New rabbi, ‘new era’ for Cranford congregation

New rabbi, ‘new era’ for Cranford congregation

Benjamin Goldstein’s path led from yeshiva to Hollywood to NJ

Rabbi Ben Goldstein, leader of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, takes time out to work out at the JCC in Scotch Plains.
Rabbi Ben Goldstein, leader of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, takes time out to work out at the JCC in Scotch Plains.

When he was four, Benjamin Goldstein’s grandparents would ask him questions about God and about his beliefs. Though he doesn’t recall his answers, he can still remember the pleasure of those exchanges.

They didn’t make him a good kid, he said — he also remembers frequent visits to the principal’s office in later years — but it did lay the foundation for a love of Jewish learning.

To the delight of his now 95-year-old grandmother, whose husband was a cantor, Goldstein became a rabbi. On Aug. 1, he took up his first pulpit appointment, as leader of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, the Conservative congregation in Cranford.

Since then, his staff and his congregants have been spreading the word, excitedly urging others to come meet their new leader. Education director Tamara Ruben summed up the attitude: “He is wonderful. We are so happy. It’s like the beginning of a wonderful new era for us.”

Goldstein loves to question, to study, and to explore. And he also takes delight in children just as boisterous as he and his three siblings were. “My dream is to have our shul full of the noise of children,” he said. “Services can be long and boring. I want them to be as fresh and exciting as we can make them.”

He and his wife, Caren Heller, have an 18-month-old daughter of their own, Abigail, already a part of that “freilach” atmosphere he wants.

The 33-year-old rabbi is as open about the circuitous route that led him to Cranford as he is about his spirituality. He described that path recently over a snack at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains, after his regular workout there.

Goldstein grew up in Rochester, NY, with a physician father and a speech pathologist mother. He grew up attending an Orthodox Jewish day school until high school, and for all his mischief-making, thoroughly enjoyed his Jewish studies.

He had planned to go to Yeshiva University, but an episode in Israel in 1995 changed that. He arrived in the country for a yeshiva program on Oct. 31, and on Nov. 4, Yitzhak Rabin was killed. When, to Goldstein’s disgust, “the murder was greeted with a less than unanimous outcry,” he left the yeshiva, and for a time turned away from religious study.

He went to Boston University and studied theater, together with psychology and philosophy, and then on to Los Angeles, to try his hand at acting in theater and movies.

Two things kept him connected to the religion — the warmth of Friday night dinners with relatives in LA, and his work. “You have to do something other than act to earn a living,” Goldstein said. “Because of my background, I was able to get work as a youth supervisor.”

Thinking about theater and youth work, he realized something: “I could become a great actor, and still be a total jerk. To be a better youth director, I’d have to become a better person.”

The synagogue work also drew on his love of Jewish study, and the dynamic the best teachers always encouraged, of questioning and sharing opinions. Almost inevitably — as he describes it now — it led to the idea of becoming a rabbi, which, he said, “combines everything I love doing — studying, teaching, public speaking.”

He studied for five years at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and earlier this year was ordained as a Conservative rabbi there.

Hearts and brains

In May, he went through the process that pairs graduates with congregations looking for leaders. He was delighted by what he found in Cranford — both the strength and enthusiasm of the congregation and its staff, and the “Norman Rockwell” quality of the town.

He said he and his wife have thoroughly enjoying getting to know people in their new community. He was looking forward to the events like those this past weekend to welcome 20-plus new member families, and the Dec. 19 gathering where architect Stephen Schwartz will lead the congregation’s children in building a model of Jerusalem out of LEGO blocks.

He is also connecting with other local rabbis from the various denominations and, he said, is hoping to be part of a strong fellowship among them.

Being so young, he is facing a question of how to relate as a religious leader to his congregants. “I’m working it out as I go,” he said. “The worst part of having that title ‘rabbi’ is that people expect you to give them answers, and they think they should say what you want to hear,” he said. “But the synagogue should be a place where it is all right to explore questions and feelings. I believe we are Jewish because of our hearts, not our brains.”

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