This article continues a summer series of profiles of new clergy in area synagogues; next week we introduce Rabbi Bill Kraus of the Chai Center for Jewish Life in Watchung.
With his own books in boxes piled high on one side of his office and “inherited” books in the bookcase behind him, Rabbi Dr. Andy Dubin is beginning to make his small office at the Jewish Center of Northwest NJ in Washington a part-time home.
When he started rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Dubin said, he thought he would end up at a more “typical” full-time pulpit; but, he added, this one fits him well.
He spent the first year after his ordination in 2014 creating his own rabbinate in New York City, working with unaffiliated Jews. Although he loved being in a position to offer private classes, mostly to interfaith couples looking for a rabbi to marry them, what he was missing, he said, was community. “Now, I have it. The Jewish Center finishes the puzzle for me.”
Dubin, 49, replaces Rabbi Mary Zamore, who arrived in 2013, and Rabbi Ellen Jay Lewis, who preceded her for 19 years. He will serve part-time as religious leader.
Dubin said he plans to continue teaching in his native New York City, where he and his wife, Nancy, a cantorial student, are raising their four children. Twice a month on Friday nights, Saturday mornings for simhas, and every Sunday morning, he makes the drive from the Inwood neighborhood in upper Manhattan to Washington, where a small building built in 1947 on a residential block houses the community of 68 member families and fewer than 10 religious-school students.
Dubin is even considering creating a new kind of Jewish community in New York with his wife, once she is invested as a cantor — but he plans to stay at the Jewish Center “for a good long time.”
The Jewish Center community is a small but “capable” Reform congregation, he said. “The leadership is so strong. This community takes responsibility for itself. You don’t find that in too many places.” The religious school works as a cooperative, with members serving as teachers and leaders. And when there is no clergy, members of the congregation run Shabbat services.
He loves the center’s family-friendly approach. Already, the congregation has extended itself to his own family in a way, Dubin said, that made him feel “overwhelmingly supported and hugged.”
Although he is still learning his way around New Jersey, the job feels anything but foreign. He’s been teaching Jewish subjects and/or working in the Jewish community since the beginning of his 20-year career as an educator. Dubin holds a PhD in Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has taught in secular environments, from the Trinity School in Manhattan (his alma mater) to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, as well as in Jewish environments like Gann Academy in Waltham, Mass., and the American Hebrew Academy, a Jewish boarding school in Greensboro, NC. He also spent four summers as head-of-tours for National Federation of Temple Youth in Israel, which led to a position at the Union for Reform Judaism as director of college education and founding director of the Meitav Fellowship for Teen Leadership.
The Amherst College graduate had long thought about becoming a rabbi, but didn’t make the leap until he was living in North Carolina and joined Al-Anon to work through addiction issues in his family. Group members were mostly Southern Baptists. “Until I was involved with Al-Anon, God to me was a character in a book,” he said. “With Al-Anon, God became real. I credit those fundamentalist Baptists for steering me to the rabbinate.”
That’s because a basic premise of the group, which follows the 12-step model, is that you have to build a relationship with a power greater than you. “Until then,” Dubin said, “The God I didn’t believe in was the God I thought I was supposed to believe in but didn’t. They helped me see that I didn’t have to define God in a pediatric way.” In the end, he said, “I developed a whole new relationship to God.”
He tries to share this authentic approach in his rabbinate. In a “Humans of NY” interview, posted in February, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t try to provide any answers. I tell people what tradition says, and if they find meaning in it, and it works for them, then they are welcome to apply it. If not, we’ll look at other possibilities. I think that every generation has a responsibility to create its own understanding of religion…. I think that if it has no relevance to people’s lives, Judaism will cease to exist.”
Dubin is looking forward to making the center a place “that attracts and offers what people want.” Because the local Jewish population is small, he said, “We need to represent the Jewish people well and have good, friendly relations” with the community.
“Elections are coming up. I’d love to have a forum here for local candidates,” he said. He’s planning mitzva projects — a serious focus, he said, on bringing the shards of the world back together — and intends to have his congregation participate in interfaith events. He’s already excited about taking part in an interfaith music project with a nearby Catholic church.
“I want this to be a place where the community knows that in this building, good stuff happens, and that the larger community is richer because of our presence.”