Sometimes, it is hard to tell whether someone is simply doing his job or is driven by his convictions. In the case of Rabbi Neal Borovitz – longtime spiritual leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge – that distinction is particularly blurred.
“My volunteer work on behalf of our federation allows me to merge my vocation with my avocation,” said the rabbi, current chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey .
In that position, he has worked particularly hard to foster positive interfaith relations – an effort that clearly paid off. When two Bergen County synagogues were vandalized last month, religious groups from across the spectrum rallied to support the Jewish community.
Borovitz, who has served his Reform synagogue for just over 23 years, announced in late December that he will leave his pulpit when his contract expires in June 2013. “It was a big decision,” he said, “but I’ll be 65…and will have spent 38 years in the rabbinate. There are other things I’d like to be doing.”
Still, he added, “I won’t stop being a rabbi, or an active member of the Jewish community, or of our larger American society.”
“I only know how to do the rabbinate 24/7,” said Borovitz, suggesting that “after a generation, 25 years,” leaving will be a good thing both for him and for the congregation. “It’s good for the congregation to move forward, and I want to leave while I still have a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I think sometimes people stay too long. I don’t want to do that.”
He will, however, remain involved in many of the things he’s passionate about, such as working to help the Jewish community “transform itself to better meet the needs of the 21st century.”
“In many ways, our Jewish institutions…are using 20th-century models created by our parents during the World War II generation, and I’m not sure they speak to our children and grandchildren in the 21st century,” he said.
‘I found a home’
Borovitz said he has been “blessed” in his career, holding only four jobs. Ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1975, he served at the University of Texas Hillel, then spent one year as executive director of the Labor Zionist Alliance. After five years at Union Temple in Brooklyn, he came to the River Edge synagogue, “where I found a home, a community.”
The rabbi and his wife, the attorney Ann Appelbaum, moved to Bergen County when his daughter, Abby, was 4, and his son, Jeremy, was 15 months. Both children attended the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County in New Milford and, later, the Schechter high school in West Orange. Today, his daughter works in television production and his son is in the Peace Corps, serving in Ukraine “and discovering all sorts of Jewish roots.” Appelbaum is the longtime legal counsel to the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Temple Avodat Shalom – now embracing some 500 family units – had about 270 members when he first arrived, said Borovitz. The religious school, then serving about 95 youngsters, now has about 170, with 55 teens in the shul’s post-bar mitzvah program. [The synagogue was then known as Temple Sholom. In 2009, it joined together with Fair Lawn’s Temple Avoda to create the new congregation.]
“In our heyday, around 2003-2004, we had about 238 kids in religious school and 60 kids in BARJ [The Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism],” he said. “But demographics have hurt us in the past four or five years. Jewish families are not moving in.”
Still, he said, this year’s pre-K Chanukah party drew about 45 children.
“I’m proud that our congregation is an open, welcoming place,” he said, paying tribute to “amazing lay leaders and a great staff.”
He is proudest, he said, of “creating an environment where the bar mitzvah is not the end. More than 50 percent of our religious school students go on to the eighth grade, post-bar mitzvah. We’re encouraging people to go against the trend.”
Congregation president Michael Starr also counts this as one of the shul’s major achievements.
“Our teen program is a glory to see,” he said. “Probably one of [the rabbi’s] greatest accomplishments has been our synagogue’s success at keeping our teenagers involved after they become b’nai mitzvah. We have over 50 teenagers involved in our high school and all of them volunteer in our religious school on Sunday and Wednesday. They serve as tremendous role models to our younger children and spur them to remain involved in the synagogue. [The rabbi] makes this a critical priority for our congregation.”
Borovitz said he has ensured that the synagogue is welcoming to interfaith couples and singles, while maintaining an active seniors program.
Still, he said, “while we do a great job with pediatrics and geriatrics, we’re still wrestling with the problem of empty-nest adults,” something he attributes, at least in part, to the current economic crisis.
Describing the tone of the shul, Starr said it is filled with “organized chaos. Often, there are three to five things happening in the synagogue simultaneously. One example is our First Fridays, started this year and modeled on our successful Synaplex Shabbat, which [the rabbi] also started. On the first Friday of every month, we have a Tot Shabbat (with over 35 tots last month), a synagogue-wide dinner, a teen program, a family service, and an alternative service.”
Listening to others
Borovitz pointed out that (now Rep.) Steve Rothman was chairman of the JCRC when he first joined it. In fact, he credits Rothman – under whom the interfaith brotherhood/sisterhood committee was formed – with getting him involved in its work.
“I’ve always had a great interest in interfaith relations,” said Borovitz, who represented the Jewish community on a statewide Jewish-Christian dialogue committee while living in Texas.
Joy Kurland, JCRC director and a colleague and friend of Borovitz for more than 20 years, noted that she and the rabbi were both recognized last year as founding members of the community’s interfaith coalition.
