After 35 years at Beth Israel, Rabbi George Nudell retires

After 35 years at Beth Israel, Rabbi George Nudell retires

Rabbi George Nudell, right, and Cantor Matt Axelrod, who has been serving at Congregation Beth Israel since the mid-’90s.
Rabbi George Nudell, right, and Cantor Matt Axelrod, who has been serving at Congregation Beth Israel since the mid-’90s.

It was a combination of fulfilling his wife’s wishes and geographical desirability that led Rabbi George Nudell to his first pulpit as a freshly minted rabbi. It seems to have been a good fit. He has remained at Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains since his arrival in 1982.

Nudell and his wife, Linda Casson (whom he calls Liba), came to the Conservative synagogue just after he completed his studies and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “We wanted to stay near New York because she was finishing her doctorate in chemistry at Columbia University,” Nudell told NJJN. “Beth Israel was the first place I applied to, and I guess I made enough of an impression that they hired me.” 

Fast forward 35 years. Nudell retired on June 30 and his replacement, Rabbi Howard Tilman, formerly from the Jacksonville Jewish Center in Jacksonville, Fla., started this week. 

More than three decades is an impressive career record, but, Nudell said, originally “I didn’t want to want to become a rabbi.” While teaching at a talmud Torah in his hometown of Minneapolis, he considered getting a master’s degree in education. “Then I talked to the people who ran the school, and they told me, ‘You don’t need a master’s; you need to become a rabbi.’” He thought about it and told them, “‘Hey, let’s do the rabbi thing.’”

Nudell held another, and secret, ambition: to become a musician. As a long-haired teenager, he played drums in a folk-rock group. But after earning his bachelor’s degree in Hebrew at the University of Minnesota, Nudell sold his drum kit and went off to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

“I haven’t picked up drums since then,” he said. “The most music I do is singing, but only liturgical stuff in the synagogue.” 

Nudell’s biography on the Beth Israel website says he “minored in History and Anti-War protesting” as an undergraduate.

“Hey, it was the ’60s,” he said. “I remember protesting the Vietnam War in the middle of Washington Avenue on the University of Minnesota campus and then cutting out because I had class.”

Deep down, Nudell said, he still harbors some of those strong political feelings.

“There is no secret I sometimes give a sermon that is very critical of government policy and I am far to the left of some people in the congregation,” he said. “I get polite heat from some of them. I always talk about the issues. I don’t say, ‘You have to think this way.’ I say, ‘Jewish tradition thinks this way.’”

Nudell said it is possible to discuss issues from the pulpit “if you can play within the rules that exist, and you can speak your mind if you talk about tradition.”

For example, he said he disapproves of President Donald Trump’s executive order in May that allows tax-exempt religious institutions to take a more active role in politics. “Politics and religion can become a very dangerous mix,” he said. “This is America. You are not supposed to have one religion that dictates how things run.”

Despite political differences among congregants Nudell has managed to keep the 375 families of his congregation engaged in social action projects.

“From day one I spoke about feeding the hungry,” he said. “We collect food and give it to the Jewish Family Service of Central NJ and to theirs and other food pantries. We run coat drives. And we make sandwiches for a women’s shelter. 

Nudell is especially proud of officiating at numerous b’nai mitzvot of children with special needs, such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and those on the autism spectrum. “All families have a place in our synagogue and all children should get a chance to be called to the Torah,” he said. 

He let the children tell him what they’re capable of and interested in doing. “We adapt to the degree that the kids can do it, but some of them just do what everybody else does,” he said noting that while a b’nai mitzvah might need six months of preparation, these children sometimes require nine months. 

“We’ve got to find a way to help someone who might not fit the usual pattern of learning,” he said about his inclusion efforts and added, “It’s the right thing to do.” 

As a past president of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Ministerial Association, Nudell helped assemble clergy “from every denomination you could think of. We talk about shared issues of concern.”

But now he is ready to give up much of that work. As he approaches 64, Nudell and his wife have decided to return to Minneapolis to be near his aging mother. 

“We will take a little time for ourselves by going to the theater and concerts and we’ll travel,” he said, adding that he wants to listen to a lot of chamber music and finish a few novels he has begun, most with “a Jewish character or an Israeli character in them.” 

He also wants to complete a cookbook “by going to the Torah and figuring out what foods people ate and how you make them. I want to know how Abraham and Sarah made pita bread.”

Nudell said the most painful part about retiring and moving away from Scotch Plains will be leaving behind the longtime friends he, his wife, and his children — now 34, 30, and 27 — have made in and outside the congregation. “They watched my kids grow up and they were often part of the family. They were the people we had over for seders and on Sukkot and other holidays. It is tough to leave them.”

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