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Love’s not all you need, but it’s a start
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Love’s not all you need, but it’s a start

Agudath Israel starts grooming its next senior rabbi

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Ari Lucas, associate rabbi of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Ari Lucas, associate rabbi of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

For Rabbi Ari Lucas, the rabbinate is all about love.

“If I were starting a shul from scratch, I would call it ‘Kehillat v’Ahavta,’” he told NJJN. “Our mission statement would be, ‘And you shall love, love, love.’” (“V’Ahavta” means “And you shall love.”)

But his congregation already has a name: Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. Lucas is the new associate rabbi, hired to take over from Rabbi Alan Silverstein upon the senior rabbi’s retirement in three years (see sidebar).

Lucas served Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles for six years, first as assistant rabbi and then as associate rabbi. He views his new position as something of a homecoming. Born in Ventnor, he moved to Roslyn, N.Y., when he was 11; his wife, Talya Oberfield, is from Queens. Now that they are raising three young children — Gideon, 5, Shalev, 3, and Reya, born over the summer — they were ready to live closer to family.

In a conversation with NJJN in his office just days after starting at the end of August, Lucas discussed his rabbinic vision, excitement (and butterflies) to be working with Silverstein, and attraction to the rabbinate. To reiterate, he is uniquely focused on love.

“I believe the Torah commands us to love, and to expand our capacity to love,” Lucas said. He zeroes in on three key commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5); “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18); and “You shall love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19). In his view, each of these comes with obligations, and he’d create respective committees for all three.

In this scheme, loving God is a catchall for religious duties, like building a sukkah, hearing the shofar, and keeping kosher; loving your neighbor involves obligations toward fellow Jews locally and globally; and loving the stranger focuses on people congregants might not identify with: people who are “different” or “vulnerable.” 

Success for the synagogue would be measured not by membership numbers (though he acknowledges their importance in the real world), but rather how much love increases from one year to the next. “Have we expanded our love for God this year, and in what ways?” he asks. “Have we expanded our love for one another? Do we care about people who are sick in our own community more this year than we did last year? What are we doing to comfort mourners in our community better this year than we did last year?”

He also sees a balancing act among the different kinds of love, so that, for example, loving the stranger serves as a counterweight to becoming overly concerned with ritual minutiae. “What have we become if the Jewish community is only about where to get the best kosher food?” he asked, channeling Hillel. “That’s important, don’t get me wrong. But if we’re only about that, what kind of community have we become?”

His hiring marks the first time Agudath Israel has had more than one rabbi leading the congregation since its inception in 1921. Rabbi Morris Werb led the congregation until 1979, and Silverstein took the helm when Werb retired. Neither ever had an assistant or associate rabbi.

Finding the right candidate was a two-year undertaking, and the congregation is pleased with the result. Calling Lucas “very well spoken and very menschy,” synagogue president Victor Nhaisi said simply, “He just has a way about him.” He pointed to Lucas’s “thoughtful” way of answering even difficult questions, as well as the ease with which he connects with young families and families with school-age children. That’s important in a congregation comprised of 925 families.   

The recent hire acknowledged that he wasn’t looking for a new congregation when the opportunity arose. But he applied, because of his long-term plans to return to the East Coast and the national reputation of both the congregation and Silverstein. Silverstein has served as president of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, and chair of the Masorti Israel Foundation; he holds a doctorate in Jewish history from the Jewish Theological Seminary and lectures widely.

“For me it was a blessing to acknowledge how great our life was in L.A., and also see the potential here,” said Lucas.

How does he feel about taking over when Silverstein retires?

“I’m nervous,” he admitted, “because it’s big, huge shoes to fill. My hope is that I can walk in his footsteps, but not walk in the same exact path.”

He’s looking forward to having an opportunity to learn from Silverstein before the responsibility of being the senior rabbi is his alone. That said, “I don’t expect my rabbinate will be the same as his. I’m a different generation, and the times are different for the Jewish community.”

Such differences, he said, will affect his approach to everything, from Israel (once monolithically supported) to synagogue membership (once a given for most Jews). While he views support for Israel as required, he hopes to open doors to serious conversation regarding the Jewish state and invite a variety of perspectives. On synagogue membership, he views the shift not as a moment to wring hands, but as an opportunity.

“Synagogues can be more specialized and no longer have to be the social and cultural center” of Jewish life, he said. “No institution can be all things to all people.” He believes synagogues ought to focus on what they do best: creating meaning in people’s lives through relationships, religion, Torah, mitzvot, and spirituality. As for the rest? He thinks the synagogue ought to direct people to existing organizations beyond their walls — Jewish film festivals for movie buffs, a Jewish Plays Project for theater enthusiasts, and so on.

A graduate of Brown University, Lucas majored in international relations and started his career on Capitol Hill, hoping to make the world a better place through politics, and worked for former Rep. Steve Israel and Sen. Charles Schumer, both Democrats from New York.

But Lucas grew disillusioned. The son of a rabbi, he decided the rabbinate is a better place to pursue that line of work. His summers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos and years at the Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island didn’t hurt. He was already committed to wearing tefillin every day and studying texts, and after coming to the realization that he had repeatedly quit jobs to go to Israel for the summer, he enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was ordained in 2012.

Now, aside from settling into his new home in West Caldwell with his family, he is focusing on getting to know members of the community. “Usually, when I write [sermons], I picture the people in the room and the things they’ve encountered — what’s on their hearts and minds, and what’s going on in their families,” he said. “But here I look out and I do not know them. It’s hard to be a rabbi and not know the people you’re preaching to. But with time, God willing, I will get to know them.”

He does worry that his message of love won’t resonate. “These are not loving times,” he said. Still, “whether or not it’s popular or catchy, it’s authentic to what I believe … And I hope that it is a vision that is right for this moment in Jewish history.”


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