Rabbi Robert Tobin and his wife, Lisa, knew they had found a home as soon as they came to West Orange for his interview for the position of religious leader at B’nai Shalom. “We walked out and said to each other, ‘We’re not going to find this anywhere else,’” said the rabbi. “‘We’re not going to find this relationship, this energy, this Judaism anywhere else.’” When he was offered the job, he canceled the rest of his interviews and accepted. On July 1, Tobin became senior rabbi of B’nai Shalom, where he succeeds Rabbi Stanley Asekoff, who served the congregation for 39 years and will continue as rabbi emeritus.
The congregation’s reaction to candidate Tobin was much the same as his to B’nai Shalom, whose search committee had interviewed more than 30 applicants, according to cochair Fani Magnus Monson.
Tobin was the last candidate on their schedule of interviews and the committee had not, until that point, had a clear choice. After meeting with him, the consensus was, said Monson, that he was “captivating and so knowledgeable and so warm and so empathic. We went around the table, and everyone on the committee said yes, yes, yes. It wasn’t just unanimity. It was, ‘Wow! We’ve found our guy!’”
After Tobin met the full congregation, Monson said, “There was an extraordinary outpouring of positive feedback. He teaches masterfully with knowledge and passion — it’s an uplifting experience. And when he is talking to you, you feel you are the only and most important person. It’s both exciting and reassuring to be in a room with him. We all fell in love with each other.”
Just a short time in, Tobin already exuded a certain comfort in his role. Whereas some rabbis might feel some anxiety about taking the pulpit in the wake of a beloved predecessor, he couldn’t be more pleased that Asekoff will stay. “The fact that he has been loved, supported, appreciated, and valued is attractive, because love is an infinite emotion,” said Tobin in a July 15 interview with NJJN. “You want to be with people who know how to love. They’re not going to run out of love just because they love him. And if they didn’t love him, why would I come?”
Tobin, 45, was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Originally from Rochester, NY, he has lived or studied in South Africa, Chile, France, and Israel. He received a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and holds three master’s degrees.
He comes to West Orange from Kansas City, where he was the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom. Tobin and his wife have four children, who are at JCC MetroWest’s Camp Deeny Riback in Flanders this summer and will all be students at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange in the fall.
Tobin decided to pursue a career in the rabbinate after he was already in college. His first love was politics, and he has figured out how to bring current social issues and God together in an elegant way. Take his view on diversity: “God seems to enjoy diversity,” he said. “Look at the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, the planets, the stars, the universe. It’s an incredible tapestry of differences — in colors, shapes, sizes, behaviors, life spans, relationships. Humans are as diverse as that natural order. It’s like the story about humans who stamp coins and they all look the same; but when God stamps the coins, they all come out differently. It’s pretty cool!”
And while he believes Judaism is relevant to politics, he preaches only Torah. “My job is to show people the Torah’s agenda for society — what the sources are, what the topics are. If someone thinks support for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the creation of a just society happens by pulling the lever on row A and another faithful, sincere, observant Jew believes it is best achieved by pulling the lever on row B, as long as I’ve got them voting that agenda, I’ve succeeded as a rabbi.”
‘Strength to strength’
Asked about his agenda at B’nai Shalom, Tobin said he really just wants to take it from strength to strength. “I want B’nai Shalom to be a good shul. At the end of the day, all good shuls are the same in the stuff that really matters,” he said. “When you walk in the building for the first time, did anyone stop to greet you? Did anyone make you comfortable at kiddush? Did anyone care to know your name? Were there children in the halls? Is it the place where you feel you can be your best self?
“There’s a warmth to a good shul that has to do with being welcoming and sincere, and not judgmental.”
The one challenge he knows he needs to confront is the synagogue’s religious school, which is now, as he put it “very personable,” with fewer than 30 children. While he said that it’s a great benefit of such a school that every child gets to have a personal relationship with the rabbi, he is realistic in understanding the need to grow.
In the meantime, he is making some small changes that offer loud signals about his philosophy and style. He’s getting rid of his desk and plans to replace it with a round table surrounded by four or five chairs. Until he does, he refuses to sit behind the desk, which he considers to be a “barrier” with visitors. Instead, he uses chairs he has placed in front of the desk.
It is no coincidence that such an arrangement mirrors in key ways the design of the B’nai Shalom sanctuary, where the pews are arranged in a circle around the bima. It is the exact design he once sketched for a previous congregation when a new sanctuary was being considered. As he explained, “We sit in circles and we see each other. Everyone prays toward God, and the Torah is read toward people, and the person who leads is just leading from the middle. If you get that, you get me, and I think you get B’nai Shalom.”