Almost every year, new rabbis come to our area. Around this time, just before the High Holy Days usher in a new year, we profile them. This year, we introduce you to four rabbis new to Bergen County, and one in Hudson County.
Congregational rabbis — Bergen County
Talk about commuting.
Barry Diamond, the interim rabbi at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, lives in Texas.
“My wife is still in Texas,” said Rabbi Diamond, who has been with the congregation since July. “I go back and forth. So far it works for us. Our children are grown and out of the house.” Usually, interim rabbis stay for one year, possibly two. So far in his career, Rabbi Diamond has done both.
Rabbi Diamond has been well prepared for his temporary position. Besides being ordained by the Reform movement, he trained as a consultant for nonprofit boards of directors and then received advanced training in the interim rabbinate.
“For a number of years, I had my own consultancy with nonprofit boards of directors, training them in governance and how boards should work,” he said. But given his interest in Jewish education, his psychology training, which focused on “how individuals grow and develop,” and his rabbinic ordination, the interim rabbinate seemed tailor-made for his particular skills.
Rabbi Diamond is a firm believer in the value of his work. Indeed, he said, the CCAR — the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement — learned the importance of this position from “some Christian ministers who created an interim ministry network.”
“It has happened in past that when congregations have a longtime rabbi leave, or else their rabbi leaves under a cloud or some kind of difficulty, they may hire another rabbi and then fire that rabbi within two or three years,” he said. Bringing in a trained interim clergyperson, who is “not in the middle of all the dynamics, to deal with the anxiety or emotional frustration or even looking at the issues that might be within the congregation itself” can be very helpful. “We’re finding that strong congregations are doing this — and coming out even stronger.”
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, the synagogue’s previous rabbi, whose work in Mahwah has been seen widely as successful, is now at Temple Shaaray Tefila, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Rabbi Diamond has been warmly received in Mahwah, he said, describing the area as “enthralling, among the most beautiful I’ve lived in — and this from a native of Southern California.” He describes the 425-family congregation as especially warm and welcoming. “They have lots of young families and a good size religious school,” he noted, describing the atmosphere as “vibrant.”
Rabbi Diamond is expected to do “all of the normal rabbinic duties — teaching adults and children, working with bar and bat mitzvah students, leading services, pastoral counseling” — but also “to come in with a consultant’s eyes, looking to understand how and why the congregation runs as it does, and looking to find ways to prepare the congregation for the next rabbi.” That includes exploring how the board runs “and the ways we can build on the many strengths of the board and staff.”
Like most rabbis, Rabbi Diamond wants to provide “a meaningful, beautiful, congenial prayer experience,” where congregants learn, pray, and explore their own spirituality. In addition, he said, “as a congregation, we should be spending time thinking about the impact we want to have on the lives of both members and the larger community. It helps us to focus on the real value we bring.”
He sees his job as “organic, not to come in and dictate but to focus on the strengths the congregation has and the interest leaders have to grow and develop. Healthy congregations always want to learn and become better at what they do. This is a very healthy congregation. They’re asking, ‘What can we learn? What can we do now?’”
Now in his fourth interim pulpit — his most recent one was in Iowa City — Rabbi Diamond said that the challenges and dynamics are different in each synagogue. “But each one comes with a tentativeness not knowing who their next rabbi is going to be. So far, in all the congregations, my being there has given them time to do reflection and go through the rigorous process.” In each of these cases, he said, “they are happy with the rabbi they chose.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Diamond is overwhelmed by the wealth of opportunities offered by northern New Jersey. “There are so many wonderful things here,” he said, noting his interest in a djembe group. (A djembe is a type of African drum.)
“There’s something about banging a drum that touches deeply in the soul — being in rhythm with other people, creating complex rhythms that are surprising and interesting,” he said. Moving in sync is an exciting thing. It’s consistent with my job, to understand how a congregation moves, and think with them.”
For more information, go to www.bethhaverim.org.
— Lois Goldrich
When he was about to graduate from Columbia College, Daniel Fridman, the new rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, had a stark choice in front of him.
