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Merged congregation chooses ‘unifying’ rabbi
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Merged congregation chooses ‘unifying’ rabbi

Religious leader selected for appeal to all age groups

Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun will become the new religious leader at the newly merged Congregation Torat El on Aug. 1.
Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun will become the new religious leader at the newly merged Congregation Torat El on Aug. 1.

California native Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun will trade the Golden State for the Garden State when he becomes religious leader Aug. 1 of the newly merged Congregation Torat El.

“This is a very profound and exciting opportunity,” said Schonbrun in a phone interview with NJJN from California. “My work here has been very satisfying, and I have been able to bring everyone together into one community, a vibrant community, a holy community.

“I hope to continue that across all ages at Torat El.”

Schonbrun is a San Diego native who has spent the last six years as religious leader at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, Calif., adjacent to San Jose. He also serves as rabbinic adviser to Yavneh Day School and is a member of the Saratoga Interfaith Ministerial Group.

Torat El was formed several months ago as a result of the merger of Temple Beth Torah of Wanamassa and Temple Beth El in Oakhurst. The congregations are holding joint programming, but continue to use separate facilities for services. A decision is expected within the coming weeks about which synagogue will house the merged congregation, which has 600 member families.

Rabbi Gordon Yaffe of Beth El has accepted a position with Little Neck Jewish Center on Long Island. Rabbi Michael Goldstein of Beth Torah will become religious leader at Temple Beth Shalom in Spokane, Wash.

The 34-year-old Schonbrun said that the move to New Jersey not only presents him with a great opportunity but will bring his wife, Jane-Rachel — a social worker and Jewish educator whom he met in Jerusalem — closer to her family on the East Coast. The couple has three children, Aviva, four, and two-year-old twins, Gavriel and Leora.

‘Over the top’

The rabbi has degrees in Jewish/Near Eastern studies and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis, was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and holds a master’s degree from its William Davidson School of Education.

At his current synagogue, Schonbrun has been heavily immersed in major outreach initiatives that included an award-winning young adult group and programs and activities for families with young children. “I also did a lot of outreach to the broader community,” he said, “and helped establish a daily minyan that did not exist before.”

Rabbinic search committee cochair Peter Gurman, a Beth Torah member, said a 10-person group with members from both synagogues decided the fairest way to conduct the search was to allow both current rabbis to submit applications while posting the position with the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement.

“We want a strong and caring Conservative synagogue, and we were looking for a rabbi who could unify the congregation,” Gurman said. “Most people are really fine with the merger, but not everyone. Some people feel a real sense of loss, so it was paramount we find a rabbi who could not only unify us, but reach out to people….” Schonbrun, he added, “is a real people person.”

The committee received a “huge” number of applications, said Gurman, and spent about a year reviewing them and interviewing top candidates. Several were brought in for Shabbat “auditions,” and congregants were surveyed to assess their reactions.

Gurman said the committee was “amazed” that Schonbrun’s favorable responses were “over the top” — above 90 percent — and that he led the survey results among both genders and in all age groups, from teens to seniors.

“A number of people came up to me and said, ‘My child wants Rabbi Schonbrun here because he or she wants Rabbi Schonbrun to bar or bat mitzva them,’” said Gurman. “We only asked for surveys from those 18 years or older but we got surveys from nine- to 17-year-olds saying, ‘We like Rabbi Schonbrun.’”

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