image
Members of Cong. B’nai Israel parade with their new illustrated Torah, held by Cantor Lenny Mandel. courtesy B’nai Israel

Sunday was a day of double celebration and remembrance at Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson.

During a festive gathering, Rabbi Debra Orenstein was installed as religious leader at the Conservative congregation and an illustrated Torah scroll was presented in memory of past generations and dedicated to the children of today and tomorrow.

There’s nothing unusual about a rabbi being installed at a congregation, even a woman rabbi, but Orenstein is something of a trail-blazer in the Conservative movement. She was one of the first women rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, she said in an earlier interview.

“It was definitely a pioneering experience,” she said.

Rabbi Orenstein’s father, Jehiel Orenstein, rabbi emeritus of Cong. Beth El in South Orange, recalled at the installation how young Debra pursued a seemingly impossible dream of becoming a rabbi. “We broke it to her gently,” he said.

But her determination was rewarded when the doors were opened to women Conservative rabbis. The South Orange native was ordained in 1990 and spent the intervening years in Los Angeles before returning to New Jersey.

When Orenstein walked to the microphone to address the congregation on Sunday, her young daughter, Hannah Mathilda, 4, had other ideas, which she expressed through tears. Her mom, the rabbi, continued her address holding the youngster by the hand.

image
Rabbi Debra Orenstein with Cantor Lenny Mandel, holding the Torah dedicated on Sunday, along with Orenstein’s installation, at Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson. Charles Zusman

Orenstein’s husband, Craig Weisz, and son Emmett, were also on hand for the installation.

Of her arrival in Emerson, Orenstein said she was led by “divine providence and guidance.”

“In Yiddish they call it bashert,” she said. “Making things happen is normal. What is harder is bashert, letting things happen.”

The focus was on youth at the Torah dedication.

Harry Wechsler, with his wife Hanna at his side, said the Torah was donated in memory of Hanna’s parents, Shoshana and Mordechai Kleiner, who together with Hanna survived Auschwitz, and of his parents, Dora and Levy Wechsler, who along with their son lived out the war in Romania and fled when the Communists came to power in 1947.

It was commissioned with children in mind, so they will be able “to absorb the wisdom and morality of our Jewish People,” Wechsler told the congregation.

Israeli artist Michal Meron was commissioned to produce the illustrated Torah by the Wechslers and the Kutzin family. In an earlier interview, Hanna Wechsler described the Kutzins as their “adopted family … chosen by choice, not by birth.” The Kutzins – Larry, Meryl, and their sons Jared and Evan – are long-time members of the congregation and close friends of the Wechslers.

“It’s a privilege and an honor to be able to give to future generations,” Hanna Wechsler said in an interview. “Pictures will talk to the children…. Today’s children are very visual.”

The synagogue is “our second home,” she said. “I never had roots. [B’nai Israel] gave me roots.”

Of the rabbi, Wechsler said, “I know she will utilize [the Torah] in her talented way, with soul and spirituality. We wish her to stay with us for a long time.”

The Wechslers’ daughters, Orit Kastner and her husband Howard, were there with their own children, Joshua and Liat Yael. Also present was the Wechlers’ other daughter, Dana Lee Wechsler.

Dignitaries included State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, who spoke about the unique American capacity to grow richer through its diversity and the need for vigilance to protect the American way of life. Emerson Mayor Carlos Colina spoke about the warmth and welcoming atmosphere of the town. Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino, former police chief in Emerson, was also present.