On Saturday, Jan. 25, Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael will hold a gala dinner in honor of Rabbi David Nesson and in celebration of his 25 years of service to the Conservative congregation. Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1983, Nesson is highly regarded as a teacher — he is a Hirschorn scholar and a rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem — and a community activist, serving on the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and its religious pluralism committee, and leading social action efforts locally and abroad. In a phone conversation shortly before he departed for Hawaii with his wife, Ellen, to meet his two grown children who have managed to find jobs on Kauai for the winter, he shared both serious and some quirky thoughts from the last 25 years and beyond.
NJJN: What do you love to do when you are not being a rabbi?
Rabbi David Nesson: I’m from Brookline, Mass. I love to be a Red Sox fan!
NJJN: Your love for travel is well known. What is something people might not know about you?
Nesson: My grandfather was a member of the beit din for the Jewish community in London, where my mother was born.
NJJN: Tell us something else about your family.
Nesson: Oh — I have a “fradentical” twin who is the ritual director and hazzan sheni (literally second cantor) at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Mass., and an older brother who retired as director of the Rothberg School of Overseas Studies at The Hebrew University.
NJJN: What is a fradentical twin?
Nesson: We are technically fraternal, but we look alike, talk alike, act alike, and we both chose careers in synagogue life….
NJJN: How many times have you been to Israel, and what are your favorite and least favorite places there?
Nesson: I’ve been to Israel 15 or 20 times. My favorite place is Muhraka, where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal. It’s the site of a Carmelite monastery now but there is a statue of Elijah in front. It’s in the North, not far from Haifa. I like the idea of the power of Elijah to bring the people back to the worship of God.
My least favorite place is the Kotel, which used to be my favorite place. When I first went there, it was a place we could go to touch and cry and celebrate our way through Jewish history. Now, it’s all about politics — whether you can daven there and who can daven there and where to daven, how to daven, what to wear, and who’s in charge. It’s a much more challenging place to visit now.
NJJN: What is the strangest rabbinic encounter you’ve had at Morristown Jewish Center?
Nesson: It was the morning of a bar mitzva, years ago. A Christian family arrived early for services. I was just getting ready to start. There were about four people there. The family walked in, walked about halfway down the center aisle, kneeled down, crossed themselves, and took their seats. At the time, I was kind of in shock. But now I understand it was their way of relating to a sacred space and being respectful.
NJJN: You shared the bima for many years with Cantor Maimon Attias, who retired in 2012. He was famous for his bobbleheads. Did you have a favorite?
Nesson: The bobblehead of the dog in his car.
NJJN: What’s your favorite thing about Cantor Vadim Yucht, who is at the synagogue now?
Nesson: His voice. With his voice, he has the ability to move people in profound ways.
NJJN: What biblical or other well-known Jewish figure are you most like?
Nesson: Reb Zusya. You know the story. He is about to die, and his disciples come to see him. He trembles. They ask why he is worried — hasn’t he been as righteous as Moshe? And he says to them, “God will not ask me whether I was as good as Moshe. God will ask, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you as good a Zusya as you could be?’” I constantly have the idea that I should be doing more.
NJJN: What do you like best about being a rabbi?
Nesson: I like that it’s so eclectic. I like all the parts of my job. I love being there at the happiest and saddest times of people’s lives. Families bring me into their lives in a very intense kind of way.
NJJN: Who inspires you?
Nesson: [Rabbi] David Hartman [founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel] and [Rabbi] Yitz Greenberg [founder of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership]. David was able to articulate better than anyone else that Judaism does not have to be dissected constantly into secular, religious, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, but that there are profound messages in Judaism that can be shared across denominational, nondenominational, and post-denominational Judaism. I have a similar admiration for Yitz.
NJJN: What are the most significant changes you see ahead?
Nesson: Despite all the negative trends, I’d say every congregation has its own ability to renew itself and grow. We now have to wrestle with the questions that have been thrown at our feet. I believe the synagogue is the key and the portal, the place we live our Jewish lives.