Meet the community’s new pulpit rabbis
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Meet the community’s new pulpit rabbis

Toward the end of every summer, we profile the new congregational rabbis who have begun their work in our community, or who have changed positions within it. This year, there are four of them, so please meet Rabbi Alex Freedman, Rabbi Paul Jacobson, Rabbi Bob Mark, and Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin.

Rabbi Alex Freedman

Since July 1, Rabbi Alex Freedman has had a singular opportunity to meet the congregants of Closter’s Temple Emanu-El.

With the synagogue’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner in Israel for much of the summer – visiting family and studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute – Freedman, the Conservative congregation’s new assistant rabbi, spent the first part of the summer “meeting a lot of congregants formally in the synagogue and informally around town – getting to know the people and the community.”

Giving sermons, leading services, and making several trips to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires to visit “temple kids,” the new rabbi – born and raised in Cincinnati – jumped into synagogue life with both feet.

A product of the Conservative movement, Freedman said he spent many a summer at Ramah Wisconsin as a camper, counselor, and division head. After graduating Washington University in St. Louis – where he met his wife, Laura – he spent a year in Israel on the movement’s Nativ program.

“I spent five years as a [Ramah] counselor and three as rosh edah,” he said, pointing out that he brings with him “a real wealth of experience in working with kids, understanding what it means to work with and program for kids and teenagers.”

He hopes to use that skill in his new congregation.

Describing informal education as “substantive learning that doesn’t feel like school,” Freedman said that reaching people in this way “is challenging and difficult but worthwhile.”

Freedman, who now lives in Closter with his wife and their four-month-old son, Avi, attended the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem after graduating from college. While he was there, he decided to become a rabbi. Back in the states, he studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Emanu-El is his first pulpit.

“My duties will involve a little bit of a lot of things,” he said, citing responsibilities on the bimah, involvement in the congregation’s religious school, especially with seventh- and eighth-graders, work with the b’nai mitzvah program, and reaching out to high school and college students.

“I’ll be working with young families,” he said, “with kids and their parents.”

Freedman said he feels “very comfortable in the synagogue,” even though he’s only been there for one month.

“The congregants I’ve met are very warm and welcoming and very committed. I have the sense that in this community, there are a lot of volunteers committed to both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. That wasn’t true in my home community.”

The rabbi said he also senses that “the community wants to be as creative as possible, thinking outside the box on how to do things.”

Personally, he said, he is delighted that his first job as a rabbi has placed him in a “tremendous professional team, including a great senior rabbi and cantor. I’ll have them as mentors and learn what it is to be a rabbi in a community of this size, where there is so much going on. I’ll have a chance to be part of a lot of people’s lives in a meaningful way.”

Freedman said he also is very excited about the opportunity to teach text.

“One of my passions is love for traditional Jewish learning and how to convey that in meaningful, compelling, and creative ways.” Since members will inevitably approach text study in different ways and at different levels, he said, “I have to think about new ways to bring the texts alive.”

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner seems equally enthusiastic about his new assistant rabbi.

“Rabbi Freedman will be a wonderful asset to our community,” Kirshner said. “In the short time he has been here, he has already visited two Ramah camps and set the foundation for meaningful relationships. Personally, I am eager to learn with and about him and excited to have him by my side in the holy work we are a part of.”

Rabbi Paul Jacobson

Since July 1, Rabbi Paul Jacobson, the newly named religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, has been trying to reach every member before the High Holy Days to introduce himself.

“I want to build relationships within the congregation,” he said. “That is crucial and very important.”

Jacobson said also he will try to continue the “incredible” work of Rabbi Neal Borovitz, the Reform congregation’s longtime rabbi, who retired this spring after 25 years at the synagogue.

Jacobson, who grew up in Marlboro and attended Washington State University in St. Louis, received ordination from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. His first pulpit was in Sydney, Australia.

“I was there for seven years,” he said. “I had gone to a wedding there in 2002 and fell in love with Sydney.” Realizing that he wanted to do something a bit different, he accepted a pulpit there, serving a congregation that combined Reform, Conservative, and Jewish Renewal minyanim.

“The senior rabbi told me that the more doors you open, the more people can walk through,” he said. “It’s about creating different Jewish experiences and opportunities so people can connect in the most meaningful way.”

That vision attracted him, he said, noting that while he tends to be more traditional in his own practice, the “hybrid” atmosphere proved very viable.

Jacobson described his new congregation as “a special community – the warmth of the people, their genuineness. It’s a real community. This fits in well with my own perspective toward hospitality, how we care for each other.”

