After several years of debate and searching, the Jewish Center of Teaneck was slated to vote last night on accepting as its new leader an Orthodox rabbi recommended by the synagogue board of trustees.
The vote on Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, a Yeshiva University graduate, was announced in a letter to the congregation from its president, Jeffrey Weber. Zierler would be offered an initial three-year contract, beginning Aug. 1.
By press time, Weber had not returned phone calls to this newspaper.
According to the Website of the Mandel Institute, Zierler is a second-year fellow in its program in Jerusalem; the mission of the program is "To invigorate Jewish life in the diaspora by preparing professionals with vision, commitment, and practical wisdom to lead community institutions and direct educational initiatives." A native of Canada, he was born in 1960, is married, and has three children. In addition to his rabbinic training, he has a master’s degree in counseling and human resources from John Carroll University in Cleveland and a master’s degree in bioethics from Case Western Reserve University, also in Cleveland.
The Jewish Center has been without a permanent rabbi since the departure of Rabbi Ira Grussgott, also a YU grad, two years ago, and has been grappling with its religious identity and future direction. In a Jan. 5 letter to the congregation, Weber wrote, "All our past rabbis had Orthodox backgrounds" and he noted that "[t]he growth of the center over the past few years has come mostly from congregants who attend the Orthodox minyan."
The Jewish Center, founded as a Conservative congregation, has experimented with multiple minyanim over the past few years.
Weber’s January letter also informed the congregation that the executive committee had decided to disband the rabbinic search committee and work with a consultant, to begin the search formally again only once the consultant recommended candidates. With Jewish Center officials declining to comment for this story, the relatively short turnaround time since January remains unexplained.
According to an August ’00’ Cleveland Jewish News story by Ellen Harris, Zierler spent 1′ years in Cleveland, first as rabbi of the Warrensville Center Synagogue and then as the Jewish Community Center’s rabbinic head of Jewish life and learning. He had come to Cleveland from Portland, Maine, and left it for Memphis, Tenn., to lead Baron Hirsch Congregation. That congregation’s president had also not phoned back by press time.
The CJN story went on to say that the "desire to ‘build bridges’ to diverse members of the Jewish and general communities was also a hallmark of his tenure in Cleveland. As a result, Zierler’s views were often at odds with some of his Orthodox colleagues, at times incurring their criticism."
One such falling out occurred when he joined local Holocaust survivors in a demonstration "at John Demjanjuk’s Seven Hills home shortly after the convicted Nazi guard returned from Israel. ‘I walked with my conscience,’ [said] Zierler. ‘I felt the community needed to hear from the Orthodox community.’"