Meet Preston D. Neimeiser, Providence’s new rabbi

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Preston D. Neimeiser has had a very busy year. On May 2, Neimeiser was ordained as a rabbi. On May 25, he married Victoria Litman. Two days later, Litman graduated from law school. Then, on June 1, the newlyweds moved to Providence, where Neimeiser began as the assistant rabbi of Temple Beth-El. All this … at the age of 27.

“The best plans I ever made,” he quips, “I didn’t actually make.”

Neimeiser is a soft-spoken man with an impressive beard and glasses. He has the build of a linebacker, but his smile is constant and he’s quick to chuckle. His tranquil demeanor has helped the rabbi through many life stages, starting with his childhood in Tallahassee, Florida.

Neimeiser says his father grew up in a largely Yiddish-speaking neighborhood in New Jersey, but “he never felt like he fit in.” The elder Neimeiser was critical of religion and found his purpose as a union organizer; he became executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Neimeiser’s mother wasn’t Jewish, but rather a Mexican-American social worker from Wisconsin. She eventually converted to Judaism, at her mother-in-law’s urging.

“They had a handshake deal that her kids would be raised Jewish,” Neimeiser recalls.

As a child, Neimeiser says he cultivated a strong social network at temple and Jewish summer camps.

“Basically, I found home at temple,” he says. “I loved music, and there was music at temple. If not for my synagogue and a few really good teachers, I might have fallen through the cracks and had a very different life. Even though I wasn’t a particularly good student at Hebrew school, I always knew that I had a place to go.”

Neimeiser volunteered as a madrich (youth counselor) and served as song leader for several camps.

At home, his family instilled in him a strong sense of compassion.

“Around the dinner table, we would often talk about the just society and how to create it and what our role is in it,” Neimeiser says.

With a chuckle, he adds: “We never really agreed, but we always talked about it.”

Neimeiser says he had a watershed moment during his junior year in high school, when he spent a semester in Israel. He was required to take three hours of history each day, followed by two hours of Hebrew studies.

“For the first time in my life, I felt really challenged academically, in a way that was invigorating,” he says.

Neimeiser then spent a week in Poland, visiting important sites from the Holocaust. The experience shook him deeply, and he started to question “how God could let something like this happen,” he said.

But when he flew out of Poland, the stormy emotions subsided, and he arrived at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport to a chorus of “Shalom Aleichem.”

“The weight was gone,” he says. “I realized, this is my people. I’m going to make aliyah.”

Neimeiser earned a B.S. in psychology from Florida State University in 2016, but he remained enamored of Israel. He traveled extensively, seeking out perspectives different from his own. Neimeiser said he feels confident in his Reform identity, but he also became interested in more traditional practices.

“The more I was exposed to ritual, the more I embraced ritual,” he says. “But I think so much of my journey proved to me that there is no one way to be Jewish.”

Gradually, Neimeiser warmed up to the idea of becoming a rabbi himself. He faced a difficult choice: Would he rather stay in Israel, the land he loved, and struggle to do relevant work, or should he join the Reform rabbinate in the United States, where he was confident he could help people and have a real impact?

He said he was realistic about his prospects in the Holy Land. “Who needs a Reform rabbi in Israel?” he joked.

Neimeiser continued, “When it really came into clear focus that this was something I could do professionally, that I actually could be a rabbi to a community, and I could bring my own sense of meaning-making, or create the space for others to create meaning, that’s the kind of life I want to lead.”

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion had already been courting Neimeiser, and he was quickly accepted into the Reform movement’s rabbinical program. He spent his first year studying in Jerusalem, then returned to the U.S. to complete the five-year program.

Neimeiser had hoped to study in Cincinnati, where he could concentrate on Southern Jewry, a less-studied diaspora close to the Floridian’s heart. Instead, he ended up moving to New York City. There, Neimeiser roomed with a friend in East Harlem and explored the city’s many Jewish institutions.

“It was an adjustment. But I was at a different synagogue every weekend, soaking up every bit that I could,” he recalled. “It felt like [I had gone] from one Jerusalem to another.”

Neimeiser also became involved in local activism, from protests against tenant evictions to a sit-in demonstration at Amazon. This kind of advocacy has been the through-line of his career.

As graduation from rabbinical school approached, Neimeiser said he was excited to find a listing for an assistant rabbi at Beth-El. He had visited Providence before and had even visited the temple. He could easily imagine a life here. He applied for the position and was soon hired.

Within days of their marriage, Neimeiser and Litman moved from New York to Providence’s East Side.

“It’s eminently livable here,” he says. “Life is good in New York, but life is hard. I have the creature comforts [in Providence] that I want within a 10-minute walk.

“When the listing came up, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a cool job. All these other jobs would be fine, but that’s the job I want.’ And thank God, here I am.”

ROBERT ISENBERG (risenberg@jewishallianceri.org) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.