It wasn’t meant as any kind of pun.
When the city of Englewood recognized Rabbi Shmuel Goldin last month, at the dinner that marked the beginning of his long goodbye to his rabbinate here — and the beginning as well of the aliyah that will take him and his wife, Barbara, to Israel — it named the street that leads to his Congregation Ahavath Torah Rabbi Goldin Way.
But the thing is, it’s accurate. Rabbi Goldin has always looked for the golden mean, the central way, the path that unifies diversity while respecting both unity and diversity. It’s a hard but essential balance, which has marked his rabbinate and will remain as the Goldin standard after he leaves.
Rabbi Goldin, the Brooklyn-born, Long-Island-reared, Yeshiva-University-ordained son of serious Orthodox Jews and the grandson of Orthodox rabbis and scholars, who was born 65 years ago today — April 28 — and embodies the ever-changing, always-examined, sometimes fraught, often glorious tension between Jewish and American values, came to Ahavath Torah in 1984.
By then, he and his wife, Barbara, a speech pathologist and dedicated rebbitzen who by all accounts, including his, has been instrumental to his success, had lived briefly in Los Angeles and then spent six years in Potomac, Maryland, where he headed a shul. When they were ready to move on, he accepted an interview at Ahavath Torah, then a flourishing 350-family shul, headed by the formidable Rabbi Isaac Swift, who had overseen its growth and was about to retire.
When he agreed to the interview, Rabbi Goldin recalled for a story in the Jewish Standard in 2013, he was 30 years old, and he knew himself to be unprepossessing enough and therefore unlikely enough to be the successor to Rabbi Swift that he began the interview relaxed, with nothing to lose. As it went on, though, he realized that he was being taken seriously, and his nerves kicked in.
Part of his interview was a presentation on Shabbat — not a d’var Torah, his interviewers stressed to him, but a presentation — and he prepared diligently. He planned to talk about “the state of the modern Orthodox community,” he said. “My wife is a very honest person. She is sitting on the bed of the room where we’re staying, and she goes, ‘Boring. This is so boring. You can’t give that talk!’”
So he didn’t. He revised quickly, gave a new talk — and of course was hired.
That was 34 years ago.
Since then, Ahavath Torah has grown to include about 750 families, making it one of the largest and most influential Orthodox shuls in the country. In that growth, it has forged a new model, which includes four different minyanim every Shabbat, and members from a wide diversity of backgrounds and approaches to practice as part of one community. Other shuls splinter; Ahavath Torah has remained together, showcasing unity in diversity.
Now, as Shmuel and Barbara Goldin are preparing to leave for Israel — although not to cut their ties to the community, the place where their five children grew up and so many of their friendships and memories are rooted — and the shul prepares to welcome its new rabbi, Chaim Poupko, who is stepping into to the senior position after 13 years working his way up — and who was offered the job after a long and thoughtful process — it is looking back, in celebration and gratitude, to its Goldin years.
“It’s bittersweet,” Rabbi Goldin said. “I feel that the relationships, the friendships, that we’ve been able to establish with our community and the Bergen County community as a whole have been very precious to us, and I expect that they will always be part of us.
“My journey with the synagogue has been extraordinary,” he continued. “I came to a community that already was well established, but very different. Shortly after I became the rabbi, about a year and a half after I got there, there was an influx of young couples, and that changed and enriched the community.
“I don’t know what caused it — I think that it might have been God smiling on us,” he said. “People discovered Englewood. They already knew about Teaneck, but Englewood had its own character, and a lot of people liked what it had to offer. It is a very heterogeneous community, varied in just about every way. It’s varied in age — you have young families just starting out, in their 20s, and you have people who have been here for decades. You have parents who have moved in to be with their kids, as well as kids who have moved in to be with their parents.
“In terms of religious background, it ranges from rigorously Orthodox to people who are not necessarily Orthodox in background but who are looking for religious growth in a community that does not judge them but allows them to grow at their own rate, with no one looking over their shoulders.
“This poses a particular challenge for the rabbi,” he went on. “If you want the religious level of the community to be constantly moving up, if you want to create an environment that is not judgmental but makes clear that not everything goes, you wrestle with how to encourage growth without making people feel uncomfortable.”
