When Rabbi Gerald Zelizer came as a young man to the then-growing Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, he had no idea he would be staying for 45 years.
A fourth-generation rabbi, Zelizer managed to best the record of his father, Rabbi Nathan Zelizer, who served at his Columbus, Ohio, synagogue for 43 years.
At the end of August, Zelizer will leave his current position, becoming rabbi emeritus. His successor, Rabbi Eric Rosin, will begin July 15, to allow some transition in leadership. Zelizer will retain a synagogue office.
“I’ve been blessed because a half of one percent of Conservative rabbis stay this long at one congregation,” said Zelizer. “I’ve been blessed this congregation understood what I was trying to do. I was planning on retiring at 65, which was 10 years ago, and then on two occasions in the last decade the congregation asked me to remain. Ninety percent of my [Jewish Theological Seminary] class has burned out, been thrown out, or switched professions so I feel gratified.”
In stepping down, he can look back at accomplishments on the congregational and national level.
As a leader in the Conservative movement, Zelizer has met with American presidents, and in 1993 was invited to the White House to witness the historic signing of the peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
He served as international president of the Rabbinical Assembly — the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement — from 1992 to 1994, and in 1974 led Neve Shalom into becoming one of the first Conservative synagogues to become egalitarian.
He oversaw its expansion and merger with two other Conservative synagogues [Ohev Shalom of Colonia, 2003, and Adath Israel of Woodbridge, 2006], and instituted adult education programs that have produced a large cadre of lay leaders who can chant Torah and conduct services.
From 1994 to 1999, he served on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which formulates religious policy for the Conservative movement, and since 2000, has served on its Ethics Committee.
Hazzan Sheldon Levin has worked with Zelizer for 16 years and described him as “a brilliant and experienced rabbi, scholar, teacher, colleague, and friend.”
“He’s a wonderful speaker on the bima,” he said. “One of the things that really impressed me is that he’s always looking for new things. Even now he’s still looking to bring back new educational tools. He’s helped connect with community, both interfaith and at the JCC.”
The shul’s United Synagogue Youth chapter consistently wins awards and has produced a number of national and regional leaders, including an international president three years ago.
That election was a historical milestone for Zelizer, who himself served in that position, 1956-57, making him the only rabbi in the history of the Conservative movement to be both USY president and to oversee a congregation producing an international president.
He is also the only rabbi in the movement’s history to serve as president of both USY and the Rabbinical Assembly.
Zelizer, who received an honorary doctorate from JTS in 1991, is a regular contributor of articles on religion and popular American culture for such publications as USA Today, The Star-Ledger, The New York Times, the Forward, and the Jewish Week in New York.
Zelizer considers his training of lay leaders to be one of the highlights of his tenure. Currently, there are more than 150 Torah readers and a lay-led service on Saturday morning with 100 to 150 participants.
His Sunday morning adult education class is in its 45th year. It has drawn no fewer than 40 people and now averages about 50 congregants weekly.
To honor their longtime rabbi the synagogue held “a year of Zeli-bration,” hosting programs, speakers, and concerts. Among the guests was former synagogue member Samuel Freedman, the author of the 2001 book Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry. The book included a dedication to Zelizer.
Other programs included a talk by New York Post sportswriter Ken Davidoff, who grew up and became a bar mitzva under Zelizer at Neve Shalom, and a concert by a South American cantor, a nod toward Zelizer’s first pulpit, at Congregation Beth El in Buenos Aires, where he met his wife, Viviana.
The couple has one son, Julian, the Malcom Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Political Affairs at Princeton University, a weekly columnist for CNN.com, and author of a number of books and articles on American political history; and two grandchildren.
The final program featured Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who also grew up in the synagogue under Zelizer.
Following his two-year stint in Argentina, Zelizer spent three years at Temple Israel in Union before coming to the 300-family Neve Shalom in 1970. As the Jewish community and Conservative movement grew in the 1970s, the congregation expanded to 600 families.
More recently, however, a shrinking Conservative movement and an exodus of Jews from northern Middlesex County have caused synagogue membership to dip to just under 400 families.
Edna Sherber of Edison was on the rabbinic search committee that had hired Zelizer.
“I was secretary of the shul at the time,” she recalled. “Our president was very impressed with his ability to work with youth, which he thought was very important. I was not impressed, a fact I have kidded him about for years.”
It was Zelizer’s teaching abilities that convinced Sherber she made a mistake.
“He’s a remarkably good teacher,” she said. “He’s efficient, knows his stuff, and gets it across. He has held adult education classes from the very beginning and I’ve been taking them for 34 years, except for the two years I was taking care of my grandchildren.”
Abe Osofsky of Highland Park was also a member of the original search committee.
“He’s very methodical and very strong on the fundamentals,” he said. “I also thought of all the candidates he’d be the one to stick around. Turned out I must have been prescient because he’s been here 45 years.”
Osofsky also recalled how Zelizer made it clear that Viviana, a scholar and longtime sociology professor at Princeton University, had her own career.
“With a rabbinical candidate you don’t always know what you’ll get, but he has lived up to the promise,” said Osofsky.
Although he will no longer be leading a congregation, Zelizer said he will be kept busy studying, writing, and teaching adult education at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, and at a Conservative synagogue in Mercer County, which he declined to name because the negotiations have not been finalized.
“It’s impossible to remain in one place for such a long time without some mixed feelings about leaving,” noted Zelizer, “but one has to be a hazer, a pig, not to allow his joy at serving one congregation for so long to overcome and be greater than any feelings of melancholy.”