Rabbi Clifford Kulwin’s 20-year tenure at Temple B’nai Abraham (TBA) in Livingston was marked by major national events, from 9/11 just two years into his tenure to Hurricane Katrina, the shooting at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School, and the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
For each of these, he was able to find a way to respond that matched the need within the congregation, whether it involved holding a small memorial gathering or a gargantuan communal anti-gun rally that drew over 2,000 people, or speaking out and holding the president responsible.
But as he prepared to retire at the end of June, the Montclair resident revealed that the key to his rabbinate was something much smaller: individual relationships. Pointing to a defining moment early in his time at TBA that he said shaped his rabbinate, Kulwin recalled a young man with school-age children who was diagnosed with a fatal and fast-moving
“He was going through treatment and incredible pain and he was describing it to me,” said Kulwin. “And I said something incredibly stupid, like, ‘I know how you feel.’ There was this silence. And he said, ‘Rabbi with all due respect, you don’t know how I feel.’” Kulwin said he apologized, noting that the incident “was sort of the kick in the butt I needed to make sure that I was very careful about what I say in situations like that … It made me hyper aware that every word that comes out of my mouth is important.”
Kulwin became rabbi emeritus on July 1. Rabbi David Vaisberg, formerly of Temple Emanu-El in Edison, succeeded him as senior rabbi at TBA.
Like one of Kulwin’s formidable predecessors, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Kulwin remained active in the larger community throughout his tenure, serving on the boards of Big Brothers Big Sisters, NJPAC, and the Montclair Public Library, where he also served as president; writing an occasional column in The Star-Ledger; and playing jazz and classical music on the piano, though “not as well as I would like,” he said. Congregants appreciate his public spiritedness and community involvement, and see it as integral to his rabbinate, according to TBA president Bruce Greene. Kulwin agrees. “Doing some of the other stuff that energizes me a bit enables me to bring more energy and creativity and inspiration back into the more regular things” at the synagogue, he said.
At 61, he plans to continue his involvement with the synagogue in his retirement, and isn’t going anywhere (not including his frequent trips to Brazil or the Adirondacks, where he has a home on Paradox Lake. He’ll be in Brazil for the High Holidays, filling in for a colleague on sabbatical). “Why would I leave?” he asks, baffled at the trajectory of so many of his colleagues as they retire. “So many of my good friendships, my personal relationships are based here, and I think that’s the way it should be.”
His accomplishments over two decades are wide ranging, including securing the unaffiliated congregation’s financial future with a “sizeable” endowment (he declined to give a number), providing a $5,000 scholarship for every TBA student who spends a semester in Israel, taking congregants on 15 congregational trips to Israel as well as South America, Spain and Portugal, and Eastern and Central Europe; writing letters to every TBA child at summer camp — he estimates he’s written more than 5,000 letters, and said some have even written back — and road tripping to colleges, from Ann Arbor to Syracuse to Philadelphia, to take TBA students out to dinner. And early in his tenure, he convinced members to park their money in a Department of Commerce bank in Newark so as to provide a boost to an underserved area, a success he is particularly proud of today.
In his honor, the congregation has created The Kulwin Education Fund designed to reduce the rise of religious school tuition, and in the long term, include tuition as part of membership dues. The fund recognizes Kulwin’s love of scholarship and education, according to Greene.
Looking ahead, Kulwin feels Vaisberg is poised for success. Still, he acknowledged that he’s worried about the community’s commitment to social issues.
“People find the time to do what they want to do. And this kind of stuff just isn’t that important anymore,” he said, referring to synagogue volunteering. “You know how many parents I come across who go to every freaking — forget about game — soccer practice?” he asked. “People are so kid focused nowadays. And that takes away from being able to help in the community at large.”
Although the membership at TBA numbers into the 800s, he cringes when thinking about the people who pull their kids out but promise they’ll still have b’nei mitzvah. “I bite my lip. I keep my mouth shut. I can’t say what I’m thinking: I don’t care. I don’t care if your son becomes a bar mitzvah. That’s not what it’s about,” he said in his Rosh HaShanah sermon last year. He believes current generations are losing the understanding that being Jewish is about feeling connected to the larger Jewish community, part of a larger “we,” and that a relationship with a synagogue should not be considered transactional.
“The fact that people look at a synagogue in terms of ROI [return on investment] is bad for Jewish people,” he said.
While Greene told NJJN he is excited about Vaisberg, seeing Kulwin go is nevertheless bittersweet. Greene said he has loved watching the faces of the families of b’nei mitzvah as Kulwin addressed them. “Cliff finds the exact right thing to say to that kid on the bima.”
That’s also the case under difficult circumstances, as when, for example, in Greene’s family, a child went through a terrible illness. “He knew what to say and what not to say,” said Greene. “What he did for us was, you know, incredible and above and beyond what a rabbi needs to do, and I know he does that for others.”
TBA was not Kulwin’s first pulpit, but it’s where he learned to be a rabbi, he said. The Champaign, Ill., native, who earned a bachelor of arts from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and received rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College: Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, served for a couple of years as rabbi in Rio de Janeiro and then spent almost 15 years as Latin American director and director of international affairs and development with the World Union for Progressive Judaism. (He is fluent in Portuguese.)
He and his wife, Robin, were already living in Montclair when he was contacted to see if he had any interest in taking over the pulpit at TBA when Rabbi Barry Friedman retired. The timing was serendipitous, as Kulwin had already decided it was time for a change. But never having heard of TBA, he was nervous — until he arrived at the apartment of a congregant where he was to be interviewed by the search committee. Within 10 minutes, Kulwin knew it was a match.
Apparently, it took the others in the room just slightly longer: 20 minutes. Jay Mayesh, who was on the committee, recalled that even though Kulwin didn’t quite fit the job description, 20 minutes into the interview his friend David Rocker scribbled a note to him betting “five-to-three this is our new rabbi.” In an e-mail to NJJN, Mayesh described Rocker and himself as “world-class skeptics and unreconstructed cynics,” and so “For both of us to be so immediately taken is really saying something.”
He added, “The three of us, Cliff, David, and I, have remained good friends ever since. David and I continue to distrust humanity. Cliff continues to have high hopes for the human race. I guess you have to be that way in order to achieve such success as a congregational rabbi.”