When Toby Halpern and her husband, Gene, retired to the Manatee County from Manhattan 15 years ago, they went “temple shopping.”
They attended a lot of the temples and synagogues in the area, spent enough time with each to find out what they were about, but never found a perfect fit.
About five years ago, after a decade of learning about different temples and synongogues, the Halperns discovered Temple Emanu-El at 151 McIntosh Road in Sarasota. The other temples were fine, but once they visited Temple Emanu-El they knew it was where they wanted to stay.
“It’s such a wonderful place,” Toby Halpern said. “It just felt like home.”
Within a couple of years, Halpern was serving on the temple board and was one of its vice presidents overseeing adult education and early learning operations, its library and several other programs.
Earlier this month, Toby Halpern was named Temple Emanu-El president.
“For her to have gotten involved so deeply so quickly was very unusual,” said Rabbi Brenner Glickman. “She’s smart and she’s capable but at the same time she’s gentle and caring. She’s really everything you’d want in the leader of a religious congregation.”
Halpern spent her career as a lawyer and a corporate official in New York. When she and her husband decided to retire, they looked up and down Florida’s Atlantic coast.
“Everything was too competitive or too crowded,” she said. “We just didn’t like what we saw. Finally a friend said: ‘Why don’t you think about the west coast?’ We said ‘We’re not ready to move to California.’”
Of course, the friend meant the west coast of Florida, and as soon as the Glickmans discovered the Bradenton-Sarasota area they knew this was the place they wanted to live.
“There were trees,” Toby Halpern said. “And it’s such a rich cultural environment. We love theater, the symphony. You could keep busy every night here if you were so inclined.”
As president, Halpern, who turned 72 on Wednesday, will be responsible for the business affairs of the largest Jewish congregation in the Bradenton-Sarasota area. Temple Emanu-El is 60 years old with about 525 families.
It’s not an easy job, and it’s not one a lot of people would be willing to take on. Halpern said she thinks Glickman and the temple board were a little surprised when she readily accepted the position.
“The job is important and rewarding” Glickman said. “You can really make an impact. But it’s hard. People are going to be mad at you. You can’t be an effective leader without getting some people being upset sometimes, and that can hurt if you’re nor used to it.”
Temple’s leaders, Glickman said, all agreed Halpern was the person they wanted for the job.
“She did such a fantastic job in her two years as vice president that we knew she was who we wanted as our ultimate leader,” he said.
Tempe Emanu-El, Halpern said, is already a happy, welcoming place. Congregation members go out of their way to make visitors and new members feel at home, and the temple makes the practice of Judaism a welcoming experience. A lot of younger families have been joining the congregation, and one of her goals as president is to design programs and services to encourage families to remain active members after their children’s bar mitzvahs.
She allows her new position will be “all-consuming,” but she said she didn’t hesitate to accept the challenge.
“Things Jewish bring me great joy,” she said. “My two years on the board confirmed that for me.”