He could go to medical school, and he would go on to specialize in oncology. Or he could go to rabbinical school, and eventually teach Torah and lead a community.
He’d already been accepted to both medical and rabbinical schools.
Of course, it’s clear that he went to rabbinical school — the title “rabbi” is a bit of a giveaway, “and I haven’t looked back since,” he said — but what is less clear and deeply touching is how much those two seemingly disparate choices have in common.
Both demand a complicated, highly educated mixture of intellectual rigor and deep compassion and a desire to work with and help heal other people. And because both of Rabbi Fridman’s parents are doctors and the entire family is firmly knit into the texture of Orthodox life, both choices spring from one of his animating principles, the mandate to honor his mother and his father.
Rabbi Fridman was born in the Bronx; his parents, Drs. Esther and Morton Fridman, both psychiatrists, were residents at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine there. In 1988, his parents moved their young family — Daniel was 3, and his older brother, Ari, was 4 — to Teaneck. “They wanted a quiet life for their kids,” Rabbi Fridman said.
He remembers some impressions from the move. “I investigated the house when we first got there, and I came back to my parents and said, ‘Did you know there’s a park behind the house?’ I didn’t have the concept of a backyard.
“And I remember asking them, in all sincerity, if the people we bought the house from would still be living there when we moved in. I didn’t know anybody who lived in a private home.
“You could argue that the mere fact that I asked those questions was precisely the reason why my parents wanted to live in Teaneck,” he added.
Daniel followed his brother Ari — now a lawyer, and then as always his role model — to Yavneh for elementary school, and then to Frisch for high school. Their younger brother, Michael, is 7 years younger, and their sister, Elisheva, is four years younger still. The family belongs to Keter Torah. “There was no jumping around” among shuls, Rabbi Fridman said. “Roemer, as it used to be called, was a very solid connection for it. That was it. That was our shul life. I am very close to Rabbi Baum” — that’s Shalom Baum, the synagogue’s leader, who also is president of the Rabbinical Council of America.
Rabbi Fridman’s wife, Dr. Chaya Gopin, also comes from Teaneck, where her parents, Sharon and Judah, still live. “She grew up on the other side of town,” he said, and she went to Moriah, and then to Ma’ayanot, so they didn’t know each other until later. “She was the valedictorian in both of those schools,” he said. “I married up.” She went on to Stern College; she’s now a clinical neuropsychologist at Cornell Weill Medical Center.
Rabbi Fridman was ordained at RIETS, Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary. It was the perfect place for him, he said. His worldview is based on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Soloveitchik’s son-in-law and intellectual heir, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. First, when you study Talmud, or any Jewish text, you must go “beneath the surface, to try to understand the conceptual core that animates it,” he said. “It is rigorous and demanding, and allows you to see the big picture.” Next, there is the need to combine the immanent and the transcendent. Paraphrasing Maimonides, “the two cardinal mitzvot, of both love and fear of God, can be achieved not only through the love of Torah but also through the love of science,” Rabbi Fridman said. “You can see God’s creative genius and majesty in all disciplines,” not only in Jewish text and the unfolding of Jewish life but also “through quantum mechanics and Beethoven’s symphonies.”
Most importantly, “because the first two can sound dry and intellectual, remember that the Torah says it is a mitzvah to cleave to God — but if God is fire, how can you do that?
“Reb Chaim of Brisk,” a Soloveitchik, Rabbi Joseph’s grandfather, “was the progenitor of this approach to learning.” A great intellectual, he also said that the “essential function of a rabbi is to do chesed — acts of loving kindness.”
After ordination, Rabbi Fridman worked at the Jewish Center in Manhattan, and they lived on the Upper West Side. “We could have been very happily to have stayed in the city, but both Chaya and I are unusually close to our parents, and that’s another defining part of our worldview,” he said. “Kibud av v’em — honoring our parents. We wanted our children” — so far that’s the couple’s 18-month-old daughter, Eliana — “to have that sense of limitless gratitude to our parents. The only thing we could possibly give them that would at all repay them for everything they have done for us is the opportunity to see their grandchildren on a very constant basis.”
