When Rabbi Efrayim Unterman and his wife came to Young Israel of East Brunswick to spend a Shabbat in the months before his hiring, they felt a connection so strong they knew immediately they had found their spiritual home.
“When we visited we were just astounded by the warmth and dedication,” said Unterman, who became religious leader at the 220-family Orthodox synagogue Aug. 1. “There was this feeling, a passion, within the community. Rivkie and I both felt a deep connection with the people just from spending one Shabbat here.”
Unterman himself grew up in a number of Jewish communities throughout North America and Israel, including West Hartford, Conn.; North Miami Beach; and Toronto. He came to YIEB from the 200-family Congregation Torat Emet in Columbus, Ohio, where, as associate rabbi and director of education and outreach, his duties included teaching, overseeing the youth department, and developing programs to engage the broader community.
At YIEB, he has replaced Rabbi Jay Weinstein, who left the congregation to make aliya last month and is now conducting special projects for the office of Knesset Member Dr. Avraham Neguise (Likud), who advocates in particular for fellow immigrants from Ethiopia.
Unterman was educated at Yeshivat Torat Shraga in Jerusalem, earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s in Jewish education from Yeshiva University in New York, and ordination from its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 2010.
He spent a year as an educator at the Kings Bay Y in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, before his five-year stint in Columbus.
One of the highlights of Unterman’s tenure in the Ohio shul, he said, was establishing a program for young professionals, which drew as many as 250 participants to a monthly Shabbat program and meal prepared by a kosher caterer in a downtown event space. Unterman said the program was so popular it drew young Jews from as far away as Cleveland, 144 miles and a more-than-two-hour drive from Columbus.
The program was held “away from the organized Jewish community,” said Unterman. “The next day we would have a smaller lunch. Many who came were nonobservant so they went home and came back. We found a lot of young professionals, especially those raised in nonobservant homes, didn’t want to attend their parents’ synagogue, and even observant adults just weren’t comfortable in their parents’ shul. Here they could socialize and be with other young Jews their own age.”
While he said he would be interested in starting a similar program in central New Jersey sometime down the road, his first priority is to understand his new synagogue and its needs and “to develop a relationship with people I don’t yet know and build a spiritual community where people can lead meaningful Jewish lives.” Unterman added that, unlike in his last position, he is solely responsible for overseeing all religious needs and duties of the entire congregation. “I want to foster and support community.”
YIEB received more than 50 applications for the position. In a joint statement, congregation president Louis Safren and past president Jeffrey Chustckie said Unterman had “the perfect blend of spirituality, humanity, and compassion our community was looking for.”
Rivkie Unterman formerly worked in the curating department of The Jewish Museum in New York City and most recently was employed by the Ohio State University Library, cataloguing Hebrew and Yiddish-language books. The couple have two children, Refael, four, and Chaya, one.
“We love it here so far,” Rabbi Unterman told NJJN. “We’ve been welcomed with arms wide open. I’ve heard a lot of wonderful things about the entire community.”