Rabbi brings generations of experience to EBJC
Shul’s openness and tradition appeal to new religious leader
Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein is following a long family history and Jewish tradition in becoming the new religious leader of East Brunswick Jewish Center.
Finkelstein is a fifth-generation rabbi whose grandfather, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, was chancellor at the Jewish Theology Seminary and a national religious voice in the mid-20th century.
Today his grandson sees EBJC as a microcosm of what the Conservative movement should look like in the 21st century.
That means a synagogue “with multiple options for prayer, where everyone can express themselves in a different manner, but where we can study together and learn together,” said Finkelstein.
Finkelstein took over Sept. 1 from Rabbi Aaron Benson, who left after three years to return to California. During his tenure, Benson guided the congregation in expanding religious roles for women. About six months ago, the synagogue, which has always had two Shabbat evening services, made its late service egalitarian, while leaving the early one traditional. Once a month, Saturday morning services are egalitarian as well.
“I think this synagogue — by keeping non-egalitarian Shabbos services while realizing an egalitarian option is important — has maintained its traditions,” said Finkelstein.
The mix of tradition and openness to change appealed to Finkelstein.
“This synagogue has a tremendous history and provides me with an even greater potential to reach people and make a difference in their lives,” said Finkelstein. “I think there’s a lot of tradition in the East Brunswick Jewish Center. There’s a great sense of healing and unification of purpose. What unites us is greater than what divides us.”
Sharon Lipson, who cochaired the rabbi search committee with Steve Schwartz, said members were drawn to Finkelstein’s personal history and religious background.
In addition to the yichus — distinguished family lineage — he possesses, she said, “We also liked that he was really warm and compassionate.”
Lipson said the committee was impressed that Finkelstein chose to do an internship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York around the time of his graduation from JTS, a gesture they felt reflected his deep concern for others.
“We got especially strong and warm feedback about him from our young families,” she said.
Finkelstein began his career as associate rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY, before becoming religious leader at Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor and Congregation B’nai Israel in Fair Lawn. During his 10-year tenure at Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, he oversaw the congregation’s move from Paterson to Franklin Lakes.
While searching for a position at a larger congregation where, he said, he “could fulfill my potential,” Finkelstein spent last year at the JCC of Paramus, leading its egalitarian minyan and taking on the role of educator.
Finkelstein is a past president of the New Jersey Rabbinical Assembly — the rabbinic arm of Conservative Judaism — and served as chair of the intergroup relations committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the UJA of Northern New Jersey. He also served on the editorial board of the community faith and values section of the Bergen Record.
The rabbi’s wife, Elana Gershen Finkelstein, is a property manager and lawyer in Jersey City. The couple has three children, Sarah, 18, a sophomore at Wellesley College; Eli, 17, a senior at the Frisch School in Paramus; and Rebecca, 12, a seventh-grader at Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley.
Finkelstein said the congregation has so far shown him “a tremendous outpouring of warmth and welcome” and added, “I look forward to a long relationship.”