On Rabbi Bill Kraus’s makeshift desk at the Chai Center for Jewish Life are two toy cars — a yellow cab and a gray vehicle he identifies as “Uber,” toy figures of David and Goliath, and a cookie cutter that spells out in Hebrew letters “Chai Center.”
This last item, he said, is a reminder “that we don’t practice cookie cutter Judaism here,” he told a visitor on a recent Thursday morning at the synagogue in Watchung, where he became rabbi-in-residence on July 1.
Little about the community, or Kraus, fits in tidy boxes, and that may be what makes them a good fit. In a wide-ranging conversation that touched on big issues like the future of the Jewish community, aging in the rabbinate, and what it means to be a part-time rabbi in the 21st century, Kraus shared his vision for the Chai Center.
The center started in 2013 as an independent, unaffiliated congregation in Warren with 18 members. Today there are about 100 family members, and the community moved recently to a suite of offices in a building in Watchung. In an alcove in one room is a small ark with a Torah scroll inside; on this morning, Kraus’s office is a conference room, with quotes from Jewish texts painted in swirls and rectangles on the walls.
Like his predecessor, Rabbi Josh Goldstein, Kraus leads Shabbat morning Torah study and worship services twice a month. The community also hosts a K-12 religious school with 70 students currently enrolled, and there is a Shabbat experience every week.
Kraus likes to call it a “breakthrough” congregation because in his view, it is beginning to chart the course for Jewish communities going forward. “It doesn’t take on a look, feel, aura such that those who are not members feel they have to be of a certain background, mold, type, clan, group, or they won’t fit in,” he said. “We don’t have machers or committees.” And he added, “I am most emphatically not the CEO of this community. Good God, that’s great!”
The position is technically part-time, accommodating Kraus’s primary responsibilities as chaplain at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.
“From 4 p.m. until 8 a.m., I’m on call at Holy Name Hospital,” he said. “When I’m here, I bring that with me. This is not the center of my life, but in that way I’m a mirror of the community.”
At 62, when many rabbis (or their congregations) begin to think about retirement, Kraus, ordained by the Reform Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1980, has the bubbly energy of a younger man. He believes his life experience makes him suited not for retirement but for congregational life and gives him the right perspective, particularly for a part-time rabbinate.
Kraus did not follow a traditional career trajectory. In addition to a stint as assistant rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston in the early 1990s, he played the rabbi (what else?) in Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral, which ran Off-Broadway, and served as national director of Jewish relationships for the Boy Scouts of America.
He came out as gay when he was 36, after having been married with children. While he does not think of himself as a pioneer, he said he does “have something to offer” younger LGBT people. He was beginning to put together what he called an “LGBT-friendly havura” when the Chai Center knocked on his door.
He now lives with his husband, Brett, in West Orange. He views returning to Watchung as a kind of “homecoming,” having lived in the area with his ex-wife and two boys for 12 years beginning in 1986. He has no plans to move or to give up the beach house he and Brett call their hideaway. “This congregation allows me to have a relationship with the guy I love and won’t come between us,” he said.
He thinks the biggest challenge ahead is the changing nature of what it means to be a Jewish community. “There’s no clear eruv around the Jewish community or individual Jews as there may once have been,” he said. “In 2015, Jews are like everyone else only more so; the biggest challenge is to define ourselves as Jews. What are we going to do to maintain ourselves as individuals and community?”
His solution is also his ultimate vision for the Chai Center: “that this community will undertake studying Torah, serving God, performing acts of loving-kindness, and understanding how to make the world a better place.”
In the meantime, he said, he is learning about the community. “If you look at a Picasso, you don’t put it in a new frame until you understand what the artist was thinking when he painted it. I see myself framing the efforts of the individuals who make up the Chai Center. But not until I understand it better.”