Matthew Halpern has found his calling in synagogue life, but not in the clergy. “Rabbinical school and cantorial school may be for some people, but that’s not me,” he told NJJN in a phone interview.
Instead, Halpern is a synagogue administrator, one who is bringing his expertise back to the Greater MetroWest community. On June 8, the former senior communications manager at what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ assumed the position of executive director at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston.
He joins the 760-family Conservative congregation after 16 years in part- and full-time roles at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, most recently as its executive director.
He succeeds Steve Kandler, who is retiring.
“In my role, I have the opportunity to bring people into the synagogue community. It’s where I find comfort, and I want to help other people find it as well,” he said. Halpern calls the synagogue community his “second family.”
“Synagogue always has been and will continue to be a central part of my life,” he said.
Growing up in Lakewood, his family lived half a mile from the Conservative Congregation Ahavat Shalom, where his father served in many capacities, including president. His family was among the first to be called if the building’s alarm went off, he recalled, and he took part in whatever the synagogue had to offer, from youth groups like Kadima and United Synagogue Youth to developing lifelong friends.
Halpern moved to Caldwell as a student, first at William Paterson University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications, and then at Seton Hall University, where he earned a master’s degree in corporate and public communications.
He worked in marketing at the MetroWest federation from 2000 to 2008, while at the same time serving part-time at Beth Sholom as a USY adviser. After taking a full-time position at the 420-family Conservative synagogue in 2008, he eventually became its executive director.
“Those of us with children during those years remember the profound impact Matt had on our youth programming,” wrote Beth Sholom president Lyn Light Geller in the synagogue newsletter. “As his role evolved into that of synagogue administrator and then to executive director, there is literally no aspect of CBS that has not benefited from his guidance.”
Coming to Livingston, Halpern said, is “a great opportunity to grow.” The congregation is much larger and offers him the experience of working with more staff, a bigger membership, and a religious school and early childhood program, neither of which is offered at the synagogue in Teaneck.
“No matter the size of the synagogue or the demographics, my job is to maintain and grow everything on the non-ritual side of the synagogue,” he said. “That includes increasing membership and keeping a strong financial presence — or strengthening it if that’s what it needs — and helping people connect.”
And he gets to do all of that in his second home. “Every synagogue is different, but they all offer compassion and care, spirituality, and the value of respecting elders within the four walls of the building and outside.”
Although he expects to spend plenty of Shabbatot and holidays at Beth Shalom in Livingston, he will also be a member at Beth Sholom in Teaneck. “It’s tough to be involved and live your life with people and then one day just turn off the light. I want to share simhas and support people when they need support.
“Our roles and relationships will be slightly different, but the personal connections will remain strong,” he said.