Spiritual jam: Rabbi David Vaisberg takes helm of Temple B’nai Abraham
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
On his first day at Temple B’nai Abraham (TBA) in Livingston, Rabbi David Vaisberg, 35, was discussing his belief that Jewish values are inherent in restricting solitary confinement in New Jersey prisons. “Every human life is valuable,” he told NJJN.
Vaisberg is no stranger to social justice issues and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. In his seven years at the Reform Temple Emanu-El in Edison, his first pulpit, he organized clergy to march on Washington, coordinated rallies supporting communities targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), hosted interfaith dialogues, and supported Jersey Renews (a broad-based coalition urging action on climate change). He also served as president of the Metuchen-Edison Area Interfaith Clergy Association and of the Rabbinical Association of Middlesex County.
Vaisberg became senior rabbi on July 1 (succeeding now-retired rabbi Clifford Kulwin), jumping at the chance to be at the pulpit once held by civil rights activist Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz. Once the position was brought to his attention, “I couldn’t unsee it, and it felt like a moonshot,” he said, adding, “It’s a historic pulpit with an illustrious history.”
As two of his three cats wandered about the living room of his Maplewood home (the dog stayed upstairs), he sipped coffee and talked with NJJN about his vision for TBA.
While he plans to continue taking on pressing issues, from immigration to racial justice, on his own, he’ll be more discriminating regarding which hot-button issues to include in his sermons. “I’m limited in how much boat rocking I can do,” he said. “There is speaking out about what’s right, but you also want to speak out in a way that is heard.”
He knows that not everyone at TBA shares his perspective, and that building trust takes time. “So right now, the extent of that activity will precisely be relationship building, connecting with people of different viewpoints, and helping to build a sense of respect,” he said.
Vaisberg hopes that TBA, an unaffiliated congregation with more than 850 member families, can live up to its potential. “This community has so much ability and resources and connections to impact this world positively and make change,” he said. “I want to ensure that this is a synagogue at the vanguard of social justice and good Jewish learning.”
He brings a millennial’s skill set and sensibility to the rabbinate. His interfaith podcast, “We’re All Frocked,” which he hosts with two friends, an imam and a priest (cue the joke but skip the bar since the imam can’t go in), is both serious and irreverent; he views the rabbi as entrepreneur, and rejects out of hand the turf battles that often pit synagogues against one another.
On that last point, part of his work will likely involve collaboration with nearby congregations. He views that kind of shared experience as cost-saving and efficient, and he doesn’t understand why it sometimes makes congregations feel threatened or competitive. “We shouldn’t be afraid of losing members,” Vaisberg said. “You know, if you are the same, if you really are just trying to get after the same people for the same experience, then you should be merging.” It’s not just talk: When he was at Emanu-El, Vaisberg cross-listed classes and other offerings, and shared resources with a nearby Conservative congregation.
He’s interested in rethinking current models from membership to finances, focusing on strategies corporations use. He said he “swears” by entrepreneurial podcasts like “The $100 MBA Show,” “The Tim Ferriss Show,” and “The Jordan Harbinger Show.”
Vaisberg participates in Spartan Races — competitive runs with obstacle courses built in — and said he gets some of his best ideas while running. That’s relevant, because he believes that Judaism promotes a healthy mind and healthy body, linking the concept to both 12th-century Jewish scholar Maimonides and Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi rabbi in pre-state Israel.
An accomplished musician who’s been playing piano since age 4, took up the guitar at 14, and started voice lessons in high school, Vaisberg originally planned to earn a cantorial degree and rabbinical ordination at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York; instead, he was selected as a Mandel Fellow, a leadership program for rabbinical students at HUC-JIR, and received a master’s degree in religious education.
He still managed to serve as cantorial soloist in his native Canada, and he completed song-leader training with Jewish musicians Dan Nichols and Debbie Friedman. At his previous congregation, Vaisberg got to run his own musical service on Friday nights when the cantor was away. In fact, he describes the ideal worship service as “a spiritual jam” where participants “feed off each other’s energies.”
Vaisberg is a native of Quebec and speaks fluent French. His father came to Canada from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but French nationalism in Quebec made it difficult for his father to work, so he eventually moved the family to Toronto. Vaisberg earned an undergraduate degree from York University in Toronto in 2006 and then headed to rabbinical school. He knew from the age of 14 he was going to become a rabbi — someone suggested it to him “and all the pieces fell into place,” he said. Vaisberg is married to attorney Miriam Palmer-Sherman. They have two children.
His early experiences and his personal family history influenced his approach to current events. In October, he finally decided it was time to become a U.S. citizen when he realized that, especially because of how outspoken he is, not doing so could have consequences: One evening he was attending a conference organized by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, but had to leave early to pick up his children. His colleagues who stayed were arrested for protesting in front of Trump Tower the president’s travel ban against Muslims.
“Had I gone and gotten arrested, I would have been deported,” he said. “I needed to become a citizen because this is my home and I need to be able to stand up for others … without risking everything.”
TBA president Bruce H. Greene told NJJN the congregation was searching for a rabbi who was spiritual, approachable, and inspiring; who could speak and sermonize well; and who would embrace the congregation’s independence and develop meaningful relationships, not to mention connect with young families and counsel people of all ages.
“Rabbi Vaisberg fulfills all of those needs and fits our wish-list perfectly,” said Greene. “He understands the issues that congregations face today and has creative and inspirational ideas to deal with those issues.”
For now, Vaisberg will be focused on getting to know his new congregation, one measure at a time.