Taking a pulpit in a traditional Conservative synagogue was not part of Robert Green’s plan. The soon-to-be-ordained second-career rabbi sees himself as more of a leader for people who find themselves marginalized: interfaith and LGBTQ families who don’t feel accepted in mainstream congregations; families with kids with learning disabilities who need out-of-the-box approaches to learning and custom-tailored b’nei mitzvah ceremonies; and families who have not found their place in a congregation but want to provide their children with some Jewish education.
“I like to present Judaism to people in ways they can embrace it and feel it’s theirs,” he told NJJN in his office on a sunny November morning. “There’s a huge diversity of Jewish people, and I want all of those people to feel they have a home here.”
Here is Congregation B’nai Israel in Basking Ridge, where he became religious leader in July following the retirement of Rabbi John Schechter, who served the congregation for 23 years.
Green, 56, attended the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR), a leader in pluralistic training for clergy in the Bronx, where he will be ordained in the spring.
“We were attracted to Rabbi Robert as a leader for Congregation B’nai Israel due to his warm, inclusive, and open approach to people and Judaism,” according to synagogue president Anne Nemetz. “We also valued his strong background in education and exciting ideas for our religious school and adult education programs.” Though Green is currently listed as the interim rabbi and Nemetz said the congregation is still working out their long-term plans, “we can definitely see the possibility that Rabbi Robert would stay on to become our congregation’s [permanent] rabbi.”
Green spoke with NJJN on a wide range of topics, including how his prior career as a learning disabilities specialist informs his rabbinate and why he thinks Conservative Judaism and some of its institutions need to change.
For starters, he said he plans to continue using the service he developed for families outside congregational life, which includes more English than traditional services along with a creative curriculum that has bar or bat mitzvah celebrants writing some of their own prayers. The process provides “a connection to Judaism they can hold onto and take through their lives” that might not have been available to them, said Green.
“It’s a very organic progression from being a [special education] teacher to being a rabbi and making sure that everyone has a place at our table.”
He also plans to offer alternative services, outside the walls of the synagogue. Among these are “prayer walks,” services conducted outdoors, a practice he instituted at his student pulpit at Congregation Sons of Israel in Chambersburg, Pa.
His convictions can put him at odds with some policies of the Conservative movement, like, for instance, its views on intermarriage. Just a few weeks ago, the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly issued a statement allowing rabbis to attend intermarriages for the first time, but reinforced its ban on rabbis’ officiating at such ceremonies.
Green wastes little energy on this topic. “Anybody who’s willing to cast their lot with the Jewish people and raise their children as Jews should have a home here,” he said. The movement needs to change, he said, “because the world is changing.”
His perspective on this subject is personal. After his son was born and he and his wife, who had not yet converted, were looking for a mohel to perform a bris, a rabbi they called turned them away. “He wanted us to commit to raising [our son] exclusively as a Jew,” recalled Green, who pointed out the impossibility of the request. “No matter how we raise him he will always be part of an interfaith family with grandparents and cousins who are not Jewish,” he said. His son did have a bris, but as a result of that negative experience, Green found himself with a more open attitude toward interfaith families. “We have to welcome people with open arms. And if they feel welcome, we are much more likely to give them a place that is a home, and in return, they will enrich our congregations.”
His message may be particularly well suited for a congregation in a part of New Jersey where the Jewish population is marginal. In fact, because it’s so hard to meet other Jewish families, Green has created an open play space on Sundays during religious school hours so that parents of young children can drop in to meet one another regardless of synagogue membership. To take part, he said, “you just have to have little kids and want to hang out in a Jewish place.”
The key to his rabbinate, he said, is relationships, his focus always on the person in front of him. “I’m not interested in a numbers game,” he said, referring to measures of a rabbi’s success: membership numbers and program and service attendance. “I want to connect where you are. I want to find out who you are.”
Green holds a bachelor’s degree from Earlham College in Indiana and two master’s degrees from Lesley University in Massachusetts, one in special education and one in education.
He spent his career first in the classroom at schools for children with learning challenges and later privately, as a learning specialist, before enrolling at AJR in 2005 as a part-time student.
Green lives in Montclair with his wife, Dr. Ruth Deitz, a physician. They have three children, ages 23, 18, and 15.