Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Englewood’s Ahavath Torah for some 26 years, attributes the synagogue’s growth and longevity to “good fortune, proximity to New York, a lovely area, and a sense of openness” toward people striving to lead Orthodox lives.
“A good deal of our character was set by the way it started,” said Goldin.
The rabbi, together with his wife, Barbara, will be honored on March 5 and 6 for their years of service to the congregation.
Describing the synagogue’s founders as “a group of people committed to Orthodox Judaism,” Goldin noted that they also were open to recognizing that they themselves were not always themselves ‘there.'”
|Barbara and Rabbi Shmuel Goldin Courtesy Rabbi Goldin|
“The issue is to keep the community together and find ways to give people the ability to grow … maintaining a balance with a sense of tradition and continuity,” he said. “In each generation, Jewish law is given to us in trust, to use it and shape it and to engage ourselves and our generation.” But, he said, “we must then pass it down to another generation and it must bear a similarity to what we received. It’s a balance between continuity and adaptation – a fascinating amalgam of divine law and human logic.”
Goldin noted that, unlike in many other communities, “there’s been a vision and recognition by the lay leadership [of Ahavath Torah] that what we’re trying to build is one large congregation … rather than a bunch of splinters.”
That is not to say that members don’t have options, he stressed, “but people moving in can see that there is a center to this community. Young people gravitate to that center [and] we make them welcome.”
The Englewood shul, with more than 700 membership units, includes individuals of all ages, he said, with “a great number of young people and lots of children.” Figuring out how to accommodate and program for all these groups is a challenge.
Even in 1983, he said, when he came from Potomac, Md., to lead the Bergen County synagogue, “it was considered a major Orthodox congregation in the New York area.” With roughly 350 family units, the synagogue was then led by noted Rabbi Isaac Swift.
“I considered it to be a terrific opportunity,” Goldin said. He didn’t expect to get the job, being at least 10 years younger than all the other candidates, but the interview was a “great experience.” He met in the living room of longtime member George Feintuch with some “very distinguished looking people.”
Thinking he would probably not be hired, “I was very relaxed,” he said. “But then they started taking me seriously and I got nervous.”
On reflection, said Goldin, “it probably served me well that I was so different from the other candidates.”
Viewing the rabbinate as a “daily adventure,” the rabbi said that each day has presented different challenges. His goals, however, have remained consistent over the years.
“My first goal was to be a rabbi to the community, to serve their needs pastorally, to be there and play a role in their lives in whatever way they needed me,” he said.
He also strived “to keep the community together and grow it [believing that] it is better to be together under one roof with all our differences and points of views than splinter into small congregations.” Fortunately, he noted, the success of that strategy was enabled by the foresight of the lay leadership, giving the congregation a big enough building to accomplish that goal.
While the synagogue hosts numerous minyans, for special occasions – shul dinners, Yom HaShoah commemorations, and the like – congregants “unite for a cause,” said the rabbi. Since he is unable to attend each minyan on a regular basis, he shares this responsibility with the associate rabbi, Chaim Poupko; the rabbinic intern, Aaron Kraft; and the Ahavath Torah scholars, Rabbi Tzvi and Tova Sinensky. The synagogue also employs a yoetzet halakhah, who is available to answer the personal questions of women congregants.
“We just hired an administrator,” said Goldin, musing that “it’s a miracle we did so well without one” up to this point. He attributes this success to volunteerism within the community.
While Goldin feels he has been fairly successful in increasing the learning and Torah commitment of members, “we have a long way to go,” he said. He noted that his sermons and classes are directed toward critical issues “like the internal needs of the community, how can we pull together.”
In addition to adult education programs and scholars-in-residence, Goldin said, he has encouraged the development of groups within the community that study on their own, such as the Isaac Perry Beit Midrash Program.
Goldin said he also feels strongly about his members’ connection to Israel and has led more than 15 missions there. His was the first American congregation to visit Israel during the Iraqi Scud attacks, and in 2002 he spearheaded two rallies in Israel, bringing hundreds of people there to express their solidarity.
Goldin said he wants his members “to be open to the community at large. I’m proud that we have a good relationship with [UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey],” he said. “I work hard at that.”
He said he often cites the teaching about the patriarch Abraham, who described himself at the end of his life as a ger v’toshav, both a stranger and a citizen of the world. “This creates a unique dialectic,” said Goldin, recalling that during the height of the war in Kosovo, he traveled with 12 members of the congregation to work with Muslim Albanian refugee children, together with Israeli volunteers.
“This marks the kind of things we should do more of,” he said, adding that as the congregation settles into its new building, it should “look at ways in which we should play a world role.”
Another of his goals, he said, “is to keep the community abreast of and thinking about critical issues of the day.” He cited, for example, his involvement with NNJKIDS and Jewish Education for Future Generations, which is working to make day-school tuition more affordable for Jewish parents.
While it is important to have vibrant programming, said Goldin, the mark of a successful synagogue is “to try to be there each day and each week. The key to our community is being there every day.” The synagogue boasts four morning minyans as well as daily Minhah/Ma’ariv services.
Goldin, who has five children and four grandchildren, credits his wife, a speech pathologist, with “playing a tremendous role behind the scenes” and giving him some of his best ideas. “She’s not your typical rebbetzin,” he said.
He noted, for example, that it was her idea for him to meet every Friday night with third- to fifth-graders to study the Torah portion of the week.
“That way I get to know the kids pre-bar mitzvah,” he said.
Calling himself a “centrist” on the issue of women’s participation, Goldin said he believes strongly in advanced Torah education for women and “creating places of leadership for them within the Orthodox community that are unique and specific.” However, he added, “we should not attempt to break down role traditions.”
Goldin, who said he was “gratified” that he could concentrate on writing during his sabbatical in Israel three years ago, has published two books, “Unlocking the Torah Text: Bereishit” and “Unlocking the Torah Text: Shemot.” His third book, on Vayikra, will be out soon. (He will speak about and sign his books at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades at 8 p.m. on March 3.) He is also pleased that he has been able to get more involved in the Rabbinical Council of America.
“It’s good for the community as well,” he said, noting that he is now able to tell congregants about things happening outside the community that he might not otherwise have been aware of.
“I can’t believe the years have passed the way they have,” he said. His relationship with the synagogue has been “a wonderful shidduch. I’m grateful to God that we found each other in a fashion that seems to work.”
Goldin pointed to the teaching about Mordecai that he was liked by most of his brothers, not all.
“You do the best you can,” he said. “You do what you think is right and bring others along with you. The new building will enable us to do what we do even better – it’s an absolutely positive move.”