That’s why the family moved back to Teaneck last year; Dr. Gopin commutes to the city, and Rabbi Fridman became a full-time teacher at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, a job he still holds — and loves. “Rabbi Adler” — that’s Yosef Adler, the rosh yeshiva, who also heads Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, “is my role model and my polestar,” Rabbi Fridman said.
Earlier this summer, Rabbi Fridman heard that the Jewish Center was looking for a rabbi. His house was a seven-minute walk from the shul, and “I had always wanted to be involved in a communal position, to have the forum for chesed,” he said. “And they were looking to become part of the mainstream Orthodox community in Teaneck. Everything came together.”
The synagogue now is home to a school, Heichal HaTorah. “It’s a partnership, and the school’s dean, Rabbi Aryeh Stechler, and I have a close relationship,” Rabbi Fridman said. “It’s two independent institutions working in partnership.”
He’s excited about the Teaneck Jewish Center’s future, but he’s careful to emphasize that its growth will not come at the expense of any other institution. “I am very sensitive to the question of what is the overall benefit to the community in having another shul,” he said. “It’s a fair question, and the answer is that it is only good for the community if we can grow the community.
“The denominator — the number of Orthodox shuls in southern Teaneck — is constant,” Rabbi Fridman said. “But the numerator — the number of people who are involved — is not.
“It is my goal to grow the numerator, and to contribute to the overall growth of the community.”
For more information, go to jcot.org.
— Joanne Palmer
Rabbi Loren Monosov of Woodcliff Lake, Temple Emanuel’s religious leader since mid-July, clearly is adept at juggling the various parts of her life. She and her husband, Jeremy, have two little girls, Hannah, who is 4, and Yael, who is 15 months. Rabbi Monosov also has a full rabbinic schedule.
Rabbi Monosov, whose last position was as assistant rabbi of the Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck, N.Y., said that her new congregation, like her last, is “a thriving egalitarian Conservative synagogue with an early childhood center” — we wrote about the shul’s new parenting center in last week’s paper — “a religious school, and a community looking to engage.” Cantor Alan Sokolov, the shul’s new cantor, is not a stranger to her — the two worked together in Westchester for many years. At the Westchester Jewish Center, she created the multi-generational Purim-palooza and Chanukah celebration, which, she said, regularly filled the building. Now, she is one of a handful of women who lead congregations with more than 500 families.
Rabbi Monosov said that for her, the rabbinate is a “calling. I don’t just punch in and punch out. This is my life, how I live my life. Some people go to the office and go home and that’s it.” But for her, being a rabbi “melds together” with her other activities, “flowing in and out.
“In high school, my parents were not observant Jews,” she said. “I didn’t love Hebrew school and wanted to stop with my bat mitzvah. My parents said no, so we agreed on USY,” the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth program. It was her participation in USY that caused her to “fall in love with Judaism.” Now she wants to pay it forward, creating a synagogue that offers people a similar opportunity.
“I want our members to learn, grow, and fall in love with Judaism,” just as she did, “and to make their relationship with the synagogue as meaningful and holy as it can be.” She noted that the philosophy concerning what synagogues should do has changed over the years.
Conservative writer and educator Rabbi “Ron Wolfson was paramount in changing the idea of what a successful synagogue is,” she said. “It’s not the numbers, but whether people were moved and had an experience that was meaningful.” Does her new congregation share this vision? “I believe so,” she said. Why? Because “they hired me.”
Rabbi Monosov said she brings to the table not only a passion for Judaism but also a love of engaging with people, from infants to centenarians . She’s equally comfortable “being with kids on the floor in the early childhood program,” teaching adult education programs, “and everything in between.”
She also is serious about her responsibility to offer pastoral care “in life’s toughest moments, to walk with them through their journey. I love the challenge of being with a variety of people and meshing well with different age cohorts.” At 35, “I look young and act young,” she said, noting that this is sometimes challenging for older people who have children and grandchildren of a similar age.
