When Nat Taubenfeld calls you to the Torah, it’s hard to miss his opening “Vayazor.” It’s strong and full of passion. The language that follows is full of his Yiddish-accented, Old World inflections.
And when your aliya is finished, he offers you a Misheberach right there, on the bima.
“It’s more personal,” he explained, as compared to the common practice of reciting a group Misheberach at the end of the Torah reading.
For synagogue veterans and the uninitiated alike, the gabbai is an often unsung part of the worship service. A gabbai is in charge of the “choreography” during the chanting from the Torah, heralding the reading with the “Vayazor” prayer (May God help, shield, and save all who trust in Him), welcoming to the bima those honored with an aliya, and seeing them out with another blessing or Misheberach.
For 54 years, Nat Taubenfeld has been that gabbai at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, where he makes sure the service runs smoothly — and that not a word of Torah is uttered incorrectly.
On March 7, he was feted for his three-times-chai years of service to the congregation. The “We Love Nat” celebration was filled with tribute songs and personal reflections, dancing, and an on-line ad journal filled with messages of esteem and affection that raised about $125,000. But for Nat, it was all about the message it sent to young people, especially to his grandchildren, about the essence of Judaism.
“When you have 12 grandchildren and they see Judaism is not only shuckling and praying, but that if we get together with other Jews we can create a beautiful song — that’s what it was. It lifted us up so — it was great,” he said a few days after the event.
NJJN caught up with him to find out just what it takes to be a gabbai. The answer? The right mix of humility, faith, and a touch of irreverence.
Taubenfeld spent his first 11 years in a small town in Poland, where everyone knew everyone else. But that way of life, like his schooling, ended abruptly in 1939 when war broke out. He was deported with his family to Siberia, where he spent four years. After the war, they made their way to a displaced persons camp in Austria.
“While I was in the DP camp, people like myself got rejuvenated with the idea that we missed all those years of education,” Taubenfeld said. “And, as it is known throughout the world, wherever 10 Jews get together, the education starts to blossom. We had so many things going on in that camp, from six o’clock in the morning till 12 o’clock at night. It was active so it gave you an idea, back to humanity.”
It was in that DP camp that he learned the skills he would later use as a gabbai.
Taubenfeld came to the United States in 1951, and became gabbai just a few years after moving to Caldwell with his wife, Bea, who had grown up in the town. “They needed somebody to call up people, so I went up,” he explained in his heavy Polish/Yiddish accent.
At that time, the community was much smaller than it is today. “On a Shabbos there were 15 people, 18 people,” he said. “There were other people who conducted the services and were gabbais. When they retired — you know, passed away — I took over.”
Even then, he knew he would continue indefinitely. “I expected to stay here in Caldwell, and I figured it’s going to be a steady job. The pay is good,” he quipped of the strictly volunteer position.
The synagogue has always been at the center of his life.
Although he worked long hours in his wholesale fruit and vegetable business, B.T. Produce, that never kept him from Agudath Israel. “No matter how tired I am, when I come to synagogue, it’s a different atmosphere of rejuvenation,” he said. Until November, when he acceded to his children’s wish that he try retirement for a year, he continued to work through the night — and in the morning, he was always dropped off at the shul, in time for morning minyan.
He enjoys the camaraderie of shul. “That’s what makes this synagogue what it is. That’s why we get 300, 400 people on a Shabbos without a bar mitzva or a bas mitzva.” But, he said, “When I come to the synagogue, first I come to talk to God.”
Taubenfeld served as congregation president beginning in 1973, when there were 288 members, he said, and the budget was $250,000. Today, Agudath Israel has 955 families, and a budget of nearly $2.5 million.
But, he pointed out, throughout the growth of the synagogue and all the resulting changes, his role has remained the same. “The prayers don’t change, the Torah reading hasn’t changed.”
‘Soul of the shul’
In every shul, there are always some squirming kids who have a hard time staying focused during services. In recognition of the role he has ably played in mollifying those kids, Taubenfeld is also known as “the candy man,” and the young Shabbat regulars know that they can always count on him for a sustaining sweet treat.
Because of his special role with the children, he regularly addresses the congregation during their b’nei mitzva services. “I know all the kids from when they are born. As they grow up, I feel I am part of their families.”
But if Taubenfeld seems to come off as a softy, don’t be fooled. When it comes to reading Torah, he won’t tolerate any errors. He will interrupt both the experienced reader and the first-timer alike. “Even a minor mistake switches the meaning of the reading,” he said.
Taubenfeld hews close to tradition. For the first 20 years up through the early ’70s, when the debate over counting women in the minyan and allowing them to be called to the Torah intensified, he toed the traditional line. Before Rabbi Alan Silverstein came to the congregation in 1979, said Taubenfeld, “I kept women away from being counted in the minyan and being called to the Torah.” He explained that his resistance came not out of “religious conviction,” but rather, “It’s all I knew; it was my sense of tradition.”
His views changed after Silverstein sent him to a conference of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He was seated at a table with women who felt strongly about being counted — not because it was a popular idea at the time, but rather, he said, because they took the idea of being counted “to their heart.”
He acknowledged that the first time he called a woman up for an aliya as gabbai, “It felt strange.” But today, he said, “Women participating beautifies the services. It’s heartwarming. They make the congregation more livable and make the services more important to everyone.
“Come on a Shabbos and you can see people really enjoy being in synagogue.”
If no one is available to read Torah on Shabbat, Taubenfeld has been known to step in. While he is fluent in Hebrew and as exacting with himself as he is with others, don’t expect perfection. “Sure, I get corrected. It’s easier to correct others than to see your own mistakes,” he said. Still, he said, “I prefer to listen to everyone else read.”
Ned Gladstein of North Caldwell, who, with his wife, Jane, served as honorary cochairs of the March 7 event, said he was born in Caldwell and was six when Taubenfeld came to Agudath Israel. “For me,” Gladstein said, “Nat is my memory of Judaism growing up as a child.”
“The one thing you always know about Nat is he never, ever did anything for himself, only in the best interests of the congregation,” said Gladstein, who served as Agudath Israel president from 1989 to ’91. “He is one of the warmest, most generous people I know. There are so many acts of loving-kindness he does publicly and anonymously.
“To me, Nat is so pure in his devotion to our congregation; he is simply the soul of Agudath Israel.”
Whatever Taubenfeld decides about returning to work after his trial retirement, he said, he has no plans to retire from his role as gabbai. “I’ll keep doing it till they throw me out.”