When Jesse Olitzky was a kid, growing up in North Brunswick, he was fiercely anti-religion and hated Hebrew school.
“I climbed out the window to escape one day,” he remembers. His father wasn’t too perturbed; he’d been a rebel too, and he went on to become a rabbi.
Jesse became one too, and now gleefully exploits that history. “When kids are being naughty in class, I tell them that’s fine, I look forward to seeing them become rabbis one day,” he said. “And they groan and yell, ‘Never!’”
That former rebel, now 29 and recently named to the Jewish Daily Forward’s 2014 list of “America’s 28 Most Inspiring Rabbis,” will be taking over leadership of Congregation Beth El in South Orange.
The Conservative synagogue announced his appointment last week. Olitzky, currently rabbi at the Jacksonville Jewish Center in Florida, will take over in July, when Rabbi Francine Roston leaves after nine years. She and her family are moving to Montana.
“While we saw a number of compelling and capable candidates, both male and female,” said Beth El president Nomi Colton-Max, “the feedback very strongly indicated that Rabbi Olitzky best suited the total needs of our community and our schools.”
Beth El is one of 10 synagogues around the country to be selected by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to be part of its Sulam Strategic Planning Initiative, and Colton-Max said the committee also felt Olitzky’s input and support would be particularly valuable in that regard.
Olitzky said one of the things that attracted him to Beth El was its record of inclusivity, including Roston’s welcoming approach to gay families. “I knew she conducted one of the first commitment ceremonies after [the Conservative Movement] approved them eight years ago,” he said. “Beth El is a truly welcoming institution.”
In Jacksonville, he has been active in interfaith work, anti-gun violence, social justice efforts, and support for gay and bisexual youth.
He grew up in a family deeply involved in community work. His father, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which is committed to opening Jewish doors to unaffiliated and intermarried families. His mother, Sheryl Olitzky, a marketing professional, cofounded the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom, a group of Muslim and Jewish women in southern Middlesex County dedicated to fostering friendship and understanding. His brother Avi is also a rabbi.
“My brother was more inclined to follow the path. It was different for me. As a child, I found Judaism burdensome,” Jesse Olitzky said. The turning point came when he was a teenager. He attended the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, now the Golda Och Academy.
“I’d always liked learning,” Olitzky recalled, “but that was the first time I’d encountered Judaism taught on my level and had teachers who were interested in what I had to say. There was a ruah — a spirit — I’d never seen before.”
He also became deeply involved with the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, rising while in high school to become the organization’s international president. As an adult, he has continued to work closely with USY and the movement’s Camp Ramah.
With his passion for Judaism, Olitzky got a BA in American religion from Columbia University, and then went to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he got a BA cum laude in Talmud and an MA in Jewish education and received his rabbinic ordination. Before taking the Florida position four years ago, he served as rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Israel in Kingston, NY, and at Temple Emanuel at Parkchester, NY.
He said he hopes to make everyone — young and old, men and women — feel equally welcome and valued. “There are many spiritual entry points to Judaism,” he said.
Olitzky’s flexibility and welcoming attitude was cited in his nomination for the Forward list. He acknowledged that he was “very touched and very humbled” to find himself on the list. He added that his parents, members of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, “were very proud.”
Being closer to them is a major plus about the new position, along with the fact that his own children will have a much shorter commute than he had to school in West Orange. That is still a way off: Cayla is three, and Noah is six months old, but he and his wife, Andrea, a social worker, have already been to see GOA’s lower school. “We were blown away,” he said.