When Todd Markley was the director of the regional office of NFTY, the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, in Needham, MA, he took a call from an elderly woman. She was blind, and she had just lost her sister. She needed proper Jewish rituals and prayers with which to mourn. “I was with her for about 20 minutes, frantically pulling books off shelves to get her answers - even looking for the Mourners Kaddish on cassette tape – and trying to create a safe, sympathetic and welcoming place for her,” he said. “I hung up, and never spoke to her again.
“It was my epiphany moment,” Markley said. “I realized that was what I wanted to do with my life – connect people to tradition and Jewish life at moments when they really need it. Being a rabbi would best enable me to help people in such deep and meaningful ways.”
It was a radical shift from just a few years earlier, when Markley could hardly imagine himself a rabbi, although he was encouraged by mentors to consider it.
At the time, he was fully enmeshed and making a mark in the realm of Jewish youth engagement. He served on the NEFTY regional board while in high school. Later he worked as a youth group advisor at a Massachusetts synagogue and directed the NFTY regional office after graduating from Tufts University.
“I loved those experiences and relished spending time with kids and helping them to grow as Jews,” he said. “It was an enormous responsibility. And more than any one program or service, it taught me about positive leadership and humility. It was a very formative time for me.”
Still, the “epiphany moment” he described propelled him to reconsider rabbinical school with heightened self-awareness and understanding of what a 21st century Reform rabbi could and should be: resource, guide and teacher to those looking to embrace Judaism and community in their daily lives.
“I always had an outsized impression of rabbis and they seemed larger than life to me,” he said. “Who was I to officiate at a funeral or help a family celebrate a new baby? But the more I spoke to Jewish educators and professionals and rabbis, the more I was able to humanize the role and get a better sense of myself and what I could bring to that very important role in a community.”
Rabbi Markley received his ordination in 2006, along with a Master’s in Religious Education and a second Master’s in Hebrew Literature, from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
At Temple Beth Shalom (TBS), an 850-member Reform synagogue in Needham, he has brought his deep passion for Jewish education, engagement and community to bear since 2006, first as assistant rabbi, and for the past three years as the congregation’s second senior rabbi alongside his colleague, Rabbi Jay Perlman.
In 2013, Rabbi Markley received The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize, which recognized his promise as a young Jewish educator for leadership and impact in the field.
His presence and footprint at TBS as an educator and spiritual leader has been and continues to be immense, fueled by his seminal belief that congregants and students of all ages must be met at whatever place they are at on the Jewish continuum, and only in meaningful ways that bring them back for more.
“I’m grounded in relationships that matter, and that can mean one person learning for conversion with me, or 800 people at Kol Nidre when I am delivering a sermon,” Rabbi Markley said. “The relationship between and among us is critically important and is the lion’s share of what keeps me in this work.
“Furthermore, I believe that if what I have to teach is relevant only at TBS, then I’ve failed. Judaism is meant to infuse our lives in profound ways throughout the course of our days. My expectation isn’t that everyone will wake up and go to sleep focused exclusively on what Torah means to them, but if what we strive to impart from the richness of our tradition can’t connect with people where they are at, then it won’t go anywhere or mean anything.”
TBS has undergone major changes under Rabbi Markley’s leadership, inspiration and vision. He is credited for the complete overhaul of not only the synagogue’s teen programming, but also its elementary school, the latter a four-year change process that began in 2010 in partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston.
The resulting program for grades K-5, called Mayim, dispensed with the existing, traditional religious school model and was reimagined to incorporate more innovative, immersive, experiential and project-based approaches. Mayim, now a nationally known paradigm for 21st century Jewish education, counts 300 students and is growing.
“I could never again listen to a parent saying that he or she went to religious school and hated it, and so their child would go and probably hate it too,” Rabbi Markley said. “I could not be a teacher or leader in a synagogue where that norm is accepted. We need to do better and if we are not, we should just close things down.
“I recognize that I’m starting at a disadvantage; this might not be what a kid wants to be doing afterschool. So we need to create someplace that is excellent and feels like home; a place where everyone feels as if they are embraced and growing and where learning is of interest and relevant beyond these walls.”
The walls themselves, literally, have changed dramatically. The congregation moved into a new building – double the size of the existing structure – in 2016, after a long design process led, in part, by Rabbi Markley. He and his colleagues engaged the community for input toward a welcoming, accessible, sacred space reflecting his vision of inclusive 21st century Judaism.
While intensely focused on envisioning and executing change at TBS – and maintaining his own teaching and pulpit responsibilities – Rabbi Markley views the Pomegranate Prize as having exposed him to a greater community of innovative paradigm shifters to fuel greater strides.
“I can become very inwardly focused and my entire life could be TBS,” he said. “But the Prize reminded me that I am part of a larger movement of Jewish educators and teachers and thoughtful guides who are doing their work from a place of calling and passion and a desire. I’m more mindful that our collective work is so sacred and that the stakes are just so high.”
Beyond the relationships and exposures gained through his Prize cohort gatherings, as well as at Foundation events such as the annual convening of Project Directors, Rabbi Markley used Prize resources to break out of his self-described TBS silo to strengthen and inform his work.
For example, he attended the Central Conference of American Rabbis annual meeting in Israel last year. He also established a community of practice with five other rabbinical school classmates and colleagues, and Prize resources allow him to travel to be with them several times a year to “draw on each other’s wisdom, learn from and with each other, and act as caregivers for each other.”
The greater Covenant family growing around him since he received the Pomegranate Prize is invaluable to him, he said.
“These are connections and resources that will last well beyond any project or award or endeavor. I am extraordinarily grateful for that.”