In Rabbi Charles Kroloff’s long career, he has maintained close contacts not only with his congregants but with the rabbis who have been his colleagues, who have served with him as students or associates, and who grew up under his tutelage.
Many of those rabbis will come to Temple Emanu-El, the Reform congregation in Westfield, on Saturday, Oct. 16, for an afternoon of study to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination.
Kroloff was religious leader of Temple Emanu-El from 1966 until 2002, and since then has remained involved with the synagogue as rabbi emeritus. The gathering will be the culmination of the temple’s year-long 60th anniversary celebration.
Working with current temple leader Rabbi Douglas Sagal, participants in the study event will offer a series of lessons on Torah, followed by reflections on their experiences with Kroloff.
Gail Friedman, the former congregation president who is heading up the committee organizing the event, said it was Kroloff’s choice to focus on study. Participants include Rabbis Marcus Burstein, Marc Disik, Eric Glazer, Arnie Gluck, Deborah Joselow, Elisa Koppel, Ellen Lewis, Jill Maderer, Rex Perlmeter, and Leonard Thal. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a longtime member of Emanu-El, will also take part. Performers scheduled to add a musical dimension to the program are the temple’s Cantor Martha Novick and singer/songwriter and educator Peri Smilow.
Kroloff said he is delighted that the celebration is taking this form. “I believe Torah study and Jewish education are the core of Jewish life,” he told NJ Jewish News. “From that flow knowledge and community and social justice and faith.”
But it isn’t just about the intellectual exercise that is gratifying to him; the human dimension pleases him, too. He said, “I’m thrilled that I will be surrounded by my dearest people: my family — my wife, Terry, and our children and their spouses, and three of our six grandchildren — and our congregants, and these rabbis, people who have grown up in our community and whom I’ve mentored, and those I’ve worked closely with, and Peri Smilow with her wonderful music.”
‘A great blessing’
Rabbis Jill Maderer and Ellen Lewis are among the 15 or more people who grew up attending Temple Emanu-El and then entered the rabbinate. Kroloff said that it was unexpected when some of them made that choice but all have pleased him by taking that path. He said, “They are all very able and talented people, and it was always a delightful surprise.”
When Kroloff came to the temple, it had about 400 members. “Now it has about 1,100,” he said. He maintains his emeritus role in addition to serving as vice president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. He enjoys his partnership with Sagal, who, he said, “is a wonderful rabbi. I’m very proud of what he has accomplished. I believe that what he and I have is a model of what the relationship can be between a current rabbi and a rabbi emeritus. It’s a great blessing.”
From the perspective of his five decades, Kroloff said, “These are very interesting and exciting times for the Jewish people. There are lots of challenges — issues that need to be confronted every day, like the fact that there are so many other things competing for people’s time, and that families tend to move more, so that they don’t put roots down.
“But these challenges also present us with tremendous opportunities,” he said. “Intermarriage can be a problem, but if we are welcoming, it can also mean that we bring more people in. We also need to be doing outreach to Jews of color, and gay and lesbian Jews. In almost every branch of Judaism we are seeing a clear trend to inclusivity, and I believe that will continue for the next 10 or 20 years, and maybe beyond that.”
In response to an e-mailed question, Maderer, who serves at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, wrote: “Rabbi Kroloff was instrumental in my pursuing the rabbinate, but even more important, he has been instrumental in my understanding of how to live a Jewish life. Rabbi Kroloff’s interpretations of ancient tradition, his keen awareness of the contemporary reality, his application of Jewish values of justice and righteousness, his vision of prayer, and his ability to change with the times makes him a relevant and timeless voice.”
She went to say: “Personally, Rabbi Kroloff’s excellent judgment and high standards have guided me constantly. A recent example: Just a couple weeks ago, I was preparing to deliver a controversial Yom Kippur sermon. Rabbi Kroloff’s blessing helped me to collect the courage to do it.”