FOUR YEARS AGO, the Rev. James Purdy told Rabbi Joseph Rosenbloom, "If you ever retire, I want you on my staff." He wasn't kidding.
When Rosenbloom retired last year after 42 years at Temple Emanuel Congregation in Creve Coeur, Mo., Purdy hired him as "rabbi in residence" at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Ladue. Since September, Rosenbloom has preached regularly and conducted Bible studies -- most recently examining the Gospel of Matthew -- and other educational programs. During Holy Week, he'll lead a seder. He's also available for pastoral counseling.
"I didn't go out searching for a rabbi to drag onto the staff," Purdy stressed. "His scholarship, his brilliance, his pastoral presence, his engaging personality -- all of these gifts or attributes I thought would complement well the clergy staff and the congregation."
Rosenbloom also wasn't a new face to parishioners. In 2000, for example, he preached on Good Friday.
"I've been in relationship with St. Peter's for probably 40 years," Rosenbloom said. "I've done weddings there and funerals. ... I've done classes there for years."
Rosenbloom, 75, welcomed the opportunity to stay involved with a congregation and continue teaching. He also serves a Jewish congregation in Ames, Iowa, which he visits monthly, teaches at Washington University and is writing a book.
The Reform rabbi said he treated people at the church the same as he did those at the temple. "There's no difference to me. I just do what I do," he said. "When I teach, I hope my scholarship is sound. ... I think the biggest gift we've been given, next to life, is our mind, and I don't stint on that."
Hiring Rosenbloom was "a brilliant idea," said parishioner Jinny Browning, who has attended some of his programs with husband Larry.
"I think the biggest interest to my husband and me," she said, "is that here is a man who does not believe in Jesus as the messiah, but he believes very strongly in him as a prophet, a very important prophet. Yet he is able to give to our Christian, our Episcopal parishioners insights that are fascinating -- not that we necessarily agree with all of them. But he really has helped broaden our understanding."
In his recent program on Matthew, she said, "he really made us think about Matthew from different perspectives."
Noted the rabbi, "Matthew's one of my favorite's because I think it's very complicated and a very interesting book."
Rosenbloom's approach is to ask people to examine the text. "Most people within faith communities do not read the text," he said. "Their eyes go over it, but what they see is what their priest or their pastor or their rabbi's told them. They haven't really read or confronted the nuances ... and the contradictions."
Rosenbloom does a good job of separating religious and historical elements "without casting aspersions or making the religious look like it's anything lesser," Browning said. "He has a great deal of respect for people's religion."
"I think he's very devout ... but he doesn't parade it," she said. "His intelligence is so quick and so very much to the forefront." He also has "a wonderful sense of humor," she said. "He loves to be outrageous."
Parishioner and staff member Cindy Heuermann also appreciates Rosenbloom's presence. "I find him to be incredibly thoughtful," she said. "He exudes graciousness and is just really fascinating."
In March, Rosenbloom provided a Scriptural analysis of Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ in a forum that also featured parishioner Brian Miller, a classical music critic and diaconal candidate, critiquing the movie and Purdy discussing models of atonement and anti-Semitism. "We had a great conversation," said Purdy.
While he has been busy preaching and teaching, Rosenbloom said only one parishioner had sought pastoral counseling from him so far. But his role at the church did provide another pastoral opportunity.
Rosenbloom was at Temple Emanuel, where he maintains an office, when he received a phone call from a man whose mother had died. She was Jewish, he an Episcopalian, and he wanted some closure. Rosenbloom offered to conduct a service the next Sunday at the temple. He also invited the man to bring his family to St. Peter's, where he was scheduled to preach that Sunday. The man accepted the invitation and attended St. Peter's before the service at the temple.
Now in his 50th year in the rabbinate, Rosenbloom still enjoys a career where "you get paid to read and talk." He said he'd felt no censorship at St. Peter's. For his part, he doesn't insist parishioners agree with him.
"When I preach, they seem awake and interested and listening," he said. "In my classes, they are responsive. I try to be gentle when I disagree." Recently, for example, "I came out against angels." He concluded, "They're very accepting and tolerant."