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Retiring rabbi says he’ll miss ‘purity of rabbinate’
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Retiring rabbi says he’ll miss ‘purity of rabbinate’

Goldstein leaving Springfield pulpit after three decades

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Joshua Goldstein, the religious leader since 1982 at Temple Sha’arey Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Springfield, will retire at the end of this month. Throughout the year, congregants have participated in a variety of goodbye activities, from concerts to scholarly lectures to celebratory kabalat Shabbat services.

Goldstein told NJJN that he is “ready” for retirement. “I’m looking forward to decompressing and not having the constant stress of worrying about the congregation 24/7. I’m looking forward to being a mentor to my successor and to becoming rabbi emeritus — still being here but knowing my limits and when to back off.”

And he acknowledged, having just become a grandfather, that he is “looking forward to spending time with my twin granddaughters in Marlboro.”

Goldstein officially retires on June 30. He will be succeeded by Rabbi Ari Rosenberg, now assistant rabbi at the Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, a Reform congregation in Great Barrington, Mass.

In an office full of boxes and half-empty shelves, he met with a visitor in mid-June. His trademark gorillas still occupied their usual place on the shelf just above his desk as he discussed his rabbinate, the changes in the Reform movement over the last three decades, and his own legacy.

Other rabbis preparing to leave their pulpits may find the packing process sad, Goldstein said, but he is finding it cathartic. “Gathering the tools I’ve used over 30 years — books, articles, and letters — and uncovering things feels like I’m an archaeologist. It’s been very beautiful and special to find letters congregants wrote years ago expressing their love and appreciation. It’s almost a spiritual exercise, and helps me feel a sense of closure.”

Still, he acknowledged there are aspects of the job he will miss, especially the “purity of the rabbinate” as he termed it — teaching, interacting with children, engaging in high levels of adult study.

Through his years at Sha’arey Shalom, the Reform movement has grown more traditional in observance, closer to Israel as a Jewish homeland, and more inclusive, especially where gay marriage is concerned.

But Goldstein, who was attracted to the temple for its traditionalism, said he, and Sha’arey Shalom, did not follow those trends; in many ways, they were ahead of them. Other Reform synagogues struggled over the acceptance of wearing kipot during worship, over observing two days of Rosh Hashana, over performing Tashlich, even over holding Yizkor services four times a year. These customs were already entrenched at Sha’arey Shalom when Goldstein arrived. Israel, moreover, has long been Goldstein’s passion — something he came to, he said, after reading Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic by Hillel Halkin (“It changed my life,” he said), and he cultivated a love of Israel among many of his congregants.

He created a bit of a brouhaha in the 1990s when he officiated at a gay marriage and refused to back down despite the discomfort of some congregants. That was fine with him; he doesn’t like the idea of a Reform congregation as “convenient” Judaism. “I want to challenge our members. We are not here just to soothe our members but to provoke them and be a catalyst for Jewish growth.”

Goldstein hopes that in addition to his love for Israel and his respect for tradition, his time at Sha’arey Shalom will be remembered for his building a community of lifelong Jewish learners.

“We have developed a preschool, a first-rate religious school, and a successful teen program,” he said. “But the litmus test is really adult education, and I think we can stand with any synagogue when it comes to adult education.” He bristles at the thought of “pediatric Judaism.” “If we focus only on educating children, and adults just drop off their children, what kind of role model are the adults?”

His regular Thursday morning classes have become his signature adult learning opportunity. Going on for more than 10 years, participants have read a range of books, from the popular to the scholarly. “This is not an ‘Intro to Judaism’ class but advanced study that gives me such fulfillment and joy,” he said.

Bobbie Brown is among the class regulars. A member of the congregation for 47 years, she started participating when she and her husband retired. The class topics, she said, “lead to very stimulating conversations. It always gives me a new perspective on Judaism and being Jewish. It’s very thought-provoking — and Rabbi Goldstein also has a great sense of humor that comes out in the class.”

But Goldstein will also miss his younger students. “I love love love being with preschool and religious school kids. It allows me to be a child,” he said. “And I love interacting with teens, fooling around and talking seriously as well about Jewish identity and stuff.”

Congregant Mindy Schreff credits the mentoring of Goldstein (as well as Cantor Amy Daniels) with her transformation from parent volunteer to master Jewish educator. She is now religious school director at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Reform synagogue in South Orange.

Goldstein, she said, “was an amazing mentor. He embraced whatever I brought. As a colleague, he would listen. He didn’t always agree, but he always gave me space and didn’t stifle me.”

She noted his gift with kids — she often saw him lying on the floor with the preschoolers, she said — but he was particularly good with teens. “He knew how to engage kids who really needed his attention,” Schreff said. “He loved the kids who were a challenge to many classroom teachers. And the kids loved him.”

An avid basketball fan, Goldstein found it easy to connect on that level with kids, especially boys, who were athletes. Schreff pointed to the longevity of his relationship with teens as proof of his impact. “There were always college kids traipsing into his office without an appointment to show him pictures of a trip to Israel or most recent adventures. He was always playing basketball in the hall with teens or lying on the floor with the preschoolers,” she said.

If education was the ticket for many congregants, his passion for Israel also changed lives — like that of congregant Rita Fink. She acknowledged, “I didn’t know that much about Israel…. He showed us how important it was to respect and devote ourselves to the land,” said Fink, who has now been to Israel three times. “I believe of all the things I will take away from his rabbinate, it is his deep commitment to Israel.”

If Goldstein’s impact is felt in different ways by different congregants, they all echo each other when it comes to his ultimate legacy: “the way he has cared for the community,” as past congregation president Mark Sperber put it. “He’s very hands-on and concerned about what could happen in the congregation at any given time, and he’s always there to give advice. He made the congregation more friendly because of his personal relationships.”

In fact, he’s the reason Sperber started going to synagogue regularly. “I found I wanted to go to temple to hear his sermons and participate on Friday night. He was the catalyst of my wanting to be involved. Obviously, the next rabbi will have very large shoes to fill,” said Sperber.

For Goldstein, there have been challenges — but he said, “Whatever challenges I have faced, they were made easier by recognizing that I have a place I love here that supports me, and I support them.

“Twenty years from now, when I look back and ask what did I do with my life, I will say, ‘I lived a life in which I helped people live enriched Jewish lives. I’ve helped people appreciate their heritage. It’s very meaningful. God, thank you!’”

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