EAST GREENWICH – David Barnett, the new rabbi at Temple Torah Yisrael, first embraced religion through music, learning at a young age to play both classical guitar and violin.
Barnett spent his formative years at Herzl-Ner Tamid, a Conservative congregation in Mercer Island, Washington. There, under the guidance of Cantor Joseph Frankel, young Barnett studied the complex nusach musical scale patterns that so enchanted him.
“It was Cantor Frankel who was able to integrate my love of Jewish music with my first explorations of Jewish cantorial style,” Barnett, who declined to give his age, said in a recent interview.
In his early years, Barnett also cultivated his voice and sang second tenor in several choirs.
In conversation, Barnett speaks in carefully crafted sentences, as if dictating memos. Each time he mentions a name, he spells it twice, and he emphasizes phrases or sentences that must be quoted verbatim. Barnett wears an impeccable suit and tie, and he fluidly shifts between interview questions and each of his many cellphone calls.
Barnett’s fastidious personality is in tune with his family character: His grandfather, Joseph S. Barnett, opened an accounts-receivable business, where his father, Bernerd A. Barnett, also spent his career. His three younger brothers all work in punctilious fields, as an accountant, a liquor distributor and a cardiologist. Barnett said his grandmother hoped he would become a physician, but she was equally pleased when he chose the rabbinate.
“Ever since I was young, I was involved in Jewish activities that were positive for generating a healthy self-image as a Jewish person,” Barnett said.
Starting in 1978, Barnett spent a year in Israel as part of Midreshet Yerushalayim, a Jewish studies program hosted by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The program was a pilot at the time and modeled on a traditional Yeshiva structure. While there, Barnett met and was impressed by Elliott Dorff, a professor from Southern California. Barnett spent his first year of rabbinical studies in Los Angeles, at the institution now known as Jewish University, where Dorff taught, earning a bachelor’s degree in Hebrew Literature. Barnett then moved to New York City, where he earned a master’s degree and ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. His first pulpit was at Har Zion Temple, just outside Philadelphia, where he served as assistant rabbi under Rabbi Gerald Wolpe.
What followed was a long series of postings – or, as Barnett puts it: “For 25 years, I served a variety of West Coast Conservative congregations.” He pauses, then adds: “You could put a comma after that. You could say, ‘Both in a rabbinic and in a cantorial capacity.’ ”
In 2011, Barnett crossed the country again, serving several congregations before arriving at Temple Torat Yisrael in August. As in many of his past appointments, Barnett is a “transitional” rabbi for a year. The temple does not have a cantor, and Barnett will also fill that role.
“Given the current framework within the Conservative movement of possibly allowing some changes in rabbinic placements, possibilities may open up for [me] to be able to be retained after the initial envisioned period,” Barnett said, with characteristic delicacy.
Barnett had never set foot in Rhode Island before he arrived in East Greenwich, but he has acclimated quickly. The stone architecture of the Torat Yisrael campus reminds him of the walls of Jerusalem, and the East Greenwich shore harkens back to the Seattle docklands of his youth.
“I love it,” Barnett says. “I’ve found [Rhode Islanders] to be very open and congenial and very welcoming to me so far.”
ROBERT ISENBERG (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.