The decline of the synagogue as “the vehicle for how the Jewish future was going to be worked out,” said Rabbi Gerald I. Weider, means pulpit rabbis must learn to adapt.
Delivering the keynote speech at the inaugural Rabbinic Retreat of the Rabbinical Association of Middlesex and Monmouth County, Weider described the changing roles of rabbis in a Jewish landscape where mega-donors have personal agendas, myriad organizations pursue their own narrow focuses, and federations “see themselves as the entity for enhancing and maintaining Jewish life in their local communities.”
“Developing openness to change is critical to a rabbi’s success because we cannot possibly anticipate the changes we will see in our increasing life spans,” said Weider, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn and current director of the Rabbinic Cabinet of Jewish Federations of North America.
The retreat, held June 8 at Harbour Mansion in Long Branch, was the first event of the newly formed and newly named association. Following the merger of the Middlesex and Monmouth federations in January, the Rabbinical Association of Middlesex County decided to expand by including Monmouth rabbis in its membership.
Rabbi Jay Weinstein of Young Israel of East Brunswick is the new president of the combined group. He succeeded Rabbi Robert Wolkoff, religious leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, whose term as president of the Middlesex association expired on the day of the retreat. The two rabbis planned the event with the help of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ.
The retreat, which was open to all area rabbis, attracted more than 20 clergy, representing Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform congregations; the Hillels at Rutgers and Princeton; and other local organizations.
When he was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in the 1970s, Weider said, “Pulpit rabbinate Judaism was [generally believed] to be the engine to pass on Judaism, and the synagogue was the vehicle for how the Jewish future was going to be worked out.”
In subsequent decades, synagogues, federations, individual philanthropists, and other organizations began to compete on the same turf.
Weider praised federations for “yeoman work in caring for needy Jews and non-Jews,” but indicated concern that “far too often [they] went on their merry way without regard for synagogues or rabbinic feelings or needs.”
He continued: “It seems to me that everyone should be able to bond together around four basic principles of Jewish life: Jewish wisdom and learning, tikun olam from a Jewish point of view, creating sacredness in life, and the creation of communities that care about and nurture their participants.”
These values could provide a launching pad for partnerships between federation and the synagogue, he said.
In his own talk, Keith Krivitzky, CEO of the Heart of NJ federation, argued for recognition of multiple approaches to Jewish life.
He said that Jewish institutions, including synagogues, federations, and other organizations, must explore a variety of ways to engage their constituents.
The Heart of NJ federation, he said, was created to serve as an “enabler, catalyst, and sometimes provocateur. We want to support all sorts of Jewish particularism.”
“Success for a federation should not be measured solely by the amount of money it raises, but by the number of people it impacts,” Krivitzky said.
In a luncheon presentation, Rabbi Esther Reed, senior associate director of Rutgers Hillel, and Rabbi Sara Rich, educational director for Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel, described the need for Hillels to identify and reach out to incoming Jewish students as they arrive (Reed urged congregational rabbis to provide names as early as possible), and the need to allay fears about anti-Israel sentiments on campus.
“Most students go through their campus experience without battling anti-Israel haters on campus,” said Reed. “Of course, the BDS movement exists, and groups like Student for Justice in Palestine work hard to bring an anti-Israel agenda to campus, but Hillels work hard to create our own pro-Israel agenda for the campus community. We also offer myriad other programs and activities, so before you create fear for incoming students, make sure they understand that there’s a lot more to Jewish life on campus than just battling the anti-Israel groups.”
Other speakers included Alan M. Singer, PhD, a therapist specializing in marriage and parenting issues, and standup comedian Eli Lebowicz.