In Australia, he said, he and his wife, Lisa – “voted by her friends as most likely to marry a rabbi” – offered regular meals in their home, holding a monthly Shabbat service and dinner for 20 to 30 people. Believing that “Judaism needs to extend past the walls of the synagogue,” the couple opened their home to worship, learning, and discussion.

“I’m bringing a sense of the importance of relationships and hospitality,” he said, adding that while the congregation is well aware of its Reform affiliation, members “appreciate a rabbi who can bring perspectives from all walks of Jewish life. The nature of the community is ever-changing, and we want to be at the forefront.”

Jacobson noted that the congregation, with more than 400 member families, has an active Hebrew school. The rabbi and his wife have two young children, Hannah, 3½, and Emily, l½, and they are looking forward to meeting other young local families.

But while he wants to reach out to a younger cohort, Jacobson also intends “be present and respond to all the needs of the congregation,” performing the full range of rabbinic duties, from life-cycle services to hospital visits.

Asked about challenges the community faces, Jacobson cited both changing demographics and “the challenge of affiliation and of people belonging to a community. We have to ensure that [the synagogue] is a place where we help people find meaning and purpose in their lives, and find it in a Jewish context.

“No two paths will replicate each other,” he continued. Instead, “we have to help them on the journey where they are, showing them the beauty of Jewish life.”

What he offers, Jacobson said, is “warmth, gentleness, openness, and the ability to listen to them and their stories, helping to nurture them in a time of transition,” not only in the congregation itself but in the world as a whole. “We can be a force of stability and an oasis,” he said.

Noting his predecessor’s deep involvement in the wider community – Borovitz served as chair of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Community Relations Council – Jacobson said that he will “pursue each opportunity I hear about” to become involved and already is building connections within the federation and in the interfaith community.

Since “these days, people are interested in relating to a rabbi personally as well as spiritually and religiously,” Jacobson listed some of his personal interests, including baseball, classical music, running and exercising, “and a deep appreciation for family, friends, and the opportunity to live in a beautiful part of the world.”

He already has held more than 15 meet the rabbi meetings, and another five or six are scheduled. Therefore, he said, he is looking forward to reaching his goal, by interacting with all the members of the congregation.

By connecting on a social level, he said, he hopes to learn “which Jewish issues they’re passionate about or find deeply troubling. I’m learning their backgrounds and their stories,” he said. “Instead of coming in with an agenda, I want to understand where they’re at and figure out how best to lead them.”

Rabbi Bob Mark

When the New Milford Jewish Center merged with the JCC of Paramus this spring, New Milford’s religious leader, Rabbi Bob Mark – who says he supported the merger – decided not to stay. Invited to head the Clifton Jewish Center, Mark happily took up the offer.

Mark, who received his ordination from the Orthodox movement, gravitated to Conservative Judaism in later years.

“I’m a refugee from Orthodoxy,” he said. “I think it’s gone too far to the right. I truly believe in Conservative Judaism.”

Mark said that like many other congregations, the Clifton community is aging, “but it has a lot to offer. It’s got a free Hebrew school for members – a huge advantage – and it has fundraising events and adult education.”

Calling the 75-year-old synagogue both “viable and active,” the rabbi said it will be his goal to bring in new members, targeting residents of Clifton, Little Falls, North Caldwell, Upper Montclair, and Nutley – “those towns with no Conservative shuls or any shuls at all.”

He also plans to reach out to senior developments.

“There’s no reason they shouldn’t take advantage of a shul that’s available,” he said.

The synagogue, with 118 families, plans to hold open houses in some of the facilities and to start some programs “that are not necessarily religiously oriented but that will get publicity out that we’re alive and well and open to the community.”

Mark said his personality is a good fit for the congregation.

“It’s very informal, and I’m very laid back,” he said, adding that he will work part-time, conducting Friday night and Saturday services as well as services on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday mornings. He also will run some adult education programs.

“I’m a good speaker,” he said, pointing out that he speaks both on Torah topics and controversial subjects. “I don’t avoid anything. That generates interest in people coming to shul and increases attendance.”

Calling the congregants “extra friendly and very nice,” he said that “we’re really looking to generate more interest and let the community know that we’re here and functioning. The dues are the most reasonable around, there’s a free Hebrew school, and the shul will offer people a home and a place to participate.”