Rabbi Monosov said that she will not change any programs this year. “It’s a year of learning how we can enhance them,” she said. Her goal is to bring in more learning, to engage the teens in a thoughtful way, and to work on seniors programs. “The YJCC closed a year ago,” she said. “We’re learning how to operate in a new situation.”
Rabbi Monosov said that “the special thing about this congregation is that it is a warm, friendly, and haimish community that has embraced me and my family. It really has welcomed us.” Members, she said, include “nice healthy seniors, empty-nesters, families with kids in school, and a growing cohort of students in the early childhood education program. It’s a healthy mix of ages.”
What mark would she like to leave on the congregation? “People look back on Rabbi Ungar with awe,” she said. (Rabbi Andre Ungar, the shul’s longtime rabbi, was a nationally known figure, widely respected as a scholar and pastor.) “He made a mark on their lives and their souls,” she said. “I want to make a difference, so that people will know, in good times and bad, that I was there to hold their hand.”
A graduate of the George Washington University, with a B.A. in Judaic studies and psychology, Rabbi Monosov was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2010. JTS also awarded her with the Albert Pappenheim prize in professional skills.
According to a statement from the synagogue, “Rabbi Monosov is respected as a dynamic leader and as a teacher who is accessible, yet inspiring; religious school students love working with her on their divrei Torah, congregants young and less young love learning with her. More seasoned and learned congregants are equally motivated.”
For more information, go to tepv.org.
— Lois Goldrich
Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly comes to Wayne’s Temple Beth Tikvah from Temple Emanu-El in San Jose; she was that shul’s cantor and assistant rabbi.
“I learned a lot about clergy life” during those 10 years, she said. Now she lives in Wayne with her husband, Dave, and describes herself as a “singing rabbi.”
Her goals, she said, are many, both within and outside the synagogue, which she joined in mid-August. “I hope to be present and involved in a lot of community-wide events,” she added, noting that she looks forward to working on the town’s interfaith council and participating in other community activities. Shortly after arriving, she took part in a fundraising walk to benefit a local child battling cancer.
“My goal is to really bring the beauty and wealth of Judaism to as many people as possible,” Rabbi Simerly said. “Basically, to cross through barriers of dogmas and the way it used to be, just as I am doing in being the first female rabbi in Wayne and of this congregation.” She wants to get people excited, “so they will feel invited to join us for worship, and study. They have a wonderful opportunity to have a very rich, deep, and fulfilling Jewish spiritual life.” The rabbinate, she said, “is about outreach to people, to bridge differences and enjoy commonality in our community.”
An Israeli, Rabbi Simerly speaks Hebrew fluently. In her new position, she will be teaching both children and adults, although she jokingly describes the entire congregation as “my children of all ages.” She paid tribute to longtime cantor Charles Romalis, who recently celebrated his 50th anniversary at the congregation. “He offered to mentor me and be here for as long as I need him,” she said, calling the offer “beautiful and wonderful.”
Rabbi Simerly, who was born in Haifa, came to the United States about 21 years ago. “I come from an “ultra secular Zionist environment,” she said. “Pioneers.” She entered Reform Judaism “through the back door.” During her undergraduate studies at San Jose State University, “one teacher told me about a nearby temple looking for a choir director. I said no. I don’t know anything about temple life.” Still, she made connections with the rabbi, despite her fear that she wouldn’t be able to do the job.
But once she took it on, “I started to work with kids, learn contemporary Jewish music, and bring in traditional chasidic music from Israel. I was asked to lead services and to teach at the school.” She also attended a Jewish summer camp, Camp Tawonga, to learn more. “Slowly but surely it became a passion, and I became incredibly involved with the kids,” taking them to sing at retirement homes and other places, she said. “I wanted to take the synagogue out into the community,” she added — and she still does.
Rabbi Simerly earned her B.A. in music education in 2004 and her cantorial ordination and master’s degree in Jewish sacred music from the Academy for Jewish Religion in California, in 2009. Later, she received rabbinic ordination from the same institution. A member of the American Conference of Cantors, the Reform movement’s cantorial association, “my next goal is to be a member of the CCAR,” she said. Rabbi Simerly is the co-editor of “Voices in the Wilderness: Emerging Roles of Israeli Clergywomen,” co-edited with cantor and music scholar Jonathan L. Friedmann.
