Rabbi Joseph Maza was a talmudic scholar who lived his Jewish values every day of his life.
Maza, who died 12 years ago at age 79, served as religious leader at the former Congregation Anshe Emeth in South River for 48 years. As a mohel, he circumcised thousands over the decades, and helped launch several other traditional synagogues in the area, including Union Hill Congregation in Manalapan and Young Israel of East Brunswick.
“We remember with reverence and devotion Rabbi Joseph Maza,” said Rabbi Eliot Malomet, religious leader at what became Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, when the two synagogues merged eight years ago.
On June 8, Maza was recollected by those who knew him during the Congregation Anshe Emeth Legacy Endowment program at HPCT-CAE.
The program drew about 100 people, including Maza’s widow, Shirley, who said her husband “loved people and did everything for everybody.”
Also in attendance were the first two “boys” at whose b’nei mitzva Maza officiated after he came to the synagogue in 1950.
“He was just a wonderful person in every way,” recalled Dr. Stephen Kamel of East Brunswick, whose bar mitzva service was the first at which Maza officiated in 1952.
Maza also was the officiant when Kamel married his wife, Patricia, and would later oversee the bar and bat mitzva of their son and daughter.
Gary Schwartz of East Brunswick became the second bar mitzva the following year.
“Rabbi Maza would drive me home from Hebrew school on cold winter nights,” Schwartz told NJJN. “He was the greatest man. He’s been there to marry me to my wife, Nona, to perform my son’s circumcision, my daughter’s naming, and my father’s burial.”
“May we all honor the rabbi by living the kind of ideals he so valued,” said noted author Danny Siegel, known as the “mitzvah man” for his own charitable work. Siegel presented a lecture on Torah study and values as part of the program.
Family of rabbis
Maza received his ordination in 1944 from the renowned Orthodox posek, or decisor of Jewish law, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and was in the first post-graduate class of elite Torah scholars at Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha, earning a doctor of divinity. Maza later earned an advanced degree in pastoral counselling.
He came to Anshe Emeth and developed “a loving family, in which community programs were strengthened,” said the congregation’s program coordinator, Peter Schild of Monroe, who added that Maza also made the community more observant, friendly, and caring.
“His scholarship was so easily practiced you could take it for granted,” said Schild, recalling that the rabbi also loved poetry, particularly Robert Frost. “He had the ability and foresight to always say the right thing.”
Schild also recalled a disturbing incident in 1993 when the Mazas’ home was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti. An 18-year-old neighborhood youth was charged with the crime.
A month later, NJ Gov. Jim Florio stood on the front steps of Anshe Emeth along with state Attorney General Robert Del Tufo to announce passage of an anti-bias bill before a large crowd as television cameras rolled.
Maza’s son, Avi, of Highland Park also recalled the incident and how his father managed to put a positive and even humorous spin on the situation.
A local Boy Scout troop came and painted over the hateful graffiti. Noting that the house had been in need of a little sprucing up, the elder Maza said, “It wasn’t such a bad deal. Now my house looks beautiful.”
However, Avi Maza said, it was his father’s devotion to the three pillars that Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) says the world stands on — Torah, service, and acts of loving-kindness — that left the greatest impression.
Rabbi Maza was the 10th generation of rabbis in his family — two of his brothers also entered the rabbinate, while a third, comedian Jackie Mason, received ordination but found a different audience.
In a tearful tribute, Avi recalled how Yiddish-speaking strangers from the Lower East Side would come to their door “under the guise of collecting for some yeshiva, but really they were just poor people. My mother would get up and make the bed.”
As leader of the Avi Maza Orchestra, he said, he frequently travels, and wherever he goes “somebody looks up at my bandstand and says, ‘Maza, your father circumcised me.’”
“I was recently at Marlboro Jewish Center and it seemed the whole congregation was circumcised by my father,” he said.