he hopes to accomplish in his new congregation.
"I'd like to see us grow the base of people who are involved in more than a peripheral sense. We're already working with KU Hillel to do some joint services and programming that will put the LJCC on the map for the school's Jewish students more than it is now," he said.
KU Hillel Foundation, 940 Miss., is the central organization for Jewish students at the university.
"I'd also like us to be as welcoming, warm and inclusive as possible. I'd love to see us become a place where even people who aren't Jewish feel perfectly comfortable coming here to have a spiritual experience and connect with God," he said.
"There's no pedigree test (to attend services or other activities). There's a place for anybody in the community who wants to be here."