Rabbi trades sports radio for pulpit in Scotch Plains

Rabbi trades sports radio for pulpit in Scotch Plains

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Howard Tilman said the people of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains are “friendly and humble and down to earth.” Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Rabbi Howard Tilman said the people of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains are “friendly and humble and down to earth.” Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

Sometimes when Rabbi Howard Tilman is giving a sermon from the bima, his radio announcer voice kicks in. It’s deeper with a fuller tone than his regular speaking voice. Awareness of this mode of delivery is “just my cue to project a bit better,” said Tilman, who took the helm of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains July 5. He replaced Rabbi George Nudell, who retired from the congregation after 34 years.

Tilman, 33, sees plenty of overlap between being a sports radio broadcaster, the job that began his professional life, and the role of rabbi.

“A producer told me on my first day that the most important thing [in radio] is building relationships,” he said, and being a rabbi “is all about building relationships — not with reporters and ball players, but with members of the congregation.” Radio, he added, requires “presenting information in an entertaining manner,” a task he must also fulfill now, but the subject matter is “not a Yankees game, but a Torah portion.”

Tilman was a radio producer for Sporting News Radio (now SB National Radio) from 2006 to 2009, and had a gig as a sports announcer at Northwestern University, where he earned his undergraduate degree. 

“It was fun to spend Sundays watching nine football games and talking sports all day,” he said of his first career, acknowledging, “Sometimes, I wish I could do that again.” But ultimately, he found the field unfulfilling, from the feelings he was left with at the end of the day, to the difficulty he had taking off for Shabbat and holidays. “I just realized Judaism was calling me back,” he said.

Tilman grew up in the Jewish world. His father, David, was a cantor at the Conservative Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Pa. He attended day school at Akiba Hebrew Academy (now the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pa.), spent summers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, and was active in the Hagesher Region of United Synagogue Youth. 

Today, Tilman has left behind a focus on trades and college drafts, stats and playoffs, shifting his attention to being a role model for community members, connecting people to Jewish life, and serving as a source of wisdom, he said. 

In a few weeks, he expects to add learning how to balance work and family to the equation; he and his wife, Naomi Karp Tilman, are expecting their first child in August. 

Topping his list of issues to address as he assumes the role of religious leader at Beth Israel is the disconnect many people have between embracing science and believing in God. 

“We need to do a better job looking at religion from modernity,” Tilman said. “People say, ‘I believe in science,’ as if it’s a religion or faith. That’s shocking and counterintuitive.” 

He pointed out that people often hold onto — and then reject — a pediatric view of God. “People are taught about God when they are young and never delve deeper,” he said. “A five-year-old has certain clothes to wear and certain beliefs of God.” While those clothes will be replaced as the child grows, he said, often the youngster’s beliefs are not replaced with something more sophisticated as he or she matures. 

A more evolved thinker who says, “No, God isn’t all of that” and is not “the God who is all-powerful, who knows everything, who is everywhere, does not make you a non-believer.” It just means you are “looking for something deeper.” 

Tilman worries about the current political climate, which he called “not healthy,” and he advocates “more dialogue and a better sense of understanding” among congregants. He believes the synagogue community should be involved in the issues of the day without being partisan. “We can talk about the issues rooted in tradition and text,” he said. “A lot of hot-button issues are complex, but we need to bring them to the table.” He offered his approach: “Rabbis are experts in Judaism and Jewish values, but not policy.”

Current events in Israel, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to abandon the agreement to implement an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, leave Tilman mostly exasperated. “I can’t say it’s shocking. Conservative and Reform Judaism just have not been accepted or respected for many years” in Israel, he said. “This is just the latest issue coming up. I’m disappointed, and it was offensive. But my expectations have been lowered over time.”

After receiving ordination from the American Jewish University in Los Angeles in 2014, Tilman spent three years at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Florida. He said he is happy to be closer to his old home and in a Jewish community with more extensive infrastructure, and he feels like Beth Israel is a good fit. “People are friendly and humble and down to earth,” he said. “Every synagogue describes itself as haimish, but this place really lives up to that. It’s a good, humble place, and that was a big selling point for us.”

He is, however, a bit surprised to find himself in the Garden State. Calling Scotch Plains “a place that can become home for us,” he said, “I never thought I’d say that about New Jersey — I’m from the other side of the river,” he said, referring to the Delaware.

Though he’s traded his polo shirts and baseball hats for rabbinic robes and a kipa, he still finds room for sports, even in his professional life. The foul ball he caught at a game he went to when he was a kid is encased in glass on his desk along with a replica statue of famed Phillies sports announcer Harry Kalas, and he’s got plenty of sports paraphernalia ready to be hung in his office. And after winning $5,000 on a Jeopardy! spinoff called “Sports Jeopardy!” he fused athletics and the holiday of Pesach in a blog posting. 

“If I had appeared on the show but not won my episode — Dayeinu. If I had won my episode but not in as dramatic a fashion — Dayeinu. If I had won my episode in dramatic fashion, coming from behind on Final Jeopardy to win by two points…. No. That’s it. That was pretty awesome.”

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