Earlier in his career, Mark was the religious leader at Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield and, for seven years, at the Grandview Palace Synagogue in Liberty, N.Y. He also has held various positions, including teacher and ba’al koreh, at the Bergenfield Dumont Jewish Center, Congregation Beth Shalom in Teaneck, and the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.

Mark graduated from Yeshiva University and attended Bernard Baruch Graduate School of Business and Public Administration on fellowship while studying for his ordination at Marbitzei Torah. He received his ordination from Rabbi Yaakov Eliahu Hachohen Rabin.

Mark, who lives in Paramus and is an active member of the Paramus Volunteer Ambulance Corps, is married to Gale, who is a Stern College graduate. He works actively with the Jewish Family Service of Bergen County Food Pantry as well as with other local charities.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin believes that when he ends his tenure as director of the New Jersey office of the Anti-Defamation League, he will be leaving that organization stronger than he found it.

But as gratified as he is by the success of that group, “I came to realize that even with my devotion to the mission and work of ADL, I am at heart a congregational rabbi and my spiritual fulfillment is in teaching, writing, and creating community,” he said.

On July 1, Salkin became the religious leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, a Reform congregation. However, he will remain with ADL through the autumn, until the organization completes the celebration of its centennial year.

“At ADL, I’ve built on the successes of [my predecessor] Etzion Neuer,” Salkin said. “But I have to note, with some irony, that while the rates of anti-Semitism are falling in the United States, they seem to be rising in New York, New Jersey, and California. But I, and my leadership, have come to believe that at least in the case of New Jersey, it’s not necessarily that there are more anti-Semitic acts but that they are being reported more – and our ongoing partnership with local police departments has helped facilitate that.”

Salkin said he also is pleased by some of his group’s local accomplishments.

“We were responsible for making sure that a section of a municipal parking lot in Clifton was not named for Chester Grabowsky, a noted purveyor of anti-Semitic literature; we were helpful during the spate of anti-Semitic attacks in Bergen County, including the firebombing of a synagogue, and we regenerated interest in ADL within certain circles of lay leaders in Bergen County,” he said.

Of all his accomplishments at the ADL, Salkin is most proud of four programs created for high school juniors and seniors, “teaching them how to stand up for Israel on the college campus,” he said. “It’s very important that we help people understand the fine line between anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism.”

Speaking of his new congregation, founded in the 1950s, Salkin said that “at this moment in its history, the synagogue consists mostly of older families,” some 70 households. “They’re proud of their history and proud of their rabbis – most recently, Gordon Gladstone, who just retired.”

He is impressed, he said, by Bayonne itself, which he described as “quiet, clean, and friendly. Time will tell what the god of demographics has in store for us.” Noting the presence of many younger people in Hudson County, and the fact that two of the county’s cities, the formerly unglamorous Jersey City and Hoboken, had gone upscale, Salkin said it is as yet unclear whether Bayonne would do the same.

“Logic would dictate that at a certain point, young people may become priced out of” those cities, he said. “We have no control over whether [the congregation] will grow, but we have all the control over how we ourselves will grow Jewishly.”

Salkin said he has experience working with communities “of every size. In my most recent congregation” – in Columbus, Georgia – “I was part of a process of revitalization. I did so by doing what Jews have always done, encouraging an atmosphere of worship, spirituality, and adult study.”

He noted that while the Bayonne shul has no religious school, “just because the Torah calls us the children of Israel doesn’t mean we should focus only on children. We have an opportunity to create a Judaism that really speaks to mature people going through various passages in their lives.”

While his position at Beth Am is part-time, “I will be doing the full range of all the usual rabbinic duties,” Salkin said. His first Friday night service will be held on August 23, and he already is planning a weekly program of adult study. Set to meet every Monday at the JCC in Bayonne, it will begin on September 30.

His goal, he said, is to bring “a new sense of learning, so that the congregation will not only survive but thrive.” While demographics remain a challenge, he is hoping to overcome that and to cultivate new leadership.

“If past performance is any prediction, when I get there I’ll find people waiting to be activated,” he said, pointing out that there are many unaffiliated Jews in Bayonne. “I also believe that there is no one great programmatic silver bullet that will make people want to affiliate.” What he intends to do is “put forth a Judaism that is meaningful, joyful, and deep and get people to respond to that.”

Salkin, who has written many books – including his most recent, “The Gods are Broken! The Hidden Legacy of Abraham,” as well as “Text Messages: Torah Commentary for Teens,” also writes a weekly blog he calls Martini Judaism, published by the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, “for those who want to be shaken and stirred.” www.jewishjournal.com/martini_judaism.

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