Bayonne rabbi still ‘keeping the light on’ for future generations

Bayonne rabbi still ‘keeping the light on’ for future generations

Rabbi Gordon Gladstone

When Rabbi Gordon Gladstone arrived in Bayonne in 1984 to take over the helm of Temple Beth Am, he was coming from a pulpit in Fargo, N.D.

It was, he says, “different.”

In Fargo, he said, “I remember pulling my eldest son to school on a sled when the actual temperature was 40 degrees below zero.” And, he added, “everyone there is Lutheran.”

In Hudson County – which he said was “instantly familiar” because it reminded him of his grandparents’ neighborhood in Cleveland Heights, Ohio – Gladstone found both warmer weather and a preponderance of Catholics.

Finally, as the only rabbi in North Dakota, Gladstone did a fair amount of traveling. Here, as one rabbi among many, he has been able to stay closer to home.

Now celebrating his 25th anniversary as religious leader of Beth Am, Gladstone serves a congregation of mostly older families. Having seen a decline in membership – the congregation has only two children now, although it had a flourishing Hebrew school when he first arrived – members are nevertheless hopeful that “if we keep the eternal light going,” the synagogue, and the town, will see a renaissance similar to that of Hoboken and Jersey City.

Gladstone, who will be honored by his Reform congregation during the weekend of June 12 and 13, said he has seen many synagogues close in Bayonne. The Jewish life in the town “has been contracting,” he said. “We’re trying to keep it going.”

“Every Jewish institution is important,” he said, from synagogues to organizations such as Hadassah. “We’re trying to maintain Jewish life in Hudson County,” he said, noting that the closing of any one institution “is a great loss to the community.”

Describing himself as a “long-haired, bearded hippie rabbi,” Gladstone said that he and the congregation “have worked wonderfully well together over the years. I’ve spent the best years of my rabbinate here. We appear to be a terrific match.”

Many of the members, he said, were “born Orthodox Jews” and changed their religious orientation over the years. Some, he said, left the Conservative synagogue Temple E

The bimah at Bayonne’s Temple Beth Am.

manuel in Bayonne to found the Reform congregation in the mid-1950s.

President of the Bayonne Interfaith Clergy Association since 1990 and “the senior rabbi in Hudson County,” Gladstone said he “keeps out of the business end of the congregation and focuses on spiritual and educational matters.”

The congregation offers weekly Friday night services, followed by an oneg Shabbat. “For some members,” he said, “it’s the only time they get out to socialize.”

The shul’s two youngsters attend a Sunday morning religious school at Temple Beth El in Jersey City, where Gladstone teaches together with Rabbi Kenneth Brickman. The two synagogues co-sponsor the program.

Gladstone also teaches two Monday classes at his synagogue and an “omnibus” Tuesday afternoon adult education course attended by some 25 people from all over the county and targeting issues from holiday customs to public events.

“It started as a Saturday morning Torah study group,” he explained. “When we moved it to Tuesday afternoon, it exploded.” It is, he said, something of which he is extremely proud.

Gladstone also takes pride in having introduced a second-night Passover seder at the congregation for people who would otherwise have no place to go. He has, he said, personally “plucked pinfeathers out of chickens” for this event.

The rabbi, with a master of arts degree in Hebrew letters as well as a doctor of divinity degree from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, acknowledges that communal change will be slow in coming. And neither Bayonne nor his congregation will “boom overnight nor without problems.” Still, he said, his members take seriously their responsibility to “keep the lights on until the future arrives.”

For more information about the 25th anniversary celebration, call the synagogue, (201) 858-2104.

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