How can that work? “One of the most important pieces is to put yourself in the mix,” Rabbi Goldin said. “Do not preach to them. Instead, preach to us. Say that we need to grow, that we are growing, that this is what we need to do. Do not set yourself apart from the collective.”
And time helps. “The longer you stay in the community, the longer you know the people you are dealing with personally, the more they will trust you and listen to you. I was able to speak to the community after five years in ways I was not able to the first year, and five years after that is was different again.
“Being part of people’s lives helped me understand who I was, and people knew that I wasn’t judging them, but that we were all trying to grow together. It wasn’t about me. It was about us. It wasn’t about what I wanted, but what we could accomplish together.”
Being personal, being present, being real, has been a huge part of his rabbinate, Rabbi Goldin said. He was an avid actor in college; his roles ranged from the father in “The Fantastics” to Polonius (of course another father) in “Hamlet” to the main role, “the old Jewish guy” in “A Canticle for Leibowitz.”
“People would say to me, ‘I guess being onstage prepared you for being a rabbi,’” Rabbi Goldin said. “But it’s the opposite. When you are on stage, you are playing someone else. It’s much harder being the rabbi, because you are being you.”
Of course, he did need a buffer between himself and the raw emotion he often faced; rabbis counsel people through tragedy, death, illness, fear, and other forms of darkness. “You can’t survive if you don’t have a buffer,” he said. “And certainly the role does demand a certain degree of distance, and sometimes it can be lonely. Even in a friendship, there will always be a certain difference because you are the rabbi or the rebbitzin. But nevertheless, I think that what made it successful for me was investing myself in the process. There might have been other rabbis who were more successful in some areas because they maintained a certain distance, but that wouldn’t work for me.”
Rabbi Goldin is a teacher as well as a preacher and pastor; he’s also taken on highly visible national and international roles, as a past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents modern and centrist Orthodox rabbis, and as an active and influential member of RCA committees, including the one looking at the hot-button issue of conversion. But when he looks back, it’s at his own community, and what it has accomplished.
“We’ve stayed together,” he said. “We’ve broken the old mold of breaking apart. In 30 years, no one broke away.” There are other Orthodox communities in Englewood, but of them, Sharei Emunah was established before he got to Englewood, and East Hill and Kesher, both at the north end of town, a very long walk from Ahavath Torah, were organized with his blessing.
Ahavath Torah, with its four minyanim, manages to be one community, Rabbi Goldin said. “It is a great accomplishment to have so many minyanim under one roof, to give them space to flourish and still hold them tight.”
However, he said, “while holding the community together is a goal, it cannot be the whole goal. The community has to be together for the right things, without compromising what’s best for the community or for the individuals within it. That’s always a tension.”
He points to the development of one of Ahavath Torah’s minyanim as an example of the kind of push and pull necessary to keep a community within boundaries but at the same time vital. (Another way to think about it is the what-comes-around-goes-around principle.) “We call it our auxiliary minyan, but I also call it the divine justice minyan,” Rabbi Goldin said. When the influx of young new members began, soon after he took over at the shul, “some of the more established people came to me and said ‘Rabbi, we feel like we’re being taken over. Why don’t you start a young couples minyan?’” They wanted the interlopers and their demands gone, housed elsewhere. “My response was that if the young people want to be in the main minyan, they should be there. So they came back to me, and said, ‘What if we have our own minyan?’
“I wasn’t so excited about that, but my wife said, ‘Don’t fight it, Shmuel. Let it develop. Keep them part of the congregation.’”
“There were certain rules. I would have to be able to come in and speak,” as he and the other rabbis do at each one of the other minyanim every Shabbat and holiday. The alternative minyan was smaller and therefore more intimate, and also ended earlier. “Eventually the next group of young people that came wanted to go there, because it was smaller and more intimate,” he said. “Now, one of our challenges is to keep the main minyan happy.”
As an aside, Rabbi Goldin added that his wife was vital to his success. Not only did she take care of the family, she also provided him with ideas, inspiration, and advice. She often preferred to remain in the background, but both her intellect and her intuition were invaluable to him.
