Rabbi Steven Bayar, who will officially retire as spiritual leader of Millburn’s Conservative Congregation B’nai Israel after 30 years at the end of the month, said he was almost passed over for the position.
“I was concerned they wouldn’t want me because I had a police record,” he said. “I figured they might move on to other candidates.”
In December 1985, when Bayar was rabbi at dual-affiliated Reconstructionist-Conservative Mishkan Torah Synagogue in Greenbelt, Md., he was arrested, along with four other suburban Maryland rabbis, for protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews in front of the then-Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C.
“They were going to fine us $50, but we refused, as a group, to pay, and chose to spend 15 days in prison as an expression of our concern over the plight of Soviet Jewry,” said Bayar, now 65. “They took us to the Federal Correction Complex in Petersburg, Va. We were released just before Christmas.”
Luckily, Bayar convinced B’nai Israel that his brush with the law was for the good of Soviet Jewry, and he was selected as the congregation’s leader in 1989. During his three-decade tenure at the synagogue, he moved the congregation from Conservative leaning to Orthodox to Conservative egalitarian, and is well known for implementing, with the non-profit Millburn-based Good People Fund, a tzedakah program involving McRoberts, Ky., an impoverished town of 784 residents with a median household income of $18,333, according to the 2010 census.
“When I first came, women weren’t called to the Torah or anything like that,” said Bayar. “I was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and wanted to, I guess, modernize the services.”
He accomplished that goal, according to Cantor Lorna Wallach, who worked with Bayar for 21 years and will continue at B’nai Israel, along with interim Rabbi Paul Resnick, who, beginning Aug. 1, will work in that capacity for a year while a search for a permanent replacement progresses.
“I want to thank Rabbi Bayar for his support the past 21 years,” said Wallach. “His support for me, as far as what music I wanted to utilize in our services, was always there. He cares about all people, no matter who they are, and his support of Israel made me feel the connection. We worked well together.”
Wallach also appreciated the physical changes to B’nai Israel’s sanctuary under Bayar, who will become the synagogue’s rabbi emeritus after he steps down on July 31.
“We changed from a raised bima to a service in the round, with our bima and Torah reading chair on the same level as the congregation,” said Wallach. “Rabbi Bayar didn’t want anyone to be above anyone else in our sanctuary, and [believed] that all were equal in our worship.”
Harvey Brenner, who has been B’nai Israel’s executive director for the past two years, feels Bayar’s push toward egalitarianism was the right move.
“When I came to B’nai Israel, Rabbi Bayar really emphasized how the shift to egalitarian worship was needed, and I see how it functions in our synagogue,” said Brenner. “He also really helped me in getting to know the synagogue when I got here, as far as what we do and why we do it.”
Wallach is looking forward to working with Resnick, who, for more than three decades, was the camp director and, more recently, the senior engagement and planning director at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, the Conservative Movement-affiliated summer camp in Wingdale, N.Y., with a winter office in Englewood.
“I was both a camper and a counselor at Camp Ramah, and I got to know Rabbi Resnick as both a leader and friend,” she said. “I am looking forward to working with him at our synagogue.”
Said B’nai Israel president Mariela Markelis Dybner, “Rabbi Bayar made us what we are. We now look forward to welcoming Rabbi Resnick as our interim spiritual leader for the year.” She also thanked the members of the rabbinic search committee (under the direction of co-chairs Jonathan Engel and Lisa Biller) for their efforts in bringing Resnick to the synagogue.
When he steps away from B’nai Israel, Bayar plans to spend much of his time growing jsurge.org, “a trans-denominational organization,” according to its Facebook page, consisting of an online community of Jewish professionals, clergy, and community leaders who share articles and resources for people interested in deepening their connections to Judaism. Bayar is the director.
He was the lead author of the ZIV/Giraffe Curriculum (Righteous Person’s Foundation) and, as co-founder of Ikkar Publishing, has written more than 40 curricula, including the “Philosophy of Moshe Chaim Luzzatto” and “Teaching Jewish Theology through Science Fiction and Fantasy.” His curricula are currently being used in over 900 educational settings in the United States, South America, and Israel, according to jsurge.org.
Bayar is also co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education” (Torah Aura Publications) with Francine Hirschman; the children’s book “Rachel and Mischa” (Kar-Ben Pub) with ex-wife Ilene Bayar, now Strauss; and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation” (Town House Press) with Good People Fund executive director Naomi Eisenberger, also a former B’nai Israel president.
Bayar, who is on the upper school faculty of Golda Och Academy in West Orange, said he is proud of his contributions to B’nai Israel. Over the years, he said, he has learned from everyone.
“Especially the ones who disagree with me,” he said.