Rabbi Simerly describes her new congregation as “eager and willing and excited about rejuvenation.” The synagogue still includes among its members the “chalutzim” — the pioneers — who established the facility and have remained members. In addition, she said, “we have a new wave of young families. There’s a variety of ages. Anyone who comes will feel very much at home because of this variety.”
Asked to describe her own strengths, “I love being with people,” Rabbi Simerly said. “I am all about caring and loving interactions.” Also, “I feel Judaism in my kishkes,” she added. “I love to spread the incredible beauty of our tradition, to bring in people to join me in celebrating our beautifully ancient tradition.” She wants, she said, to be seen as “someone who helped Jews of all ages be reawakened and connected with the spiritual aspects of Judaism within themselves.”
An avid animal lover, Rabbi Simerly has three schnauzers of different sizes — giant, standard, and miniature. “I’m an advocate for animal rights and the humane treatment of animals,” she said. “My main hobby is to be out in nature as much as I possibly can.”
For more information, go to www.templebethtikvahnj.org.
— Lois Goldrich
Congregational rabbi — Hudson County
Rabbi Aaron Katz’s path has taken him across four continents, through many languages, around obstacles posed by labels that he has refused and boxes that he’s burst through.
It’s now landed him in Jersey City, a city where a once-flourishing Jewish community petered out to remnants but never vanished fully, and now very possibly might revive itself. As of July 1, Rabbi Katz is leading B’nai Jacob, an unaffiliated egalitarian synagogue on West Side Avenue, a 60-year-old shul that might take the lead in the community’s rebirth.
The building is old, long and narrow in the urban style, with dated fixtures, unglamorous cinderblock walls, and original (and marvelous) Art Deco signs marking its bathrooms. (The shul departs from the urban model, though, in that it has a parking lot, which is likely to help it grow.) Perhaps symbolically, it has old-style charm but not many modern conveniences — it was not until last week that it had Wi-Fi. But, Rabbi Katz said, as soon as he figured out that the reason he was galloping through his cellphone data plan was that there was no internet coverage in the building, the young new board fixed the problem.
Aaron Katz was born in Argentina in 1955, into a family that was active in the thriving Orthodox community. He went through school and university in Argentina and taught for a short time; in 1974 he moved to Israel to study. “I wanted to learn the essence, the real Judaism,” he said. “I felt that sometimes in the diaspora, people just do things because their parents did them, and because their grandparents did. I couldn’t do things just because I was expected to do them, not even when I was a child. So I went to Israel to study the real thing.”
That was not his first trip to Israel. When he was still in high school, Rabbi Katz won the Chidon HaTanach — the Bible contest for diaspora students — and represented Argentina in the international finals. It was there that he met the woman whom he married when they both were 21 — she was in Israel because she had won the contest for her country, Sweden.
Rabbi Katz does not do things by half. He studied at the Mercaz HaRav Kook and in 1979 he was ordained by the chief rabbis of Israel, the Ashkenazi Shlomo Goren and the Sephardi Ovadia Yosef. He also was a dayan — a judge — specializing in divorce and conversion.
After his marriage, Rabbi Katz went to Sweden during the summers to make money. He worked in a factory, owned by Jews, that made electronics. He told no one that he had been ordained — his goal had been to study and to learn, not to use his title to impress anyone, he said, and anyway he had to be able to support himself. “I don’t care about labels or titles,” he said. “Who cares?”
But he was asked to be a witness at a wedding in Israel, and the new husband and wife, who were Swedes, brought home their marriage contract, which Rabbi Katz had signed. Community members read the signature. “So the next summer, when I came back to the factory to work, the owner said, ‘Aaron, I want you to come to work late on Mondays and Thursdays’” — the weekdays when the Torah is read. “ ‘I want you to go to shul,’ he said. ‘You are a rabbi.’
