Morristown rabbi heads home to Midwest
Donald Rossoff valued education, music, and diversity at B’nai Or
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Rabbi Donald Rossoff knew he wanted to be a rabbi as far back as high school, thanks to his childhood rabbi at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minn.
Rabbi Frederick C. Schwartz “showed me how Torah could be deep, interesting, relevant,” said Rossoff, while his own participation in the Reform synagogue’s youth group “grabbed my heart.” (Schwartz would eventually preside at Rossoff’s installation at B’nai Or.)
When he was in high school, watching a young rabbinic intern at work, he thought, “If he can do this, I can do this too,” he recalled.
And so he has “done this,” for 25 years at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, where music, education, interfaith and interreligious outreach, and support for Israel were hallmarks of his tenure. He will retire at the end of June, becoming rabbi emeritus. Rabbi Ellie Miller, the associate rabbi at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, will take the helm of the Reform congregation beginning July 1.
Rossoff led the community during an era that focused on diversity and community building. He brought the music of folk singer and composer Debbie Friedman to the congregation. He reached out to interfaith families, developed deep roots with other clergy in Morristown, and cultivated relationships with the area’s Muslim community.
Throughout his tenure, his was a consistent voice urging connection with Israel while advocating for pluralism there. Rossoff played a national role in some of these issues from his seat on the executive committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis — he chaired its Israel Committee, Resolutions Committee, and its 2009 Annual Convention in Jerusalem — and on the board of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
As he closes the chapter on his rabbinate in Morristown, he is already embracing a new challenge, as interim rabbi at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill. And he is completing an on-line master’s degree in marriage counseling and family therapy.
At 62, he said, “I’m still addicted to being needed. I’m sure at some point, when I’m in full retirement, I’ll put my feet up and be able to exhale. But for now, I love the fact that I can be with people at important times in their lives. I see that as an incredible privilege.”
Filling large shoes
Born in Red Bank, Rossoff grew up in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, went to college at Northwestern University and served his first pulpit in Chicago. He readily acknowledges that he is a Midwesterner at heart.
“I loved that Morristown wasn’t so different from the Midwest,” he said. “The people are down to earth and unpretentious, and never ostentatious.”
He was also drawn to the community because he and B’nai Or “valued the same things: education, social justice, and music. It was really a good fit.”
In a conversation on a recent Friday morning in his office, where the books were mostly gone from the shelves, he discussed the trajectory of his rabbinate, beginning when he arrived from Chicago in 1990 to fill the rather large shoes of his predecessor, Rabbi Z. David Levy, by all accounts a very charismatic leader.
Rossoff knew his style was different from Levy’s. He considered it a positive, but his new congregants weren’t so certain. “I wasn’t sure there would be a second contract,” he quipped.
But about three years into his tenure, he said, his wife overhead one of his harshest critics say, “I don’t know if he’s getting better or I’m just getting used to him.” The answer, according to Rossoff: “Both. I was learning how to meet the expectations of a congregation very different from the one I had come from in Chicago. As I got a better sense of their expectations, they got a little more comfortable with my style.”
Israel was always a key part of Rossoff’s rabbinate. He had been there in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War and that experience had a profound impact on him. On the Israel Committee of the CCAR he was an outspoken advocate for pluralism. But at a certain point, he came to realize that the position was backfiring from the perspective of the pulpit.
“We were presenting Israel as a place of controversy, where Reform Jews are second-class citizens. It had the effect of alienating Reform Jews from Israel,” he said. “ My mission here became connecting people with Israel. Outside the temple I worked on religious pluralism.”
He is past president of the New Jersey/West Hudson Association of Reform Rabbis and of the Morris-Sussex Board of Rabbis and served two non-consecutive terms as president of the Morristown Interfaith Clergy Council. With catalyzing events like 9/11 and last summer’s Gaza War, as well as local tragedies, he said, “I’ve tried to take a leading role in bringing the community together.”
Another “Morristown and Israel” event that he is clearly proud of is the public celebration he spearheaded for Israel’s 50th birthday at the town’s historic Vail Mansion. “There were lots of speakers, Israeli flags everywhere, people, and vendors. It was a real festival,” he said.
Music has played a central role in his life, and it made its way onto the bima with him. He’s been playing flute since he was a kid, and even took classes at Northwestern University’s music school. He would occasionally play on the bima, and he enjoys singing harmony with B’nai Or’s Cantor Galit Dadoun Cohen. He published a musical setting of Psalm 118:6 with Cantor Bruce Benson, and wrote the lyrics for “You Can Change the World,” with Cantor Jeff Klepper.
He and the late Debbie Friedman were old friends from his days with NFTY, the Reform youth group. When she sang at the synagogue in 1993, “It was the first time I had ever seen people in the congregation sanctuary holding hands. It opened up the genre for the congregation.”
Sometimes, however, he understands that silence is the way to spirituality. He’s very proud that he was able to incorporate guided meditation into some of his High Holy Day sermons. “It brought people to some very deep places. That is particularly meaningful to me.”
Rossoff chaired the rabbinic cabinet at what became the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, working on outreach efforts to interfaith families as well as on religious pluralism. He has served on the faculty of the Reform movement’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute and Camp Harlam and has been a member of their rabbinic advisory committees. He also wrote The Perfect Prayer (URJ Press, 2003) a children’s book on spirituality, and contributed chapters to The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, and Chosen Tales: Stories Told by Jewish Storytellers, edited by Peninnah Schram.
Although Rossoff and his wife, Francine, a registered nurse, raised their four children in New Jersey, they too appear to have Midwestern souls. Two live in Chicago, and two in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. When the Rossoffs arrive in Chicago later this month, they are looking forward to being closer to all four.
As the conversation wound down and Rossoff prepared to head off to a goodbye luncheon with synagogue staff, he grimaced at the two tasks that lay ahead — giving away the books that didn’t get shipped to Chicago, and doing some work for that master’s degree.
“I have a final paper due Sunday, and it’s driving me crazy!” he said.