A man of wit and wisdom

A man of wit and wisdom

Pending retirement aside, Borovitz to continue being involved

The whole Borovitz family stands together in Jerusalem.

When you interview many people for a story about Rabbi Neal Borovitz, who is about to retire from Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, you’d expect a little whisper of dissatisfaction. No one is beloved by everybody all the time.

You know that you wouldn’t include any of that criticism in your story – it’s not that kind of piece – but you’d hear it nonetheless. Just a hint. After all, he’s human.



There isn’t any.

So, with that out of the way, to begin…

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, about to retire after 25 years in River Edge, is an activist and a community builder, both inside and outside the Jewish world. He is leaving his post – but not his community, or his sense of obligation to it.

Borovitz was born in Cleveland in 1948, the second of four children, and grew up in suburban (and very Jewish) Cleveland Heights. The year of his birth also was the year the State of Israel was born, and Borovitz has retained a lifelong connection to the Jewish state that has only strengthened with time. And, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, it also was the last year that the Cleveland Indians, a team to which Borovitz retains a passionate if ill-fated love, won the World Series. (Not that his team’s lowly status stops him from going to Yankees games, where he wears his Cleveland Indians jersey, the one that says “Rabbi Neal 8″ on its back.)

Borovitz at the Brotherhood/Sisterhood breakfast in April, where he was recognized for his many years of service. JFNNJ

Borovitz was the grandson of socialists, tailors who were members of Workmen’s Circle. His family belonged to a Conservative shul and he was an active member of USY, its youth group.

Nine months before he began college in 1966, Borovitz’s father, Jerry, died, a far-too-young death that greatly influenced his children’s lives. Neal Borovitz chose to go to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “I wanted to do something different,” he said. “I was interested in the civil rights movement, so Tennessee was one of the places to be.

“It was a great culture shock for me, having grown up in a place with a plurality of Jews,” he said. “And Cleveland was one of the 10 largest cities in the country then. Nashville was a much smaller town, and very southern. There were 1,000 kids, maybe 1,200, in my high school graduating class, and fewer than that in my undergraduate class.”

It was in Nashville that Borovitz, who has gone on to work on interfaith relations, first encountered Christian evangelism. “There were a lot of different religious traditions there,” he understated.

The Jewish community was small but robust – “it gave me an experience of how to live as a Jew in a non-Jewish environment,” he said. Vanderbilt has one of the nation’s first Protestant divinity schools to establish a chair in Jewish studies, and Borovitz studied there. He had planned to be pre-med, but found himself drawn to Jewish things.

And then, at the end of his freshman year, the June 1967 Six-Day War erupted in Israel.

“I really wanted to run off to Israel to help, but I didn’t have the money,” he said. “There was a good friend of my mom and dad’s – my mom had gone to work for him after my dad died – I asked him to buy me a ticket, but he said, ‘Israel doesn’t really need you now. If you want to do something for Israel, why don’t you and your friend go out and raise some money for UJA?'”

So they did.

Borovitz and his friends organized a student fund-raising campaign. “We started in the bars where Jewish kids gathered to drink,” he said. “We put a pushke at the end of the counter, and a sign that said ‘Have one less beer for Israel.'”

He spent his junior year studying in Israel. “That’s where I really found my passion on Jewish studies and in working for the Jewish people,” he said. “That’s when I decided I would come back and look at the rabbinate.”

Although he had grown up in the Conservative movement, Borovitz decided that he would study at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, which is Reform. “In part, that’s because in 1970 all first-year students went to Israel, and JTS” – the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary – “wasn’t sending students there at all.

“HUC was the first American rabbinical program to require a year of study in Israel,” he continued. “The other streams soon followed.”

Borovitz wrote his thesis on the history of American Zionism. It is incorrect to think of the Reform movement as having been anti-Zionist, he said heatedly. “In the 1920s, there were some leaders who were against political Zionism, but there were Reform rabbis – particularly Judah Leon Magnes, Stephen Wise, and Abba Hillel Silver – who were probably the most important voices in American Zionism in the pre-state era.

“Even the classic Union Prayerbook had references to Israel,” he continued, “and the Gates of Prayer, published in 1975, was the first American prayer book to include a special service for Yom Ha’atzmaut, and it was the Reform rabbinate who declared that Hallel should be recited then.”

In the course of his rabbinical studies, in what was then an unusual move, Borovitz took a year off to work as a rabbinic intern at the University of Michigan’s Hillel, and he “fell in love with Hillel work,” he said. In 1975, after he was ordained, he became the Hillel director at the University of Texas in Austin. He stayed there for seven years, loving it, leaving only for a greater love, his wife, Ann Appelbaum. She is a lawyer who has spent her career as general counsel at JTS; she will retire along with her husband on June 30.

Moving to New York, Borovitz did not find a pulpit immediately, but instead became the national director of the Labor Zionist Alliance.

