At first glance, given the pugnacious set to his jaw, Rabbi Ethan Prosnit looks decidedly authoritative. But within moments of conversation, a more easy-going aspect comes through. Asked about the authority that comes with the title, the 31-year-old, appointed in July as an assistant rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, brushed aside the notion. “Oh, no, that’s not how I see it,” he said. “I’m there to work with our congregants, to develop ideas together.”
Prosnit, who joined the temple staff in July, will be officially installed on Friday, Nov. 21.
In addition to leading services, doing pastoral work, conducting adult and family education programs, and teaching the confirmation class, Prosnit will focus on social action projects. He pointed out that earlier campaigns undertaken by the congregation — like support for Soviet Jewry and more recently working with students in the I Have a Dream program — have moved off the front burner. “It’s time for us to look again at our shared vision for social justice and study,” he said.
It will be a communal effort, however. “We’ll decide on our priorities together.”
Tackling social issues for him personally and as a rabbi means “getting out of my comfort zone, and getting others to do that too,” he said. “We have a wonderful life here in Union County, but we need to at least know what is happening in other communities.”
Without specifying any answers, he acknowledged that he is concerned about wage inequality and the need to create jobs, for starters. He has also worked with projects dealing with HIV/AIDs, orphans, and issues affecting Jewish communities abroad.
That kind of involvement started early. Prosnit’s father is a rabbi and so is his older brother. His mother is a social worker. “The conversation at the dinner table revolved around what was going on in the world,” he recalled, a grin spreading across his face. This clearly was a home where everyone got to express their views, and rabbinical authority was not enforced. “Oh, my mother wouldn’t have tolerated that,” he chuckled.
Initially, he avoided following in his father’s and brother’s footsteps. Prosnit graduated from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., with a BA in African history and a master’s in teaching. He taught for a while in the Worcester public schools and then worked at Tufts University Hillel, organizing Shabbat and holiday programming as well as the alternative break programs for students with American Jewish World Service and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“And then I decided that being a rabbi, I could do all the things I cared most about,” he said. He enrolled at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
While there, he volunteered at an absorption center working with an Ethiopian family and was the summer rabbinic intern at the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, taught in HUC-JIR’s Miller High School Honors Program, and staffed NFTY-in-Israel and Birthright-Israel experiences.
As a rabbinical student, he studied with Rabbi Charles Kroloff, now rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanu-El. Prosnit leaped at the chance to work with him and the congregation’s leader, Rabbi Douglas Sagal. “I’m very lucky. They’re great mentors,” he said.
He and his wife, Arielle Traub, have found a home in Westfield, and the rabbi has been exploring new ways to pursue his passion for sports — hiking and playing tennis, and supporting underdog teams like the Jets, Mets, and Toronto Bluejays — perhaps, he admitted ruefully, in keeping with his general interest in those who need help.