Hundreds of mourners packed the sanctuary at Congregation Beth El last week as they remembered Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein, who served as the “heart and soul” of the South Orange synagogue for 35 years until his retirement in 2005.
Orenstein, 78, died on May 5 after a struggle with ALS.
Family, congregants, fellow clergy, and friends gathered for an emotional two-hour service as speakers recalled the rabbi’s ability both to relate to individuals and elevate any public gathering with just the right words when they were needed most.
They also celebrated his decision to enjoy life even in the face of a cruel illness that robbed him first of his mobility and eventually of his speech — but never his ability to communicate.
“Woe unto us that Jehiel is not here to offer the eulogy,” offered Solomon Mowshowitz, the brother of his wife Sylvia.
His daughter, Rabbi Debra Orenstein, said that her father was teaching Torah right until the end, sharing his insights into a line from the “Grace after Meals” with her and her son just two weeks before his death.
“Rabbi Orenstein was a true Renaissance man,” said Beth El president Bill Gold. “He was a world-class chess player, champion pianist, great tennis player, a scholar in many areas, a civil rights champion.
“But most importantly, he was the heart and soul of Beth El for 35 years. His wit, warmth, and humanity can never be replaced. It is so rare in life that one meets the likes of Rabbi Orenstein, and Beth El had the extraordinary privilege to be his home for over four decades.”
Born in 1935 in Brooklyn to Romanian parents, Orenstein was raised in Queens and knew from the age of eight that he wanted to become a rabbi. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1961 and had the opportunity to work as personal secretary to Abraham Joshua Heschel, a scholar who also joined the civil rights movement.
Orenstein was a chaplain in the United States Air Force and served two congregations before assuming the pulpit at Beth El. He was a volunteer chaplain for the New Jersey State Troopers for over 20 years.
Among Conservative synagogues, Beth El was an early adopter of egalitarianism, and Orenstein supported outreach to interfaith families. He cofounded the annual South Orange Maplewood Interfaith Holocaust Commemoration, which came out of his ecumenical work with clergy of other faiths. He was known for his inspiring classes, teaching wherever people wanted to learn.
After his retirement, he was succeeded by Rabbi Francine Roston, making Beth El the largest congregation to install a female rabbi as its leader.
In a tribute website created in 2011, Orenstein recalled his vision for the synagogue.
“My goal in becoming spiritual leader of Beth El was to create a large, loving family, Jewishly knowledgeable, and dedicated to actively pursuing mitzvot,” he said. “I insisted that no matter what differences arose, everyone should be treated with respect. I derived the greatest pleasure from teaching and attending to the congregation’s pastoral needs.”
Even at the end, those caring for his needs felt he was caring for them.
Ernie Gyamfi, his caregiver and one of several informally adopted sons, said he could not find the words to describe a man he had come to call “Abba,” or father in Hebrew. “I forgot I was getting paid for this work,” he said. “I learned so much from him. If you want to find Rabbi Orenstein, go and see his family, and you will find him there.”
A neighbor, Moti Essoka, spoke about how the Orensteins welcomed him when he bought his house in the neighborhood, while others on the block turned away. “They brought food, which is so important,” said Essoka, who urged mourners to “be a good neighbor” in Orenstein’s memory.
Debra Orenstein, religious leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson and a well-known author and speaker, concluded the funeral by asking mourners to stand and recall how her father would conclude Shabbat services. She offered the same benediction that he had offered week after week over 35 years.
Jehiel Orenstein is survived by Sylvia, his wife of 54 years; his brothers, Anci and Arbie; his children Aviva (David Szonyi), Debra (Craig Weisz), Raphael (Susan); his informally adopted sons Yossi Malka, Christophe Dosat (Natalie), and Ernie Gyamfi; and his grandchildren, David, Michael, Ben, Elliot, Sam, Emmett, and Hannah Mathilda.
The family asked that tributes in his name be donated to support Beth El at bethelnj.org; Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, where two of his grandchildren are students;the Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein Educational Development Fund at Congregation B’nai Israel (bisrael.com/checkout); Kol Rina/SOMA Independent Minyan c/o South Orange Post Office, P.O. Box 649, South Orange, NJ 07079; or the ALS Research Development Institute, https://www.als.net/Support/ALS-donation.aspx.