“ ‘I said, ‘But I need the money,’ but he said that he’d pay me the same amount,’” Rabbi Katz reported. “So I went, and then they asked me to be their rabbi. At first I said no, but I went on Chanukah, and then I went on Pesach, and then they offered me a contract, and I accepted.” The first contract was for three years; he ended up staying there for 14 years. Four of his five children were born in Sweden.
Rabbi Katz was the chief Orthodox rabbi of Sweden, but “the Jewish community was mainly liberal,” he said, and liberal and Orthodox Jews kept each other at a distance. “During my time there, the Orthodox became part of the larger Jewish community,” he said. “I made this happen.
“I do not believe in boxes, in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. People do more or less, but I do not judge,” he added.
When he left Sweden, the family moved to Panama, where Rabbi Katz headed another shul and his youngest child was born. Next, they moved to Israel, and Rabbi Katz flew between there and Berlin, where he taught comparative religion and Jewish law in a secular university.
It was during that time that Rabbi Katz changed the course of his life.
He had always known that he was gay, but he came out then.
“You don’t wake up one day and say, ‘I am gay,’” he said. “Of course it is something you always know, but in the 70s it was not something that you talked about. You try to stuff it down, to pretend it’s not there, but there comes a time in your life when you have to take responsibility for who you are and what you want. There is a time when you have to be true to yourself, and to everyone around you.”
Because he was the Orthodox rabbi and dayan in Denmark, Rabbi Katz said, he had to make sure that he tied up every detail that might affect anyone else before he came out. As strong as his responsibility to himself was, his responsibility to others was even stronger. “I had to be sure that nothing would be done retroactively,” he said. “A lot of it was a process. When everything was done, I came out.”
His children supported him strongly from the beginning, he said; when he told them that he had something to tell them, they told him that they knew. “When I thanked them, they said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re our father! And we love you, and you are the same person who taught us our values.’”
Four of his children live in Israel now, as do five of his grandchildren; one of his daughters and his two other grandchildren live in Philadelphia.
In 2000, Rabbi Katz moved to Los Angeles, where he became close to Maggie Anton, who wrote “Rashi’s Daughters”; the two studied together, and he helped research her book. He also was a full-time scholar-in-residence at Beit Chayim Chadashim, and then the rabbi of a Beverly Hills community called Shofar.
He also met his partner, Kevin Gleason, a television producer. Mr. Gleason was not born Jewish but was drawn to Judaism; he converted without telling Rabbi Katz because the conversion was not to please his boyfriend but soul-deep, the result of much searching.
The two men are now married. First, they became domestic partners when nothing else was available to them. And then they got married in New York on July 3 last year, the week after the Supreme Court legalized same-gender marriage across the country. “It was very important to me to do it on the weekend of the Fourth of July. It was the same year that I decided to become an American. I am an American now. I believe in this country’s values.”
Rabbi Katz and Mr. Gleason moved next to Warsaw, where the rabbi founded a liberal community, and then on to Miami, where he created another liberal community, Chavurat BeYachad. “After that, I came to Jersey City,” he said. “I liked Miami, but I was missing Jewish culture. Also, my daughter is in Philadelphia, Kevin’s brother is in Closter and he has two nieces here, and it’s much closer to Israel, where my other children are.
“And also I like to create things.”
He thinks that B’nai Jacob has a real future; he’s talking to the children of its founding members and to their children, and to the young Jews moving into Jersey City. He wants the synagogue to be inclusive, and to offer as many ways into Jewish life as possible. “I want to have services every week, and a minyan every morning so there’s a place for everyone to say kaddish,” he said. “I want classes, and lunch and learn, and a place to learn Judaism 101. I want cooking classes and movie nights and a Hebrew school on Shabbat mornings and Shabbat dinners.” He wants B’nai Jacob’s doors to be open to anyone who wants to come in.
B’nai Jacob means the sons of Jacob; Jacob had 12 sons, each different from the other, each the progenitor of a tribe of Israel. It’s a good model for the shul he wants to build, Rabbi Katz said.
