During off-peak hours, when few people were at Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David (AABJ&D) in West Orange, Rabbi Alvin Marcus could often be found doing odd jobs, like patching the floor or replacing the chalk on the classroom blackboard.
Longtime member David Levitt remembers one time when he was running a youth group: “The only other person in the building would be the rabbi, folding tallesim and returning siddurim to the bookshelves.”
Arthur Dubroff recalls Marcus making a house call to kasher the Dubroffs’ dishwasher shortly after they moved to town in 1975. “No task was too menial for Rabbi Marcus to address,” said Dubroff, a former president of AABJ&D. “He was very hands on.”
But like so many people, Levitt and Dubroff said that it was the rabbi’s welcoming approach that helped build the community from the small number of members in West Orange in 1968 when he arrived to a membership of 400 families today.
“He is a warm, open, welcoming individual, and he broadcasts those attitudes to the entire community,” said Levitt. “Those values more than anything are the reason the shul grew so rapidly. It was him.”
Marcus retired in 1998, and for the past 30 years he has continued to serve as rabbi emeritus. On June 17, the congregation feted him with a celebration marking his 50 years at the synagogue. Approximately 200 people were in attendance, including his three sons and their wives, his grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Many of the leaders and longtime members of the congregation who spoke with NJJN praised the rabbi for his welcoming attitude and effective leadership. Murray Laulicht, a past AABJ&D president who came to the community just one year after Marcus, said, “The name of the congregation means brotherly love, and that’s what he emphasized.”
When Marcus arrived the synagogue had just completed a merger of Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob in Newark and B’nai David in West Orange, but the combined institution still felt like separate entities, according to Mali Schwartz, the synagogue’s unofficial historian. “He had to create a bridge for them to get along,” she said.
According to Schwartz, his friendly approach meant there was a place for people with yeshiva backgrounds, as well as those educated in public schools; those who walked to shul, and those who drove. And whereas some Orthodox congregations might balk at giving an aliyah to someone who drove, that did not fit Marcus’ philosophy.
“He didn’t care what you did outside the synagogue, as long as you walked in the door,” said Larry Rein, a past president. “It was for people from all walks of life: very religious and less religious. Rabbi Marcus welcomed everyone.”
Cognizant of the changes taking place within Judaism and within contemporary society, Marcus took an early stance on women’s congregational leadership. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, women at AABJ&D did not have voting rights nor could they serve on the board.
“He thought there should be change but wasn’t sure how far to go,” said Laulicht, who was president at the time. After Marcus discussed the matter, as he often did, with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, then head of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University (RIETS), he announced that women would be allowed to vote and serve on the board.
“That was a revolutionary step at that time,” Laulicht said.
Dubroff remembers that Marcus’ rabbinic decisions always put people first. He recalls hearing the rabbi responding to congregants’ questions regarding Jewish law: Rather than tell them what the Orthodox position was on a given topic, Marcus would first ascertain their level of observance, and then provide an answer that would try to move them to a slightly higher level of observance, Dubroff recalled. “He was very broadminded.”
Current president Bryan Bier said that once Marcus welcomed new members into the fold, he quickly made sure to include them in opportunities to volunteer. “You couldn’t stand on the sidelines,” Bier said.
The younger members of AABJ&D were always a priority to Marcus, so much so that he still takes trips to Israel — organized by his wife, Marylin, a travel agent — and visits with congregational youth spending a gap year abroad.
In addition to growing the membership, Marcus established a community mikvah, open to Jews from all denominations. He also helped erect an eruv in West Orange, and ensured the presence of a Sephardic minyan at AABJ&D.
The current rabbi, Eliezer Zwickler, said Marcus continues to inspire him. “Every day as challenges arise, I ask myself, ‘What would Rabbi Marcus do?’” he said. “Many times, I pick up the phone and ask for advice. He’s a magnificently impactful figure in my life, in my professional career, and even more so in my personal life. I have never met a person so extraordinarily loving toward other people and so humble at the same time.”
Marcus received rabbinic ordination from RIETS when he was 23. He served two congregations, one in Buffalo, N.Y., and one in Paramus, before joining AABJ&D. Beyond the synagogue he was active in communal chaplaincy and in the Rabbinical Council of America; president of the Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Metropolitan New Jersey; cochair of the rabbinic division of the United Jewish Appeal of the Jewish Community Federation of MetroWest, as it was then known; copresident of YU’s Rabbinic Alumni organization; and he served on the board of Daughters of Israel and the executive board of Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School.
Zwickler believes Marcus’ influence extends to the larger community, beyond denominational bounds. “He did it globally across the community and locally within our shul.”
As part of the celebration, the congregation dedicated 500 new megillot in his honor.
“We will have Rabbi Marcus in mind whenever we use them,” said Bier, who added, “Twenty years after Rabbi Marcus retired, the shul is still following in his footsteps as an open and welcoming community where everyone can learn from one another.”