The weekly minyanim also include the hashkamah minyan, which is early and fast; the youth minyan, and the Sephardic minyan.
The Sephardic minyan, which is housed in a sanctuary that Rabbi Goldin said is perhaps the most beautiful room in a building he said is full of beauty, is growing quickly. It has its own advisory board, and its own rabbi, Rabbi Mordy Kuessous, who is also the shul’s assistant rabbi.
It’s open to anyone who chooses to go in — as is true of all the minyanim — and the shul’s leadership works hard to integrate its members with everyone else.
“There are a lot of logistics,” Rabbi Goldin said. “And beyond that, you have to make sure that it is one shul, in the face of all that diversity, and it is not easy.”
Another innovation he’s overseen includes the introduction of a yoetzet halacha, a woman who helps other women with the aspects of Jewish law that most affect their lives, and about which women generally feel more comfortable consulting another woman than a man.
The Goldins plan to make aliyah in September; they’ll join two of their children and their families there. (The other three live in the United States; all are married, and all are flourishing.)
Aliyah was Barbara Goldin’s lifelong dream, Rabbi Goldin said, and it’s a high priority for him as well. They’re going now, he added, because it’s far better to leave before people start to think that you might have overstayed. “There is a tipping point, and once you get beyond it, there will be those who said it’s time already, and then your leaving is tainted,” he said. “And we are leaving in such a positive way, and Rabbi Poupko seems to be stepping in seamlessly.”
Ms. Goldin plans on spending as much time learning as much as she can, as often as she can, Rabbi Goldin says; she’s also planning to work as a volunteer speech therapist. His plans are not entirely firm yet — they really can’t be until he gets there, he said. He keeps thinking about two comments from friends at Ahavath Torah. “One said to me, ‘Rabbis don’t retire, they relocate,’” he reported. “And the other very astute friend said, ‘Don’t worry. You’ve always been the father of the community, and now you will be the grandfather.’ That’s beautiful. The grandfather doesn’t have to live nearby, and I won’t. But I will be keeping my shul email.’” And although the plans are not yet firm, he will return, perhaps twice a year, to teach. “I very much do not want to crowd Rabbi Poupko,” he said. “I want to let him be his own man.”
And of course the Goldins no longer will have a house in Englewood, so when they return they will have to stay with local friends, and that in itself will be a new experience in their old community.
Rabbi Goldin does know that he wants to continue to write. He began his first book — on the Book of Genesis — a few years ago, when he was on sabbatical in Israel. His wife was responsible for that, he added; he never would have had the time to write had he not had the time off; he would not have taken the time off had Barbara not pushed for it, and she would not have pushed for it had she not known that it would give him the chance to write. Now, he has completed the series of five volumes on the parshiot, one for each book of the Torah; he’s finishing a book on the Haggadah, which he plans to have out by next February, in time for Pesach, and he has ideas for his next writing project.
He also plans on continuing his work for the RCA and the OU, including its efforts on conversion. And he will teach, particularly in gap-year seminaries.
In other words, he will be busy. He’s right. This will be a relocation, not a retirement.
Rabbi Poupko, who will move into Rabbi Goldin’s position, feels that he is emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually ready for that move because he has learned so much from Rabbi Goldin. “I started as an intern 13 years ago, during my last year of smicha,” Rabbi Poupko said. “My father encouraged me to apply for the internship. Rabbi Goldin had a strong reputation for integrity, for his strong sense of modern Orthodox values. His reputation was national — probably international as well. And so I applied for the internship.
“The only reason I’m still here is because of the wonderful relationship we have enjoyed,” Rabbi Poupko continued. “The history of rabbi/assistant rabbi relationships has claimed many victims, but thank God I have been enormously blessed to have Rabbi Goldin as a mentor, as a teacher, as someone to train under.
“He knows how to make space for other people. He knows how to support you and to enable you to grow. And it is a testament to the quality of his character and his sensitivity as well as his integrity that he welcomes younger rabbis to train under him, and to grow and to be able to flourish on our own, to foster our own relationships in the community.
“That has engendered the warmth and respect that I feel for him. He has always treated me like a son, and his wisdom and guidance have shaped the rabbi that I am, for sure.”
