Rabbi Steven Kushner, 68, stepped into Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield in its infancy, when it was newly formed from the merger of a Conservative and a Reform synagogue — a rare union back in 1980.
He forged ahead with a spirit for innovation that drew in congregants for more than 38 years, whether he was navigating new approaches to rituals, aiding the settlement of Russian emigres, assembling an in-house klezmer band, or instituting a confirmation trip to Amsterdam.
Over his tenure, the congregation grew from approximately 200 families to roughly 500. He likes to think of Ner Tamid as “the fun synagogue”: a place where members like each other and enjoy being Jewish together.
But mention Rabbi Kushner and people rush to talk about two things: Shabbat morning Torah study and his ability to manage a crisis, whether a communal event or a personal tragedy.
“He has great depth of knowledge to pull from while also having his finger on the pulse of what people might already be thinking and articulating,” said the temple’s Cantor Meredith Greenberg.
Kushner, ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1977, is set to retire at the end of June and will be succeeded by Rabbi Marc Katz, currently at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.
It’s not surprising that Kushner’s teaching is what people admire — it’s what he loves most about being a rabbi. “Jews don’t read Scripture,” he said. “We tear it apart. We look between the letters. Without taking away any of its holiness, the Torah is great literature. It’s spectacular!”
He often tells people, “You want to study Torah? Watch daytime TV.” What he means is that struggles in the Torah are mirrored in contemporary stories and lasting literature, for example, the theme of brothers who hate each other. “Torah is our story — it’s what it means to be a human being.”
Teaching on Shabbat morning started informally with just a handful of members attending. As the congregation grew and Shabbat morning services were increasingly drawing b’nei mitzvah families and their guests, he was reluctant to continue, assuming the discussions wouldn’t be a good fit. However, his core group convinced him to keep the tradition going, and they were right. “It was an immediate hit with b’nei mitzvah families,” Kushner said.
Marge Grayson, a past president, recalled that the week after her daughter’s bat mitzvah, a Catholic friend called to tell her it was the best service he’d ever attended. Why? “The rabbi asked what I thought,” the friend had said.
Kushner gets people to explore themes in the Torah “in a deep way,” said Greenberg. “And it never gets old. I sit there week after week and think, ‘How did you do that again?’”
Kent Roth, now in his 80s and a former member of Ner Tamid’s Conservative predecessor, Congregation B’nai Zion, cochaired the search committee that first hired Kushner. “He had a way of looking you in the eye and saying things directly,” said Roth. “I sensed an ability to communicate and an eagerness to take on the project he was being presented with.” Underscoring Roth’s point, Kushner said he was initially attracted to the job by the challenge of merging synagogues of different denominations.
Congregants came to appreciate the rabbi’s sense of humor, often on display at Purim when he laughed at himself in original spiels, but during other times as well, including at an early High Holy Day service that was running long. According to Grayson, Kushner stopped the service when a few people made their way to the exits and said, “Will the ushers take the names of the people who are leaving?”
“Everyone laughed and they sat down,” Grayson said. “He’s quick on his feet and self-deprecating.”
Kushner led his congregation to embrace social action in the early 1980s when Soviet emigres arrived in the area in large numbers. Roth recalled the small ways that Kushner involved the community: Roth had a piano in his home, and when a pianist arrived from Russia with her family — but with her piano still in the motherland — “We were asked to invite her to come to our house and play the piano a few times a week,” he said.
Of course, there were no shortage of difficult moments for Kushner, whether a large-scale catastrophe like Sept. 11, or the death of a young person in the synagogue. The way his congregants tell it, he rises to those spiritual challenges.
Grayson first met him when her father was dying in 1984. She had grown up at Ner Tamid’s Reform predecessor, Temple Menorah, but by then her parents were no longer involved in the community. Still, their friends urged Grayson to “talk to the new young rabbi,” and she did.
“He came over and met my father on his deathbed and then gave a eulogy that captured my father,” she said. “I was blown away. He was able to capture so many people this way. He could get the essence of a person.”
Said Roth, whose wife was ill for several years toward the end of her life, “There was a manner about Steve, a sense that when he talked to me, without saying a word, he knew I was hurting,” he said.
Temple president Ken Cohen recalled the Friday night service in 2012 after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Kushner “made us feel we were all there together,” he said, and that “we were going to go on because we would take it upon ourselves to make the world a better place.”
After 9/11, Ner Tamid held a service, but Kushner decided not to speak at length. “I felt completely overwhelmed. I was lost,” he said. Later he said a congregant expressed his disappointment that the rabbi had not offered more comforting words. “I always felt like I dropped the ball there.”
But Grayson, who was president at the time, remembers it differently. “He let people talk,” she said. “It was definitely what people needed.”
Kushner was feted with a yearlong celebration that included a film and speaker series, a gala, and more. As he looks back at the past 38 years, he said, he values the relationships he has formed, the friends he’s met, and the knowledge that he’s been there for people in times of need. He hopes he’s played a role in the growth of his congregants. “When young [adults] return and say, ‘I remember the day in confirmation when we had that argument’ — it’s a privilege.”
That feeling, he said, will be difficult to let go of. “Of all the classes I teach, the confirmation class is the most rewarding,” he said. “You’re getting people at the edge of childhood, in this transformative moment, to be deep, abstract thinkers…. That is something I will really miss.”
Looking to retirement, he said, “It’s a little bizarre,” as it’s the first time there’s no prescribed action, curriculum, or job description to tell him what to do. And while people have advised him it’s best to have a plan, he said, “I can’t. I just have to wait for the dust to settle.”
In the meantime, Kushner said, “I feel a great sense of satisfaction…I’m turning the rabbinic leadership over to a really good rabbi, and I feel the congregation is as healthy as it’s ever been.”
He added, “It doesn’t get better than that.”