Rabbi Paul Kerbel was molded in the Conservative movement’s glory days. He spent his formative years at Temple Beth El in Rochester, N.Y., one of the movement’s original 10 synagogues, and participated in the struggle on behalf of Soviet Jewry. At 60, he goes against the contemporary practice of conflating Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism with “liberal Judaism” or embracing a “post-denominational” Judaism. Instead, he’s a cheerleader for the values of Conservative Judaism that respects halacha while adapting to contemporary needs.
“I believe in a Judaism that both encourages us to observe the commandments, but allows for change,” he told NJJN in an early September visit to his office.
It may be just the right fit for Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim (TBEMC) in Cranford, where he started in July. The Conservative congregation, with about 200 member families, offers the kind of traditional take he embraces, with a daily minyan and full Shabbat morning services, though he’s proud that they never run longer than two hours, merely aspirational for most Conservative synagogues in the area.
He succeeds a husband-and-wife rabbi team, Rabbis Neil Tow and Rachel Schwartz, who left the congregation after just two years. There has been a steady succession of rabbis since Rabbi Ben Goldstein left TBEMC after six years in 2016, with an interim rabbi preceding Tow and Schwartz. Cantor Frank Lanzkron-Tamarazo also left the congregation in 2018 after about two years. Kerbel said he hopes he can bring some stability to the congregation.
“We loved Rabbi Kerbel as soon as we met him,” said TBEMC president Mark Kaplan. “He really took the time to get to know our congregation even before officially becoming our rabbi, showing his desire to really become immersed in our diverse and inclusive community.”
Kaplan also cited Kerbel’s “extensive experience” and his ability to challenge members to “look at new ways of thinking and growing” the congregation.
When Kerbel talks about what brought him to the rabbinate, it’s all about engagement.
“Connecting Jews to Judaism and the Jewish people is what I love to do,” he said. And for him, that’s whether he or his congregants are in New Jersey, Italy, or France. He delights in helping people find Jewish sites while traveling abroad, and views himself as what he terms a “global Jew,” citing the famous idea from Pirkei Avot that all Jews are responsible one for another.
What’s most obvious about Kerbel when you meet him is not his focus on the next big thing or a desire to be the movement’s next big star; instead, he’s personable, even-keeled, and approachable, with an easy smile. He is less about new ideas and charisma and more about interacting one-on-one and building relationships. It’s something he said he learned watching Chabad rabbis, but it appears natural for him. He doesn’t come on strong, but he remembers names and knows how to explore commonalities.
After sitting together for nearly an hour, he acknowledged that he knew this reporter from her work decades ago at an institution where he had worked 10 years prior to the start of her tenure. And when he picked up on a mutual interest in travel in southern Germany, he seamlessly guided the conversation.
He likes to call himself a “Northern Southerner.” Raised in New Orleans before moving to Rochester, he spent his teen years in Florida, and, much later, a large chunk of his rabbinate in Atlanta (he was associate rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim from 2003-2015). Throughout his career he has zigzagged across the country, spending times in congregations large and small in Southern, Midwestern, and mid-Atlantic states. He’s mostly served as an associate rabbi and has developed an expertise in programming and adult education.
A sports fan, he loves Southeastern Conference (SEC) football. Asked who he roots for, he at first protested dual loyalty to teams in Alabama and Georgia, because at Etz Chaim, he said, “half my congregants went to University of Alabama and half went to University of Georgia.” But when pressed, he acknowledged that when he’s alone or with friends, it’s not the SEC at all, but rather the Green Bay Packers he roots for. (He also spent time at a synagogue in Wisconsin.)
Living a life as a Jewish community professional seems to run in the family: his father was a federation executive in Louisiana, New York, and Florida; his wife, a native of Queens, is the East Coast director for the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and two of his three children are finding careers in the Jewish community. His eldest is a rabbi at a synagogue in Queens and his youngest, a recent college graduate, works for the AJC in Washington, D.C.
TBEMC is not his first New Jersey gig. Before coming to Cranford, he served as an interim associate rabbi in Closter, and prior to that at a congregation in Roslyn, N.Y. He and his wife moved to the East Coast to be closer to their sons and to his aging mother-in-law, now 96.
Kerbel believes he’s found a home at TBEMC. “I would be very happy to retire from Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim,” he said, “But first, I’d love to help the synagogue.”