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Shul celebrates ‘getting it right’ 30 years ago
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Shul celebrates ‘getting it right’ 30 years ago

Rabbi George Nudell marks milestone at Cong. Beth Israel

In 1982, the Scotch Plains Conservative congregation then known as Temple Israel — now Congregation Beth Israel — was looking for a new rabbi.

Lew Markowitz, who was president at the time, called the person at the Rabbinical Assembly who handled placement and told them, “We’re a small but vibrant congregation, and we’re not going to settle for second best.” In the 26 years since its founding, they had had seven different rabbis; if they didn’t get it right this time, he felt, the congregation might be in danger of dissolving.

The next resume to arrive was a game-changer. It was from a young man from Minnesota named George Nudell, recently married and sporting a big beard. “He came out to Scotch Plains,” said Markowitz, “and as soon as I met him, I knew he was the person for us. He was clearly very bright but there was nothing pretentious about him. And he was so easy to talk to, I felt as if I’d known him for years.”

Markowitz’s wife, Heather, who cochaired the rabbi selection committee with Lou Beckerman, agreed.

That was 30 years ago. In 1994, the congregation merged with Plainfield’s Temple Beth El and expanded its premises off Martine Avenue. The membership swelled from 172 to a peak of 500. Today Congregation Beth Israel is a thriving “mid-size” congregation, known for its dedicated volunteers, knowledgeable laity, and deep connection to Israel.

“Rabbi Nudell has not only presided over the life-cycle events of several generations of our synagogue family, but he continues to be a remarkable teacher who imparts his considerable knowledge in a warm, comfortable, and meaningful manner,” said David Littman, the current congregation president. “We are most fortunate to have enjoyed his leadership for 30 years and are thrilled to celebrate this great milestone with him.”

The congregation will honor Nudell on Friday evening, May 10. The celebration, which is free and open to the community, will take place during the traditional Shabbat service, which begins at 7:30 p.m. Special presentations will be made to Nudell, and the synagogue’s choir will sing in his honor. Following the service, all attendees are invited to a dessert reception.

Born and brought up in Minneapolis, Nudell earned a BA in Hebrew and a BS in secondary education at the University of Minnesota. He taught for five years at the Minneapolis Talmud Torah before moving to New York, where he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1982.

While in the city, he met and married his wife, Dr. Linda “Liba” Casson, who has a PhD in physical chemistry and works as an applications scientist. They have three children, Elazar, Yoav, and Talia.

The Nudells share a passion for Israel, which became a focus of his rabbinate. The family had considered making aliya, but because their eldest child was born with spina bifida, they opted to stay in New Jersey to ensure that he could get the best care.

They also became deeply involved in helping others dealing with disability. Nudell is a past president of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Ministerial Association, and he and Casson helped to found what has become the Spina Bifida Association of the Tri-State Area. Nudell served as an ethics adviser to the Infant Care Review Committee of Overlook Hospital, and has served on the board of directors of Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside.

Nudell is the author of There Ought to Be a Clearinghouse: A History of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards. In 2009 he received the Keter Torah Award from the New Jersey Region of United Synagogue.

Nudell was raised in an observant family who chose to join a Conservative shul “most likely because it was seen as more ‘modern,’ compared to what they had known growing up,” he said.

Asked why he chose his career path, he recalled that when he was a teenager, his synagogue’s rabbi heard him and his friends complaining about Hebrew school. “He challenged us to go into the field of Jewish education to see if we could make the Hebrew school experience better.” Nudell became a teacher and considered getting a doctorate in education, but decided that as a rabbi, “I could teach more subjects and more ages, reaching parents as well as children.”

The most significant change he has seen over the past 30 years is in the kind of person who joins the synagogue. “American Jews are all about ‘autonomy’ these days,” he said. “Many don’t feel the same obligation to join a synagogue or be supportive of the community and federation, the way previous generations did. But consequently, those who do join tend to have stronger Hebrew backgrounds and are more committed to Judaism itself.

“I hate to generalize about people this way, but it’s as if we have fewer members but of a higher caliber of observance and knowledge.

“That being said,” Nudell continued, “I have to say that the membership and leadership of CBI has never failed to astonish me over the past 30 years. We have amazing volunteers and great leadership who have helped CBI grow substantially since I’ve been here.”

He said that he is pleased by the abundance of people able and willing to chant haftara and who are comfortable following the synagogue’s services, which are conducted exclusively in Hebrew, and by the congregation’s knowledgeable, committed connection to Israel.

As for the future, Nudell said, “I have always wanted to live a life that is neither devoid of wonder nor of holiness. God willing that will continue. I hope to see my children go the huppa, and I pray to God they will give me grandchildren. The rest I will figure out as time goes on.”

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