‘Dynamic duo’ takes the helm at Cranford synagogue

‘Dynamic duo’ takes the helm at Cranford synagogue

Husband and wife rabbis join forces at TBEMC

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbis Neil Tow and Rachel Schwartz, now sharing the pulpit at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, in the synagogue’s sanctuary, currently under renovation. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
Rabbis Neil Tow and Rachel Schwartz, now sharing the pulpit at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, in the synagogue’s sanctuary, currently under renovation. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

Some congregants have started calling them “the dynamic duo.”

Like many married couples, Rabbi Neil Tow and Rabbi Rachel Schwartz finish each other’s sentences. And, like many working married couples, they take turns having dinner with their children if one works late. 

And now, together as a team, they are the new religious leaders at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim (TBEMC), the Conservative synagogue in Cranford.

While they have “always worked together,” said Tow, “now it’s the first time it’s official.” 

Both were ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, but bring different backgrounds and skill sets to the position. He has a passion for education (with a master’s degree to prove it) and 11 years of pulpit experience (at the Glen Rock Jewish Center and, in New York, at the Woodbury Jewish Center). She has expertise in pastoral care, honed over more than five years as a hospice chaplain. Maybe that is where she picked up her comforting way of greeting people with two hands, one clasping the hand she is shaking, the other placed gently on top. She has also served as an interim rabbi and a kashrut supervisor.

He grew up in a large Conservative synagogue in Potomac, Md., and still considers his childhood rabbi, Leonard Kahan, a mentor; she was raised in the small town of Orwigsburg, Pa., where she was the only Jew in her class, and her childhood was marked with incidents of anti-Semitism. Those experiences pushed her to embrace her identity. “You had to have tremendous pride, or disappear,” she said. 

Her personal encounters with anti-Semitism also prepared her for events like the one in Charlottesville, Va., last week. She said it came as no surprise to her to find that anti-Semitism is alive and well and had simply been relegated to small towns for a while.

They are not the first set of rabbinic spouses to hold the pulpit jointly in the same synagogue, but the list can be counted on one hand, and they are scattered around the country, in places like Creve Coeur, Mo.; Westwood, Mass.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Lancaster, Pa. — and in Hong Kong. 

The model in effect has precedent — though more commonly demonstrated with rabbi-rebbetzin pairings.

Schwartz doesn’t shrink from that description. Instead, she embraces it. “What’s old again is new again; it’s a vision of Conservative Judaism — tradition and change,” she said. But she pointed out that she gets the credit and has the title recognition for what she does. She also adds that at TBEMC, “Women walk the talk of egalitarian Judaism here. A whole bunch of women wear tefillin in minyan.” 

Members of the congregation were intrigued by the idea of job sharing according to said Patty Werschultz, a past TBEMC president and cochair of the rabbinic search committee. The committee was quickly convinced the two rabbis could make it work because of their “obvious harmony and respect for each other,” Werschultz said. And committee members were attracted to the couple because they were “well grounded, very spiritual, gave an aura of shalom about themselves, and they have so many great ideas for how to engage people at all levels.” 

The setup is good for family life, acknowledged the couple, who have two children, Dara, 10, and Micah, 6. The model also offers a potential solution to the nagging problems of burnout and work-life balance that plague some rabbis today.

They like the idea that sometimes at Shabbat services, they each get to sit with their kids — and other congregants — in the pews, and neither one must wear the “rabbi hat” all the time. “That’s a nice change of pace, and you can have more informal conversations [with community members] with the parent hat on,” said Tow. “The model allows us to be part of the congregation in so many ways.”

There may be some drawbacks for the couple. After all, as Werschultz readily acknowledged, it’s a “two for one” deal, that is, two rabbis for one salary. “But they’ve figured it out.”

Tow and Schwartz, who officially began on July 31, would much rather discuss what they love about the congregation, now celebrating its 100th anniversary, and their vision moving forward, than how the job-sharing setup will affect their home life.

They succeed interim rabbi David Klatzker, who took from Rabbi Ben Goldstein, who had served the congregation from 2010 until he left in 2016. “We plan to be the stability,” said Schwartz. “We plan to be here a long time and to raise our children here,” said Tow.

They bring a DIY, hands-on approach to congregational life, which is obvious from just looking around their office, strewn with the debris of arts and crafts projects from a religious school open house and ice cream social held the evening before they met with NJJN; in the closet are the tools they will need for upcoming projects, like a workshop to “make your own” shofar.

Other congregations may argue over whether to bring in outside experts to offer holiday workshops, but the dual rabbis skip the argument and take it upon themselves. From a large plastic box holding several dozen animal horns, they chose two to demonstrate how to cut and polish them to make the ritual item for the New Year. The project still has two more steps: learning how to blow the instrument, and then taking them to the homes of congregants who cannot come to shul, so they can fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the sound of the shofar.

The rabbis are full of ideas to share: for interfaith outreach; for engaging 20- and 30-somethings, for making sure all children, including those with special needs, feel welcome in the congregation. But their focus is not only inside the building. 

“We want to create great Jewish experiences here within the walls and outside. That’s who we are,” said Tow. 

He looked at Schwartz and said, “I’m honored to work with a great rabbi — who also happens to be my wife. We each have strengths that complement each other. Now that we’re joining forces…” he said, as Schwartz jumped in to finish the thought, “We’ll be even stronger.”

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