When Rabbi Poupko looks at other rabbis, his vision is filtered through a great deal of experience. Rabbi Poupko, who grew up in Skokie, right outside Chicago, comes from a family of rabbis. “Both of my grandfathers were pulpit rabbis,” he said. “My paternal grandfather, Baruch A. Poupko, was a rabbi in Pittsburgh for more than 60 years, and my maternal grandfather, Herman Davis, who passed away far too young, in 1975, was in Chicago. And my father, Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, works in the federation in Chicago” — that’s the Jewish United Fund, where his father is the rabbinic scholar. “I grew up in a family with a strong rabbinic tradition and a deep appreciation for Torah learning. I’m comfortable in a beis midrash setting — I went to the Skokie Yeshiva and then Kerem B’Yavne,” a yeshiva in Israel, and then to Yeshiva University, where I got smicha. And then I’ve been in Englewood ever since.
“It’s a unique story. A lot of young guys have to go all over. I have been enormously blessed, not only to have been in the same place all along, but to work under one of the best in the business.”
And yes, he added, every Poupko he’s ever met is related to him. No one’s sure where the name comes from. His father’s working theory — which, his son said, sounds very good but has no supporting evidence that he’s ever heard of — is that it’s an old Ashkenazi name. The first syllable, Poup, implies that the family, which, he said, is “pure Litvishe,” came at some point from Frankfort; the two Ps in it were the Hebrew letter Peh, for P, which is the same as the Hebrew letter Feh, for F, but with a dot. (Are you following this?) And the “ko” is a fairly common Slavic name suffix. Clearly, it’s a question that he’s used to fielding.
Rabbi Poupko’s wife, Dr. Shoshana Poupko, is an educator who now also is working toward an MSW at Rutgers. For 16 years, she braved rush hour on two bridges to work at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck — “it was an amazing experience for her there,” her husband said — and now she is the dean of students at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck. “This has changed our lives,” Rabbi Poupko said.
Returning to Rabbi Goldin, Rabbi Poupko said that “one of the many reasons I have enjoyed so much success here is that we share so many of the same values. Our relationship clicked because we really see eye to eye on many things. We are both moderates. We both believe very much in being in the center, of being very open-minded about views in both directions, of being not just opened-minded, not just tolerant, but embracing of Jews who take many different approaches.
“I know him to be a welcoming, supporting, dynamic rabbi. It is his moderate, sensitive approach that has defined so much of what he has done as a rabbi, as a teacher, and as a pastor,” Rabbi Poupko said.
Lee Lasher, Ahavath Torah’s immediate past president, admires Rabbi Goldin immensely. “He has built a large, vibrant community; in terms of the modern Orthodox community, it is very diverse,” he said, echoing the often-stated theme. “That is very rare. Keeping four shuls in one, and never splintering — that is very rare.”
Beyond that, “He has taken a real leadership role in the broader community. He has never forgotten that he is part of the Bergen County community — including the nonobservant community, the Reform, the Conservative, and the non-Jewish communities. You can see by the response of the mayor” — Englewood’s Mayor Frank Huttle III praised Rabbi Goldin at the dinner in his honor, in real and personal terms. “You can see it by the city of Englewood naming the street Rabbi Goldin Way.
“He has built relationships with the whole community, and across the American Jewish community. He’s been involved with the RCA and with Norpac,” the huge Englewood-based Israel lobby. “He’s met President Obama at the White House a couple of times.
“And all the missions to Israel he’s led!” Rabbi Goldin organized and led many trips to Israel, including during very tense times, when many other people and organizations stayed away. Sometimes he led groups from his own shul, and sometimes he drew travelers from the wider Jewish community. “And he took a mission to Bosnia during the civil war in Yugoslavia.
“He has been very focused on GPS,” Mr. Lasher continued. (The initials stand for “geirus policies and standards” the Orthodox Union’s work with people choosing to become Jewish.) “He realizes the important of the issue.”
Mr. Lasher stresses Rabbi Goldin’s pastoral skills and sensitivity to people’s needs. “We all say that he has been a friend to everybody,” Mr. Lasher said, and then he moved from the general to the specific.
