Still experimenting after 30 years in pulpit
Just after he became bar mitzva at Temple Sinai in his hometown of Roslyn, NY, Donald Weber said, he “had no intention of setting foot in a temple ever again.”
Nearly 50 years later, Weber was honored on Feb. 28 for his 30 years as the rabbi at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro at a gala at Battleground Country Club in Manalapan.
He shared the spotlight with drummer Max Weinberg, a Monmouth County resident who has played extensively with another county resident, Bruce Springsteen, and Conan O’Brien.
(Weinberg, who is not a member of Weber’s congregation, was saluted as the synagogue’s Humanitarian of the Year for his volunteer efforts with such local organizations as Prevention First, The Monmouth County SPCA, and The Joan D’Ancy ALS Foundation.)
What originally brought Weber back to the fold was hardly a spiritual awakening.
“There was a girl I really liked,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Feb. 20 phone interview. “She wasn’t in any of my eighth-grade classes in middle school, but I found out she was going to confirmation class, and to be very honest, I would have gone to catechism class to spend time with her. I got to sit with her for two hours every week — and it was glorious.”
In 10th grade the couple broke up. Then a new rabbi, Norman Kahan, arrived at Temple Sinai and “he changed my life,” said Weber. “He was the first intelligent man I knew who had a personal relationship with God. He said, ‘I don’t believe in God; God is part of my life,’ and that shook me up.”
Kahan died in June 2014 at the age of 92, but Weber said he is “still my rabbi.”
“Another of my rabbis is my wife, Shira Stern,” who serves as a chaplain and the educator of TRT’s religious school.
Weber is TRT’s first and only full-time rabbi.
His congregation began modestly with 66 member families who met in local public schools. It has grown over the years to 300 families, and in 1990 it moved into its present building.
“I am so proud that our temple is so actively committed, especially in the area of feeding the hungry. It has been a focus of mine since the day I started. Feeding the hungry is part of almost everything we do here,” he told NJJN.
Beyond the synagogue, Weber said, he and Stern are “very active in the community.” He has been a volunteer in the ambulance corps, and both of them serve as chaplains for the Marlboro Police Department.
“I love where our congregation is now,” he said. “We have been exploring and experimenting in ways we never did before and in ways that are really exciting.”
One innovation is a monthly program he calls “Rock Shabbat.”
He said it is one of “our many attempts to keep everyone involved. Life is changing. We have as many people in their 50s and 60s and 70s at our rock services as we do young people who say, ‘This is really cool.’”
“A congregation that doesn’t recognize the world is changing around us is going to be in trouble,” said Weber. “I don’t know the answers. I don’t know what congregations will look like in 20 years, but I know they won’t look like they do now.”
Fourteen years ago, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Weber’s creative approaches to his Reform pulpit lured Larry Rosen to join the congregation.
Although they were physically unharmed, Rosen and his family had been displaced from their ruined apartment in Battery Park City, just across the street from where the Twin Towers had stood. They moved temporarily back to his mother’s home in Marlboro.
“While I was checking on synagogues in the area, I came upon Don. I heard him deliver an incredibly inspirational sermon,” Rosen told NJJN.
In the early weeks after the terrorist attacks, Rosen said, he found “a number of rabbis were really spewing venom from the pulpit, calling for revenge and hatred toward people of other faiths who carried out these attacks in the name of Islam or fundamentalism. But Rabbi Weber delivered a sermon that I could best describe as a hug.
“It was what I needed to hear,” said Rosen, who is now the congregation’s president. “I didn’t want to hear anger. I didn’t want to hear vitriol. I wanted understanding and compassion and healing, and that’s what I got from Don. I had an instant connection with him, and I joined the temple because of him. Not only does he inspire me with his words but he motivates me to do things consistent with Reform Judaism and Judaic values.”
As he enters his 31st year as Rodeph Torah’s rabbi, Weber said, “I love coming here. I am grateful that I get to do this holy work every day. I am very fortunate. I work with the coolest people — my staff and my congregation. I am a very blessed human being.”