Temple Shalom of Sussex County in Franklin celebrated its 100th anniversary last December, and members are determined to keep their doors open despite a dwindling membership. The religious school now has 20 children, an improvement over last year; membership is up to 85. A $350,000 capital campaign to move the religious school out of trailers and into the building remains on hold.
But on Rosh Hashana the independent congregation had a full house.
“We had well over 100 people. That’s a lot for us,” said congregation president Rachel Niedzwiecki. She believes the draw, and her hope for the synagogue’s future, is Rabbi Joshua Cantor, its new religious leader.
“He’s been perfect from day one,” she said. She raved about his rapport with kids and his storytelling abilities. “He turns the parsha into an interactive storytelling, and everyone listens. And the kids even raise their hands. He gets them completely involved.”
That happens during religious school, too, she said — like the day he brought the Torah scroll out of the ark and opened it for the children, or the time he let each child take a turn blowing the shofar.
“He’s a real teacher,” Niedzwiecki said. “He’s going to help us build our congregation back up to 120 or 130 families.”
If he does, it will be a remarkable turnaround both for the synagogue and for Cantor, 50, a former corporate executive who has been upfront about his rocky path from a run-in with the Securities and Exchange Commission to his ordination at a little-known seminary in Miami.
Cantor was president and director of a company known as American Bank Note Holographics when the SEC filed a complaint against him, charging that he misled auditors and participated in a “systematic fraudulent scheme to inflate the revenues and net income” during a period in the late 1990s. In 2003, a settlement was reached prohibiting Cantor from serving as an officer or director of a publicly traded company. ABNH has since dissolved.
“That’s an area of my life that I’m not very proud of,” he said in a telephone interview. “But it’s nothing I hide. When I was a younger man, I was a taker, not a giver. I have no excuses. I transgressed. I want other people to learn from the mistakes I have made. It’s part of who I am. As a younger man I focused on myself. Now, I’m about community, and giving back.”
Leaders of the congregation agreed.
“We had some open discussion about this. We don’t want police coming into our synagogue to arrest our rabbi!” joked Niedzwiecki. “But we are more than satisfied that this is in the past and not who he is today.”
Cantor was hired last November to help Temple Shalom’s long-time leader, Rabbi Gerald Catano, who celebrated 20 years with the congregation in June. Catano announced his retirement in the spring, and the congregation looked to Cantor to succeed him.
“You can’t find people like him anymore,” said Niedzwiecki. “He reaches out and really tries to help people through tough times. He spends so much time doing good for others, visiting hospitals and senior homes, and volunteering with hospice. Everyone has been extremely pleased with him. If people had not been happy, we were ready to look for another rabbi.
“But the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. We know we did the right thing.”
‘I was home’
Serving as a leader in Jewish life comes somewhat naturally to Cantor. He was raised in Westfield, where he was, until recently, a member of Temple Emanu-El. Cantor’s father, Gerald Cantor, is a two-time president of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.
Both sets of grandparents were “ardent Zionists as well as proud Jews,” Rabbi Cantor said. “I’m proud to be carrying on my family’s tradition in a way that would make them proud.”
He earned rabbinic ordination in 2006 from the Florida Academy and Institute of Religion where his mentor was the sometimes controversial Rabbi Loring Frank. Leader of the All People’s Synagogue in Miami Beach, Frank has long been dogged by accusations by other rabbis that his rabbinic credentials — conferred by his own father — are suspect. Others have been critical of Frank for officiating at interfaith weddings and for performing what some have called “fast-track” conversions.
Frank has defended his pulpit as an effort to do “outreach and increase Jewish engagement to the 90 percent of unaffiliated Jewish households, here in south Florida, the second-largest Jewish community in the United States.”
Asked about the academic program, Cantor would only say, “The program has no definite time frame. It’s not a set program.” He added that his decision to work with Frank come out of his own life circumstances. He had been taking classes at the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion when he decided he wanted to pursue the rabbinate, but the program there was “not conducive for a single parent and business man.” (Divorced, Cantor has three grown sons.) “I met Rabbi Loring Frank, who became my mentor. When he offered me the opportunity to study with him, I grabbed it,” he said.
Like his mentor, Cantor, who lives in Cranford, initially focused on performing life-cycle events. He had planned to serve as a Navy chaplain but was rejected as result of his rheumatoid arthritis. And then Temple Shalom approached him.
“I decided to go and be polite and hear what they had to say,” he said. “When I walked in, I knew I was home. I had a change of heart very quickly and knew I wanted to work here.”
Although Cantor acknowledged he has his work cut out for him at the dwindling congregation, he said he embraces the challenge. He has a vision and ideas for growth, but will implement them slowly, he said, listening to what people want.
He has already instituted a few changes. The service is shorter; there is more teaching. He added a bimonthly class for teens that he hopes will become a confirmation class, and started a Yom Kippur food drive.
Meanwhile, the congregation is not entirely ready to let go of longtime rabbi Gerald Catano, who has become rabbi emeritus.
Most congregants say Catano is the reason they joined Temple Shalom. He made it a point to ensure that interfaith families — perhaps a majority of families with a Jewish parent in Sussex County — felt comfortable without upsetting traditionalists. His success, in part, was his own unorthodox background: Raised Orthodox and ordained at the Orthodox Yeshivas Heichal HaTorah in Manhattan, he always eschewed denominational tags.
“I blend from Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reform,” said Catano in 2005, celebrating his 15th anniversary at the congregation. “Each has something to offer; none sees the whole picture. And I like creativity.”
“He was always very deep and insightful,” said Niedzwiecki.
Congregants also say they will miss his voice — Catano started his career as a cantorial soloist.
“The most difficult thing about saying goodbye to him as our rabbi is trying not to cry profusely. To us, he’s family,” said Niedzwiecki.
Temple Shalom will officially install Cantor as senior rabbi on Oct. 1.