“Last summer, I was in Spain celebrating my 30th wedding anniversary, and I fell down a flight of stairs and broke my patella,” he said. It was a very painful and slow-healing injury; Mr. Lasher, who is athletic, has been injured often, but this one was different. “Nine months later, I’m still in physical therapy.
“I was home for a month, and Rabbi Goldin came almost every day. And he does that for everybody. My father once had some heart issues, and Rabbi Goldin went to the hospital not once, not twice, but four or five times. He will make the rounds and visit everyone. That’s really something.
“He also does a lot of quiet chesed in family issues,” helping with subjects too delicate and private for conversation. “And I know, serving as president, that he always was very respectful. He believed in collaborative leadership. His approach wasn’t ‘I’m the rabbi!’ but in the partnership between lay and professional leadership. That is very important to me.”
Mr. Lasher looks to the future with anticipation and some slight feelings of being unsettled. “It’s exciting, but it’s a little unknown,” he said. “We are very excited about Rabbi Poupko and Shoshana becoming senior rabbi and rebbitzin. You look at everything going on in the world in terms of transitions” — he was not talking here only about rabbinical transitions, of course, but about more public ones as well. “I was co-chair of the transition committee. It was a very strong committee. We had numerous meetings, hired consultants, did a survey, did focus groups, spent tens of hours to insure the smoothest possible transition.
“We think that Rabbi Poupko has some similar qualities to Rabbi Goldin, and certainly some different ones,” Mr. Lasher continued. “He is younger. He can engage some of the millennials who are not as involved — we want to get them more involved. He has a different teaching style.”
There was some controversy over not doing a “full-blown search for a new rabbi,” but Mr. Lasher thought that much of it was unrealistic. “Some people said ‘Let’s approach Lord Sacks to be our rabbi.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Baron Sacks, is the retired chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, who now is teaching at NYU, YU, and King’s College London. He is unlikely to be interested in assuming the pulpit of a synagogue, no matter how prestigious and influential. And Rabbi Poupko is a respected member of the community, and his transition so far has been smooth.
One of Mr. Lasher’s many powerful memories of Rabbi Goldin does involve Rabbi Sacks, who spoke at Ahavath Torah a few years ago. “It was a powerful weekend,” he said. “It was interesting to see Rabbi Goldin and Rabbi Sacks share the spotlight. I will always remember that at the end of the seudah shlishit, where there were probably 700 people — the most we’d ever had, standing room only — and Rabbi Sacks was asked for a speech, but instead he said that we needed more singing. More joy. We needed more joy and less oy in Judaism.
“So he and Rabbi Goldin got up on little folding chairs — I was thinking please don’t let them fall off the chairs — and then everybody started singing. The two of them were leading it, you have these two prominent rabbis standing on chairs, and it was really great. Really powerful.”
Mr. Lasher also remembers traveling to Israel with Rabbi Goldin. “Rabbi Goldin’s mother, who died a few years ago, lived in Israel, and she joined us for some of the early missions,” he said. Pearl Poplack Goldin was “a tiny woman, and we went on a walking tour of Jerusalem, and then somebody suggested that we walk on the rooftops.
“Rabbi Goldin was a little apprehensive. He wasn’t sure he knew where he was going. And then his mother looked over at him and said, ‘Shmuel, let’s go.’ And he said, ‘I guess we’re going.’
“And we went.” And it was fine.
“I’ve been in leadership positions in a lot of Jewish organizations,” Mr. Lasher concluded. “Serving with Rabbi Goldin was one of the highlights of my Jewish volunteer work, because I was working with someone who was so sensitive, insightful, and understands people so well.”
The weekend of May 5 through 7 will be a celebration of the Goldins. It’ll be called Englewood Shel Zahav: The Goldin Years. (Zahav is gold in Hebrew; the name’s a play on the famous Israeli song Yerushalayim shel Zahav.) It will feature, among many other highlights, teaching by Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who heads Chicago’s Ida Crowne Academy and followed Rabbi Goldin as president of the RCA. It also will include the dedication of a sefer Torah that was rescued from the Holocaust and restored; the final letters will be inked on Sunday.
For more information about the celebration, and to read more tributes to Rabbi Goldin, go to the shul’s website, www.ahavathtorah.org.