Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg has been terminated from his 18-year position as police and fire chaplain in Edison, in a move the township says is a legal glitch.
Rosenberg, religious leader at Congregation Beth-El in Edison, has vowed to fight for his reinstatement, saying it is a matter of “principal and dignity.”
Rosenberg was notified by Mayor Antonia Ricigliano and other town officials by letter May 27 that he was being let go from his $3,800 per year part-time job as public safety chaplain.
They said the decision was made after realizing the municipality does not have an ordinance for appointing chaplains as required by state law.
“Come on — five mayors never realized there was no ordinance?” asked Rosenberg, who has a history of political involvement in Edison and supported Ricigliano in the last election over former Mayor Jun Choi.
In 2006, Rosenberg was deeply critical of Choi for not letting him perform as chaplain at public functions. However, Rosenberg continued to counsel police and firefighters and was paid.
Included in a flurry of e-mails from Rosenberg to NJJN were numerous letters written on his behalf by Christian and Muslim clergy and members of his congregation.
Also included was a letter of apology sent to Choi after the rabbi’s dismissal. “I hope you run again for office, and please allow me to be a major supporter,” Rosenberg wrote. “In Judaism, the only way to repent is to return to a similar action and not repeat the same mistakes.”
Congregation copresident Cynthia Bloom wrote to township business administrator Dennis Gonzalez. Rosenberg “has served in this capacity since 1993 with honor and diligence,” she wrote. “To be ‘conveniently’ terminated because of a conflict in semantics regarding an ordinance vs. appointment…is disgraceful. Rabbi Rosenberg has been a staunch supporter of Mayor Ricigliano and her constituents, and for her to allow this decision is a blatant display of disloyalty on her part. Once again, politics rears its ugly head in the name of pragmatic decisions.”
The Rev. John D. Painter of the Centenary United Methodist Church in Metuchen wrote Ricigliano that he was “outraged” over the “ill-advised” termination.
Articles in the secular press noted that several surrounding towns with volunteer chaplains — including New Brunswick, East Brunswick, and Metuchen — do not have chaplaincy ordinances.
“If this is true that you need an ordinance” — whether the position is paid or voluntary — “I am asking that all of these chaplains also be terminated,” said Rosenberg, adding he has asked Gov. Chris Christie’s office to enforce the state law. “What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If it’s not legal in Edison Township than it shouldn’t be legal anywhere.”
Ricigliano told NJJN that the township is currently in the process of drafting an ordinance in which the chaplaincy position would become voluntary.
The rabbi had also said he would not consider sharing the position as proposed by Edison officials, but later said he would be willing to serve with other clergy if he is named senior chaplain.
“I have received numerous phone calls from members of the clergy, Jewish and Christian, who have volunteered to serve as chaplains,” said Ricigliano. “They all said the same thing — that it was really a part of their ministry and they would not do it for money.”
Rosenberg told NJJN he would not serve in the position without pay because he provides counseling and sensitivity training beyond his chaplaincy work. He added, however, that he would be willing to defer pay until Edison’s financial situation improves.
Rosenberg said in most municipalities the chaplain’s post is largely ceremonial, but he performs “real” counseling, including for bereavement and for marital and personal problems and depression. He said he conducts sensitivity training to teach police officers and firefighters how to deal with Edison’s ethnically and religiously diverse population.
“I have not seen any [sensitivity training] classes he does for the police department so I don’t know about that,” said Ricigliano.
The mayor also denied an assertion made by Rosenberg and his wife, Charlene, that at a meeting they attended with the mayor and officials days before receipt of the termination letter, the rabbi was asked questions about his counseling sessions. Rosenberg said he considers such sessions confidential.
“We asked how many he counsels, not whom he counsels,” Ricigliano said. “I feel very badly this happened. One of the reasons we called [him] and his wife in was because we didn’t want any surprises or to offend him. We wanted to do this quietly, and it’s gotten so overblown.”
Rosenberg said his congregants are planning to picket outside the municipal offices if he is not reinstated.