If you ask Michael Jay to account for his time since he began studying for the Conservative rabbinate in 2004, the numbers just don’t add up.
“I went to school full-time at the Jewish Theological Seminary and I was practicing as a real estate attorney full-time and I was running Rimon” — a series of adult Jewish education classes — “at the JCC,” he said. “I spent 75 percent of my time studying at JTS, 75 percent of my time at my law practice, and 75 percent of my time being a father and a husband — and somehow it all got done.
“I spent very little time sleeping,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Feb. 8 phone interview.
Finally, that dividing of time is beginning to pay off. Since last fall, Jay has been religious leader at the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach Island, a congregation of 300 families in a shore community that Jay and his wife, Sheri Horowitz Jay, have come to love.
After being ordained in May 2012, Jay and his wife began hunting for rabbinical openings — “but we didn’t want to leave our community,” West Caldwell, where for 25 years they have lived and been members of Congregation Agudath Israel. “Our opportunities were somewhat limited,” he said, and he considered returning to a full-time position as a lawyer.
Then he received a phone call from the JCC on Long Beach Island, the 18-mile-long barrier island off Ocean County, saying its part-time rabbi, Jacob Friedman, was taking a leave for medical reasons. “I said, ‘Oh, wow.’ We had vacationed on Long Beach Island and Sheri had spent her childhood summers there.”
Jay began leading services at the JCC during the summer. Although Friedman had intended to return to the pulpit for the High Holy Days, he was too ill to do so. Jay took his place on the bima.
‘A nice fit’
“It is a nice fit for him and a nice fit for us,” said Rose Valentine, a Long Beach Island resident and past president of the synagogue, who was instrumental in connecting Jay with the congregation.
“We have had a lot of things happen since he came,” Valentine told NJJN. “Sandy played havoc on our members’ businesses and homes. We’ve had members who have passed away. He jumped right in and made us all grateful that he was on board.”
In November, Friedman died at age 79, and Jay was offered a pulpit in a place he wanted to be. “I am in love with the community,” he said. “It is a richly cultured place, it is eclectic, and it goes from folks who are not 100 percent observant to folks who read from the Torah and their religion is the purpose of their lives. It is a very warm place. What’s not to like?”
The synagogue is just two blocks from the ocean in the tiny town of Spray Beach. “It is just an incredible experience holding services on the beach,” Jay said.
The original building, erected in 1951, was torn down and replaced in 2011 with a new structure, which is raised six feet off the ground. “When Sandy came it withstood water that came up four-and-three-quarters feet,” Jay said. “But there was a lot of devastation and we have members who are still suffering. We are constantly reaching out to see where they are and how they need help.”
During most of the week, the rabbi continues to help his law clients as well. On Friday mornings he drives down to LBI, cooks dinner, and prepares for Shabbat. During the winter months he has been holding services at 7:30 p.m. on Friday nights, followed usually by an oneg Shabbat with coffee and cake and some sort of learning session. There are study sessions, but as yet no services on Saturdays. “We started davening on the beach on Sunday morning, and I have to tell you, praying with the sun coming up really moves you.”
Only about 10 percent of the congregation’s member families live on LBI year-round, among a population of 10,000 that increases tenfold during the summer months. On Friday evenings off-season, 25 to 30 people usually attend services, 60-70 during the summer, when vacationers and shore home owners come to the island.
Jay is eager to increase the year-round active membership. “If we could turn it into a full-time growing congregation, then we would consider it the biggest blessing we could possibly have,” he said.