In 1970, when Rabbi Gerald Zelizer came to Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, he already had several goals in mind.
“From the very beginning I wanted an egalitarian daily and Shabbat service where the laity, not just the clergy, felt comfortable participating,” said Zelizer. “My goal was to have the laity read Torah and daven the service…. I wanted to establish very serious adult study, not just lectures. ” And, he added, “I always wanted to have a connection with the youth of the congregation.”
Forty years later Zelizer has amassed a record of working with his congregants to “shape” those goals.
Neve Shalom was one of the first Conservative synagogues in the state to allow women to fully participate in the service.
The 500-family synagogue draws about 150 people to Saturday morning services. About 150 can chant Torah and, from the High Holy Days through Passover, at least 40 spend Sunday morning in serious Torah study with their rabbi.
Zelizer has also kept a strong connection with the synagogue’s youth. He periodically teaches every religious school class from nursery school through Hebrew high school.
Shelley Telson, the synagogue’s vice president for education, was the rabbi’s first bat mitzva after his arrival; her twin brother, Steven Schneider, became, the next morning, Zelizer’s first bar mitzva.
“Having known him for 40 years, I think it’s just wonderful how he interacts with the Hebrew school,” said Telson, an Edison resident. He loves teaching children, and they love learning from him. They get so excited when they hear he’s teaching a class. We keep lot of students in our high school because the rabbi and Hazzan Sheldon Levin both teach students.”
Beyond the congregation, Zelizer served as president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (1992-94), on the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (1994-99), and since 2000, on its Ethics Committee.
Zelizer, a fourth-generation rabbi, said his commitment to the Conservative movement is an outgrowth of his childhood in Columbus, Ohio, where his father served as rabbi of the city’s largest Conservative synagogue for 43 years. As a teen, the younger Zelizer became national president of United Synagogue Youth.
He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he also received a master’s in Hebrew literature and is an instructor of homiletics.
“I learned from my father to finish the job,” said Zelizer. “As long as the congregation is kind enough to ask me to stay on, I’ll continue as long as the Almighty cooperates.”
The Spanish-speaking Zelizer’s first job was at Congregation Beth El in Buenos Aires, where he met his wife, Viviana, a professor of sociology at Princeton University. They have a son, Julian, also a Princeton professor, and two grandchildren. The rabbi came to Metuchen after a three-year stint at Temple Israel in Union.
Zelizer is on the board of contributors of USA Today, where he has written many op-ed articles on religion and American society.
Things have changed from the time Zelizer arrived in Metuchen as a 30-year-old.
“In the ’70s we saw an era of expansion and I was dealing with that,” he recalled. “In the ’80s the physical expansion of the building was burgeoning, and in the ’90s membership leveled off and a lot of the work we were doing was developing programs to match our larger congregation.”
Over the past 10 years, he was heavily involved with the merger of Neve Shalom with Congregation Adath Israel of Woodbridge and Congregation Ohev Shalom of Colonia.
While recently looking at a photograph of his JTS graduating class, Zelizer realized that only one classmate was still a pulpit rabbi — and with nowhere near Zelizer’s tenure.
“I feel very fortunate to God, my family, my congregation for what I’ve been able to achieve,” he reflected. “The big frustration for many rabbis is that you never see the results of what you’re doing. Being here 40 years, I’m now servicing the grandchildren of members whose children I serviced. I’ve named babies whose parents I named in the shul.
“The longevity of a rabbi gives a congregation spiritual roots. In the commercial world you change products all the time, but Judaism and Yiddishkeit depend on time and longevity.
“A rabbi depends on consistency and collaboration from a congregation,” said Zelizer. “My congregation and I have a very healthy spiritual relationship.”