When Rabbi Ellen Greenspan looks back over her 20 years as religious leader of Temple Micah in Lawrenceville, people are at the heart of the memories that rise to the top.
“I would say that the biggest thing is just building relationships with people,” she said during a recent interview. “That’s what I’m going to miss the most. It was just such a big part of my life.
“When you come right down to it, my congregation was the 40 people who came to every Friday night service and the kids in the religious school,” she said. “I enjoyed the process of knowing them and seeing them through the religious school. That’s what it’s all about.”
A resident of Randolph, the 54-year-old Greenspan is retiring from her part-time pulpit at the liberal, egalitarian, unaffiliated congregation at the end of June.
Succeeding her in the pulpit of the 160-family congregation will be Rabbi Vicki Seren Tuckman, director of Jewish life at the Union of Reform Judaism’s Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., and a teacher in the Hebrew high school program at Har Sinai Temple in Pennington.
Greenspan arrived at Temple Micah in 1992 after her ordination in 1986 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and serving as assistant rabbi and director of education at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.
Over the past 20 years, occupying the pulpit of an unaffiliated congregation with outreach to interfaith families has been a challenge, Greenspan observed — but in a very positive way.
“I really appreciate the people who choose to belong to Temple Micah,” she said. “If Temple Micah didn’t exist, these families wouldn’t belong anywhere, so I really feel our little congregation has an important role to fill in the Mercer County community.”
Temple Micah is also distinguished by the fact that it makes its home in the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, said Greenspan.
“For the most part, we could not be who we are without the beneficence of the church. We have a great relationship and are actively involved in interfaith activities together,” she said.
While leading Temple Micah, Greenspan also spent her energies serving as the Israel Experience director at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and, later, as assistant director of both admissions and marketing at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, now Golda Och Academy.
Running like a thread through the variegated fabric of her career has been her commitment to education.
“When I started at Temple Micah, there were eight kids in the religious school. Now there are 50 kids,” Greenspan said. “It’s one of my strengths, the field of education, and that just sort of happened naturally. It’s been very gratifying to watch the synagogue’s religious school grow.”
Congregation president Mary Kuller of Princeton Junction agreed. “She has just been marvelous for us,” said Kuller, who presided over the congregation’s farewell brunch honoring Greenspan in late May. “One of her biggest priorities has always been education. That’s been her strength and her driving force. She just stressed education as the path for everyone to find their own comfort zone in Judaism.”
President emeritus Bob Pollack of Lawrenceville also said Greenspan’s “forte has been getting the kids engaged and involved in Judaism,” noting that the rabbi inaugurated Temple Micah’s confirmation program.
Ray Wolkind of Plainsboro, a longtime temple board member and former vice president, called the transformation of the religious school under Greenspan’s leadership “extraordinary.”
“We needed to have someone build that school, or there would be no more Temple Micah,” Wolkind said.
Congregational vice president Faith Wight of Hamilton, a fourth-grade teacher in the religious school, credits Greenspan with helping her and her family make a solid connection with Judaism.
“My life and the lives of members of the congregation have been made so much fuller because of the rabbi’s enthusiasm, leadership, and love of Judaism,” she said.
Back in the fall of 1992, when Greenspan led her first High Holy Day service at Temple Micah, she was pregnant with her daughter, Adina. Now Adina is 19 and off to college, the rabbi said.
“Just as she has started the next part of her life, it’s time for me to open the door on the next part of my career,” she said. “I’m excited. It’s going to be a challenge.”
But her excitement is tempered by a sense of sadness, Greenspan added. “It’s hard to say goodbye; it’s hard to say goodbye to people you’ve known for 20 years.”