“It proved to be a fascinating course on Jewish civics and politics – and the incivility of Jewish civics and politics,” he said. He was not happy there. “I soon knew that I didn’t want to be a fundraiser,” he said. “I wanted a pulpit.

“So in July of ’83, I got hired on a one-year contract as the rabbi of the Union Temple in Brooklyn.”

It was a small place on Grand Army Plaza, perpetually on the verge of merger with someplace larger. He stayed for five years, on a series of year-long contracts, learning a lot. “But it wasn’t really what I was looking for,” he said. “I wanted a community within which I could not only grow professionally, but also have a family, raise my kids.”

In the fall of 1978, Borovitz applied to what was then Temple Sholom. (In 2009, the 450-member unit Temple Sholom merged with Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn, retaining the River Edge building and combining the two names.

“Twenty-five years ago, my wife agreed to move across the Hudson, and she has spent 25 years commuting across the bridge so I can lead this amazing community,” Borovitz said.

There are some ironies involved. Borovitz grew up Conservative and leads a Reform synagogue; his wife grew up Reform and works for the Conservative movement. “I’m proud to be part of the Reform movement, but as one of the movement’s great philosophers, Gene Borowitz” – that’s Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz, whose name is similar to but different from Neal Borovitz’s and is no relation – “wrote almost prophetically 15 or so years ago, we are in a postdenominational world.

“Sometimes people get too caught up in the adjectives” – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox – “and forget the noun.”

The noun is Jew.

Borovitz and Appelbaum have two children, Abby, 29, and Jeremy, 26.

“The greatest challenge I faced in my rabbinate is the challenge every contemporary American rabbi has to confront – how to balance our roles as rabbi and parent and spouse,” he said. “The rabbinate is a 24/7 calling, and so too is being a family member. So how do you balance it?

“To be a Jew is to be in a wrestling match,” he said, “with yourself, with the world, with your responsibilities. We say ‘alav hashalom’ about someone who is dead. We only refer to people as being at peace when they’re dead.

“At many times during my career I have felt the metaphor of Tevya” – Sholem Aleichem’s milkman, best-known to American audiences through “Fiddler on the Roof.” “We always have to balance, and we’re always on unsteady ground in Jewish communal life.”

Borovitz has been influenced by his family; first by his father’s untimely death and then by his older brother’s. Stuart Borovitz died of complications of multiple sclerosis in 2001. He was 55. “He taught me the importance of bikur cholim” – the mitzvah of taking care of the sick – “and how to treat the chronically ill. You must treat them as people, not as their disease.” (His sister, Sheri, lives in East Brunswick.)

His younger brother, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, overcame a career of crime and addiction – “he is a recovering alcoholic, and an ex-thief and gambler,” his brother said – to become the charismatic and wildly successful head of Beit T’Shuva in Los Angeles, a residential program and community created and maintained by the younger Borovitz and his wife, Harriet Rossetto.

“It’s because of Mark that we serve only grape juice in the synagogue for kiddush,” Neal Borovitz said. “He has taught me by his own example and through his work that t’shuvah is possible.

“And that brings me back to baseball,” he continued. “The reason that it’s my favorite spectator sport is that it’s really Jewish. There is no time clock. As long as you’re alive, until you make that last out you can come back. You can do t’shuvah.

“Remember the ’86 Mets.”

Borovitz loves counseling and teaching, and he feels deeply that there is a crisis in education on many levels. Because higher education is so expensive and now college loans are so expensive, “we’re really overburdening young people with debt,” he said. “I’d like to see the Jewish community more involved in making higher education more affordable.” He also argues that “the costs of synagogue and supplemental education are too high.

“The greatest tragedy over the course of my rabbinic career has been the decrease in affiliation rates, which places greater burdens upon people at their most difficult times of need.

“If we all shared in the burden, as the Jews did in 1967! Our federation really was a Jewish tax, and our synagogue membership was a responsibility. The costs of the service we provide could be less if everybody were sharing them more.

“As one of my past presidents, Allan Baer, said when he made an appeal for our building renovation a dozen or so years ago – he said, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we have all the money we need. The bad news is that it’s in your pockets.’

“I think that as Americans and as Jews, we have the money and the talent and the commitment to meet the pressing challenges of our times, but we have to put our hands in our pockets. We need to reach out to each other and share responsibilities.”

Borovitz does not know exactly what he will do once he retires, but he will stay in the community; he plans to split his time between his homes in Paramus and in the Berkshires. He is excited about Avodat Shalom’s new rabbi, Paul Jacobson. “He is young, dynamic, bright, passionate, and compassionate. I look forward to his taking our synagogue to the next level.”

Borovitz also is retiring as head of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, but he is not leaving the organization.

