Newark’s 108-year-old Congregation Ahavas Sholom is welcoming a new rabbi in more ways than one.
On Thursday, May 15, the congregation’s current religious leader will be ordained as a rabbi by the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY.
Ordination will cap a journey for Simon Rosenbach, 65, who was an assistant Middlesex County prosecutor for 30 years when he enrolled at the nondenominational seminary in 2005. He retired from the law in 2010, and has served since the summer of 2006 as Ahavas Sholom’s full-time religious leader, working without pay from the synagogue while he was still doubling as a prosecutor.
“It has been a long haul,” a plainly relieved Rosenbach told NJ Jewish News in an April 30 interview.
Rosenbach grew up in North Plainfield and attended Rutgers University and its law school. He clerked for a judge in Essex County Criminal Court before becoming a prosecutor in Somerset County, an appellate attorney in the State Attorney General’s office, and eventually a long-serving Middlesex County prosecutor.
Asked to compare his past and present jobs, Rosenbach said, “The similarities are obvious. They depend on a written constitution or the Torah and a set of legal or religious codes. They also depend on interpretation — case law in the secular world and responsa in the religious world.”
When he applied to AJR, he told an interviewer, “If you’ve ever talked to a murder victim’s family at three o’clock in the morning, being a rabbi isn’t any different. Prosecutors are kind of social workers, and rabbis are kind of social workers, too, among other things.”
And sometimes the roles overlap. Because there are several halfway houses in Newark, Rosenbach occasionally has Jewish offenders on released time among his congregants.
“My background as a prosecutor enables me to talk with them in technical ways, but we try to make them part of our community,” he said. “If we can provide a couple of hours of solace and spiritual satisfaction and help these guys rehabilitate themselves, we are doing a good thing.”
Rosenbach lives in Springfield, where he once served as president of Temple Beth Ahm (now Beth Ahm Yisrael). He and his wife, Gayle, have three children and a son-in-law who is a Reform rabbi at Rutgers Hillel.
“When I call people up and say, ‘This is Rabbi Simon Rosenbach,’ they say, “How can I help you?’” he said. “When I call people up and say, ‘This is assistant prosecutor Simon Rosenbach, they say, “How can I help you?’
“When I get home, my wife says, ‘Take out the trash.’”
Ahavas Sholom, a survivor of Newark’s once-thriving Jewish community, has 90 member units — families or individuals — and regularly adds new members, mostly from the suburbs.
On Sunday, May 18, at 3 p.m., the congregation will celebrate their new rabbi’s ordination with a concert, “Music for the Soul,” featuring Reegan McKenzie, an opera singer, teacher, and director. Her “family music program” will include excerpts from the opera Hansel and Gretel and selections from Broadway musicals.
“She will be taking advantage of our sanctuary’s great acoustics,” said Rosenbach.
Prior to the presentation, there will be a private brunch at the synagogue for the new rabbi’s friends and relatives.
Rosenbach will continue on as the fulltime salaried rabbi at Ahavas Sholom.
“After I become officially ordained I can officially sign letters ‘Rabbi’ instead of ‘spiritual leader,’” he said. “But for me personally, what would it change?” he said jokingly. “Nothing.”