His first Shabbat service will be on September 10, and the first Shabbat dinner will be on September 23.
For more information, go to www.bnaijacobjc.com.
— Joanne Palmer
The executive director of NAJC, Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains, Rabbi Rafael Goldstein, is eager for people to understand how important chaplains are.
“They comfort people of all backgrounds and faiths by helping them use their spiritual and emotional wisdom to find meaning, courage, and hope,” he said, explaining that chaplains function in a variety of different organizations, from hospitals to corporations.
“Chaplains help people find meaning in their life experience,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “They specialize in listening to people who need affirmation that someone is hearing them and will follow up with questions, helping them figure out their own responses to their own questions.”
His group, headquartered in Paramus, has some 625 members. About 30 or so are in New Jersey. “We started in New Jersey with a couple of chaplains who got to Atlantic City 28 years ago,” he said. At the time, rabbis were functioning as chaplains, but with no special education to prepare them for the job. Now they’re board certified, having undergone what Rabbi Goldstein calls “rigorous training.
“It includes four units in clinical/pastoral education, each with 400 hours of clinical and classroom time,” he said. “That’s 1,600 hours. Then they work 2,000 hours in a clinical setting. Then they apply for board certification.” Rabbi Goldstein was ordained by the Academy of Jewish Religion in 1994. He received a doctorate in ministry (counseling) from Hebrew Union College in 2014.
Chaplaincy training is mostly spiritual training, Rabbi Goldstein said, “enabling people to find their theological core and use skills and experience and knowledge about how the world functions and how they find their spiritual being.” His group, functions under Jewish auspices. There are parallel organizations for other faith groups including the National Association of Catholic Chaplains and the Association of Professional Chaplains.
The latter “started as a Protestant group,” he said. “It became the organization that seems to be uniting all of us in common cause. It’s huge. It has a better ability to lobby” for issues such as licensing, “so work can be reimbursed by the government, like other professional groups.” Despite that group’s name, though, he said, all three are “equally professional.”
Most of NAJC’s members work in hospitals, many in long-term care. The group also includes chaplains in hospice and palliative care, as well as military chaplains. The president of his group now is a retired navy chaplain, and the certification chair is on active duty in the army. Members, including both men and women, come from all over the world — the United States, Canada, Israel, Aruba, Mexico, South America, Surinau, and the UK.
Before he took up this position, Rabbi Goldstein was the director of clinical services for the Center for Spirituality and Health at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. The center aims to develop clinical, educational, and research activities to enhance the understanding of the role spirituality plays in the prevention of, and recovery from, illness. “I dealt with staff as well as patients,” he said. “Our job was to create a world-class department of spiritual care,” he added, pointing out that spiritual needs do not necessarily include religious needs.”
He has been with NAJC since May. “The biggest challenge of the organization is figuring out ways of meeting the needs of our members and providing support for members in the various settings in which they work,” whether hospitals, hospices, long-term care facilities, prisons, corporations, or the military, he said. The biggest challenge for the chaplains themselves is in “getting people to understand that everyone has spiritual needs, whether religiously affiliated or not.”
The best part of his job, said Rabbi Goldstein — who grew up in Livingston, is learning to ride a bike, and lives with his husband, Gabriel Reccio, and their dog in Englewood — is to be “a chaplain to the chaplains, to advise and provide some of the wisdom gained through life experience.
“People think I sound supportive, easy to talk to,” he said. “I want to be able to handle some of the business aspects of the association while at the same time providing good personal care and spiritual care for our members.”
His goal is to increase both NAJC membership and the number and kinds of services it provides. “We’re hoping to turn our website into a resource center for anyone interested in Jewish spiritual material on health and recovery,” he said. He’s also hoping that a greater number of members will become board-certified.
One of his ideas, he added, is to change the organization’s name “to something without ‘chaplain.’ Unfortunately, it draws its origins from Christian roots, and that doesn’t help.” A new name, he said, would stress the concept of “spiritual health professionals,” a term he feels would be more appealing to the Jewish community.
For more information, go to najc.org.
— Lois Goldrich