Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath, who served Highland Park Conservative Temple for 30 years and was active in the local Jewish community for five decades, was remembered as a religious leader whose concern for others reached far beyond his congregation.
The 81-year-old Hilsenrath, who died on Feb. 17, was described as “remarkable” by Rabbi Eliot Malomet, who succeeded him in 1994 at what is now HPCT-Congregation Anshe Emeth.
Hilsenrath continued to hold the title of rabbi emeritus at the synagogue and was a regular with his wife, Devorah, at both synagogue and community events.
“He was an extraordinary man,” said Malomet. “He was everybody’s rabbi. That was what was so remarkable. He had this ability to focus on you and give you his full attention. He had a real passion for Judaism and an unconditional love for the Jewish people.”
That “rare and unique” ability to relate to Jews of every affiliation, as well as non-Jews, made Hilsenrath special, said Malomet. “He was a colleague to everyone. He was close to every branch of Judaism across the spectrum. You could ask any rabbi of any denomination in this community, and they would feel a connection to Rabbi Hilsenrath.”
The funeral, which drew about 500 mourners, was held Feb. 19 at Orthodox Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park. Its rabbi, Steven Miodownik, who delivered a eulogy along with Malomet, called Hilsenrath “a connector.”
“He connected the Jewish people to God and to each other through the sheer force of his personality, his intelligence, and his spirit,” he told NJJN. “In addition to being a powerful community leader, he was the consummate family man…. In his later years he spoke with pride of his communal accomplishments, but with even more pride about his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
Malomet noted that Hilsenrath’s experiences gave him a perspective about all Jews. Born in Vienna, the rabbi came from a hasidic background. The family fled after Kristallnacht, eventually settling in the United States, where Hilsenrath studied at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn and the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, where he was ordained in 1953.
After he married Devorah, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, 60 years ago, they moved to Wildwood, where Hilsenrath served for 11 years at Beth Judah Temple, a traditional congregation, while simultaneously serving as a Coast Guard chaplain.
He became active in numerous civic organizations and established the Cape May Mental Health Clinic. Named one of five “Outstanding Young Men of New Jersey,” Hilsenrath was invited to recite opening prayers in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
After coming to Highland Park, Hilsenrath quickly established himself as a community leader, becoming active in many civic and Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, where he formerly chaired its outreach task force committee and served as a life board member.
“The blessing of Rabbi Hilsenrath’s life is that there is so much to recall and so many remarkable achievements to replay again and again,” said federation associate executive director Susan Antman. “By bringing people of every background together on equal grounds, he built and strengthened our Jewish community. He brought beauty and peace into our community, and we can all honor his lifetime by the deeds that we do in ours.”
‘A very wise man’
Rabbi Shraga Gross, head of school of Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, where Hilsenrath was a longtime board member, called him “a very dear friend” and “a very wise man” who “worked closely with our school in promoting and advancing Jewish education.”
In keeping with his multi-denominational outreach, Hilsenrath also served many years on the board of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley, a Conservative school that was located in East Brunswick.
Gross recalled that every Kristallnacht anniversary, the rabbi would come and speak to students about his own remembrances of that night. “He saw the children as future witnesses who would recount the stories of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust to their children and future generations,” he said. “Whenever he spoke to the children he always became emotional and began to cry.”
When Gross would ask him why, Hilsenrath would reply, “My tears are not tears of sadness, but joy as I see these beautiful children as the future of am Yisrael.”
In 1970, Hilsenrath created a nationally recognized parent education program and in 1982 established the American Jerusalem Academy for Contemporary Judaic Studies, which continues today at the Highland Park temple.
During his tenure, the synagogue was awarded 14 Solomon Schechter awards by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Hilsenrath himself was honored by the Anti-Defamation League, State of Israel Bonds, the federation, and the borough of Highland Park.
Hilsenrath also established a free loan fund, ben/bat Torah summer scholarships, a bikur holim hospital visitation fellowship, and a Jewish art gallery and museum showcase at the temple, and was instrumental in establishing the Jewish National Fund Highland Park Conservative Temple Forest in Israel.
He brought to the temple as speakers such notable figures as Nobel laureates Elie Wiesel and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, author Chaim Potok, and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.
Hilsenrath also served on the boards of the National Rabbinic Cabinet of United Jewish Appeal, State of Israel Bonds, and JNF and was a member of the national youth commission of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The rabbi was instrumental in establishing a chaplaincy program at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick and continued to serve on the hospital’s medical ethics committee.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his son, Rabbi Baruch Hilsenrath and family of Brooklyn; three daughters, Chaya Heuman and family of Israel, Rochelle Goldschmiedt and family of Teaneck, and Aviva Rappaport and family of Highland Park; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Arrangements were by Crabiel Parkwest Memorial Chapel, New Brunswick. Burial was at Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodbridge. Donations may be sent to the Rabbi Hilsenrath Memorial Free Loan Fund, 200 Cedar Ave., Highland Park, NJ, 08904.