“We’ve been involved pretty much from the beginning,” she said. “[Neal] truly is a visionary. His dedication, commitment, leadership, and vision in the whole arena of coalition-building has led to the incredible success we have had here in Northern New Jersey in fostering relationships, understanding, and mutual respect among all participants.”
While leading his own congregation – a full-time job – “he has been a phenomenal example and role model” to his congregants and others, Kurland said, devoting resources and support to communal work.
“He brings to the table so many different people and the ability to create dialogue,” she said. Not only has he fostered interfaith relations, “but he’s well respected in the Jewish community and has fostered interdenominational efforts, reaching out to other partners in the Jewish community and bringing them into the fold.”
“He listens,” she said. “He embraces the concept that all voices should be heard.”
Through his work in interfaith affairs, Borovitz has been invited to co-lead a Jewish-Catholic mission to Israel in October with the bishop of Paterson. He is hopeful that both rabbis and lay leaders will participate.
“For us to be able to show our Catholic neighbors and friends Israel through Jewish eyes – and for us to see it through Christian eyes” will help strengthen Jewish-Catholic relations in northern New Jersey, he said. “Building positive interfaith relationships is important for us as Americans and critical for the continued American support for Israel.”
Kurland pointed out that in addition to his interfaith work, Borovitz has been active in Family Promise, formerly the Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless. He has also involved his congregation in efforts to house the homeless and feed the hungry.
Starr said that Borovitz was also one of the first rabbis to embrace the Synagogue Leadership Initiative when it was started more than 10 years ago and is “an ardent supporter” of the Kehillah Partnership.
“How to bring Jewish values to the general community – take them out of the synagogue and bring them into the workplace – continues to be a passion,” said the rabbi.
He is gratified that some of the programs he initiated over the years have remained successful – citing, for example, the Jewish Learning Project at the Bergen County YJCC, a venture that “ran a great course for 16 years.”
Now, he said, the North Jersey Board of Rabbis (NJBR) has “picked up and transformed” the program, offering the Sweet Taste of Torah.
Because this year’s Saturday evening of learning will be held during the week of Debbie Friedman’s yahrtzeit, Borovitz said he will speak about her poetry at the NJBR event.
“We were friends since 1975,” he said. “We both wound up in Texas at the same time, and she came and did programs at Hillel.”
Still passionately interested in learning more about Jews all over the world, Borovitz recently spent a week in Cuba with a mission led by the JCC of Manhattan.
“There are 1,500 Jews on the island,” he said, and Havana has a very active synagogue. The rabbi said he was “overwhelmed” by the president of the Jewish community and would love to bring her here as a speaker. He spoke also of the many dichotomies that exist in Cuban society.
“Cubans can’t leave the country freely,” he said. “But while the average Cuban can’t leave, Jews can go to Israel and make aliyah. And young adults go on Birthright.”
Tending his flock
Starr said that over the next 18 months, the synagogue will “pay homage to our rabbi for being there for all of us as a community and each of us as individuals during times of joy and sadness.”
Congregant and former shul president Nilene Evans Chase credits the rabbi with making her a “committed, thinking Reform Jew. He has a way of making the story of the Jewish people and our beliefs relevant to each congregant, particularly those who are just beginning to connect to their Judaism,” she said.
“Rabbi Neal fills the congregation and the service with his presence – whether in a ridiculous hippie costume on Purim, or leading hundreds of us in a devastatingly sad service on Sept. 11, 2001, and each and every September 11 since then.”
In addition, she said, he “shines” at offering pastoral care and has been committed to helping special needs children throughout the county.
Starr, too, cited the rabbi’s commitment to pastoral care.
“He is a wonderful leader who is at his best doing pastoral care when individual members are undergoing challenging times such as personal loss,” he said.
If, as Kurland suggested, the rabbi has been “visible” to his congregants in performing community service, that has not been an accident.
“One of my heroes, Yitzhak Rabin, used to say that an Israeli officer’s mantra was ‘Acharei – Follow me,'” said Borovitz. While that has become one of his own mantras, he said, a second one is “Hineni,” Here I am.
“The whole secret is showing up, really being present. I’ve tried to teach it, preach it, and model it – a rabbi, not an intermediary between God and community,” he said. “[A rabbi’s] real strength is to be a teacher and facilitator. That’s what I’ve tried to do. You have to enable people to find their own path to God and to the Jewish community.”
Noting that his synagogue both embraces tradition and accepts change, the rabbi said, “People have options; they make personal choices. People have a right to find their own connection,” whether through social action, or Torah study.
His job, he said, “is not to make people feel guilty.”
“He clearly embodies the whole concept of tikkun olam” said Kurland. “He’s what one would hope for in a congregational and community leader.”