“We are not allowing him to retire from the JCRC,” its director, Joy Kurland, said. “If anything, he’ll be more active. He’s still on the board, and he is now on the board on the national level.”

Kurland and Borovitz have worked together on the JCRC for 23 years. “He really played a key role working to address the racial tension in the area after the Pannell shooting,” she said. (In 1990, a Teaneck police officer shot and killed Phillip Pannell, a black teenager.) He met with other community leaders, and worked with school administrators to develop a program called “Beyond Stereotypes and Dialogue: Doing It Together.”

“That led to the creation of the Bergen County Intercultural Youth Exchange for middle school students, and the Matty Feldman Multicultural Summer Camp for high school students,” she said. (Matthew Feldman was a state senator from Englewood.)

“He also was involved with our brotherhood/sisterhood faith groups from the get-go,” she said. “He has been involved in our other coalitions – the evangelical dialogue, the Korean Jewish leadership group. He is instrumental in our work with the African-American alliance. They came to us when the synagogue desecration happened to say they would be with us, and we marched with them for Trayvon Martin and about Darfur.”

“Any time any group has been the victim of a particular incident, Rabbi Borovitz has always been there to speak out and to work in solidarity with them,” she said.

A few months ago, Borovitz and Kurland were part of a Catholic/Jewish mission to Israel that included Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson. “It was incredibly transformative, because I saw Neal in a way that I hadn’t been able to before,” she said. “We all grew together in this experience, because we saw Catholicism through their eyes, and they saw Judaism through ours.”

Kurland recalled marches she and Borovitz undertook side by side, and lobbying trips to Washington they went on together.

“He has been a steadfast advocate,” she said. “He is a visionary, an advocate, a coalition builder, and an incredible educator. A Zionist, a builder of communal unity, both within and without.

“He always brings so much to the communal table.”

Dr. Harold Benus, the former director of the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, worked closely with Borovitz for years. “Neal was instrumental in working to help develop a number of community initiatives,” he said. “He is always engaging. He is always community-minded.

“He is an activist. He believes in what he does. He says what he means and he means what he says, and he is a tireless worker on behalf of the Jewish community.”

Rabbi Paula Feldstein is Avodat Shalom’s educator. “He is the energizer bunny,” she said. “He is constantly going. constantly thinking, coming up with new ideas, making things happen. He’s not just an idea guy, he’s a get-it-done guy, from start to finish.

“He is fiercely dedicated to taking care of people, both on the personal level and in a more global social justice way. If someone is having a personal problem, or if there is something going on in the community, he will drop everything to take care of everyone.

“In fact, I’ve occasionally threatened to tie him to a chair, because he just goes and goes and goes.”

She told a story that happened a few years ago. She lives in Demarest, “and I was approached by a family who were my neighbors. They had a son on the autism spectrum, who hadn’t gotten any religious education, in part because a couple of synagogues they had approached said they couldn’t do much for him.

“I sat down with Rabbi Borovitz. I told him that I didn’t know what to do. I was looking for advice. And he said, ‘We’ll take care of him.'”

He did.

“We set up something that he could do, and he had a bar mitzvah, on the bimah.

“That’s who Rabbi Borovitz is.”

Myron Lesh is a past president of Avodat Shalom. Borovitz was “an absolute joy to work with,” he said. “There is no ‘never’ in his vocabulary. He was always positive, always said yes, even if it meant sacrificing his family time.

“Every Purim, at the carnival, there is a chance to throw sponges at the rabbi. Every year, he would go along with it. It was a highlight of the carnival.”

Lesh has a more personal memory, as well.

“During my daughter’s bat mitzvah, she ran into a problem on the bimah,” he said. “All the rabbi did was go up to her and gave her a hug. That set her on the right path. He didn’t have to say a word.

“As parents, we will never forget that.”

Last week, the Jewish Standard received a letter from Roger Berkley of Woodcliff Lake, who, he told us, met Borovitz at the YJCC, where they would work out on neighboring treadmills.

“Needless to say, he introduced himself and we started talking,” Berkley wrote.

Although “I am not a member of his congregation, he is my leader,” he continued. “Not so much a spiritual leader, but an ethical, moral, and practical leader. His wise counsel has helped me deal with some very tough events that might have thrown me for a loop without his insights. He uses Torah as the foundation of his comments, even though he knows full well that I am an atheist, because that is his base and touchstone.”

Borovitz is “a man of wit and wisdom who tailors his touch to the person to whom he speaks,” Berkley continued. “Neal’s retirement is only from the pulpit. He is a serial counselor and advocate for the principles that we hold close to us, so he can’t retire from that, and I am happy to know that.

“His retirement will let him work on his golf game, which is, frankly, much in need of work.”

Temple Avodat Shalom is celebrating Rabbi Neal Borovitz’s retirement with a brunch on Sunday, June 9. Saturday, June 22, will be his last Shabbat service as rabbi there.

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