Rabbi Ezra Labaton of Congregation Magen David in West Deal, whose reputation and influence extended far beyond the Monmouth County Syrian-Jewish community, died on Dec. 4 after a long battle with cancer. He was 63 years old.
“To me, he was one of the bright stars in the contemporary rabbinate in general, and in the Sephardi rabbinate in particular,” wrote Rabbi Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York, in an e-mail to Labaton’s congregants.
Labaton was born on July 21, 1950, and grew up in Brooklyn. A graduate of Yeshiva University, he went on to earn a PhD at Brandeis University. He became the religious leader at Magen David in 1982 — the same year he was named West Deal’s “Man of the Year.”
Richard Joel, now president of Yeshiva University, was his friend during their undergraduate years together.
“We were both involved in outreach activities at Yeshiva, and that is how we became friends,” Joel told NJ Jewish News in a Dec. 6 phone interview.
“You will rarely find someone with a purer soul than Ezra Labaton. It manifested itself in his relationships with his wife, Emily, and their service to the community. He had the ability to look at people and immediately relate to the good in them. The world is poorer when that kind of goodness leaves us,” Joel said.
Magen David president Eliot Braha of Deal said his rabbi “had a tremendous intellect and a passion for learning, but he managed to balance that capacity with his capacity to reach out warmly to everybody.”
The two men first met as third-graders together at Magen David Yeshiva in Bensonhurst, then reconnected in 1987 when Braha moved to Deal. “We raised our families together,” he said, “we learned together, and, of course, we prayed together.”
Braha added that “families and individuals gravitated to the rabbi. He drew them in. He had the quality of bringing people into his world and making it their world. He brought them in and taught them the fundamentals of Judaism and the Torah, as well as kindness for people and respect for people and the uniqueness of every individual.
“He did acts of charity and helping the poor and providing spiritual guidance,” Braha said. “His legacy was to help us never lose sight of the values that make the world a better place and act on those values.”
In the “Rabbi’s Ramblings” columns Labaton wrote for his congregation newsletter, he spelled out his broad array of concerns. In one, he wrote of “a universal obligation that demands that we dare not treat animals with cruelty,” noting that “Torah prohibits hunting as a sport. It is prohibited to kill any animal for any reason — except for overwhelming human need.”
In another, he wrote that “equally important” to hearing the voice of God is “to hear the cries of the ‘ger, yatom, v’almana’ — the stranger, orphan, and widow: to ignore their cries for help is a cardinal sin.”
“We loved our rabbi because he was a very good person and a very great person, and he loved us and gave to us and made each one of us feel special and worthy,” wrote Renee Beyda of Deal, a longtime congregant, in an e-mail to NJJN.
“He sparked a curiosity in me to learn Jewish philosophy and kept recommending book after book,” said her husband, Charles Beyda. “I swallowed them up. He was a real intellectual, and he was very modern and educated in the secular world, sciences, and current events.”
“The word ‘rabbi,’ rather than define, contain, and limit him, was given a new meaning, a true, honest, and challenging meaning by this man with the shy smile and the seemingly frail physique,” wrote Rabbi Haim Ovadia in an e-mail to congregants. Ovadia served under Labaton as an assistant rabbi for three years.
Keith Krivitzky, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, told NJJN, “He was a wonderful human being, a tremendous Torah scholar, and a great resource for our community.”
Gerrie Bamira, executive director of Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, is a member of Congregation Magen David. “I was honored to know Rabbi Labaton as a spiritual leader, as a visionary leader, and as a personal friend,” she said. “May his memory and legacy be blessed!”
More than 800 people attended his Dec. 5 funeral at Bloomfield-Cooper Jewish Chapels in Ocean. The synagogue is video streaming his funeral service at ustream.tv/channel/westdealshul.
Labaton is survived by his wife, Emily; his daughters, Sarah and Devorah; his sons, Ovadia and Mordechai; and a grandson named Ezra.