Religion and show business often produce kindred spirits, as this Pompton Lakes couple discovered.
A fourth-generation rabbi, David Senter grew up in North Bergen and Teaneck. "I was born in Christ Hospital in Jersey City," he says with a chuckle. "A bit strange for a future rabbi."
After attending Yeshiva University High School, he continued his studies at Shor Yoshuv Rabbinical College in Far Rockaway and was ordained as a rabbi at Kol Yakov Torah Center. Initially he worked for an organization his father founded, Kof-K, which supervises and certifies kosher food products, and he continued there as a rabbinic administrator until the early 1990s. When he left, it was to start the first kosher concessions at both Yankee and Shea stadiums; he also supplied food for the skyboxes which led to gypsy or onsite catering work.
David and Elissa Senter with Tracy Abraham (Elissa’s daughter) and on their wedding day.
One of his clients was the Orangetown Jewish Center, and after David joined the congregation, the rabbi told him he had the qualities and abilities needed in the pulpit. David knew there was a shortage of Conservative rabbis, especially in the areas outside New York City.
"I realized I wanted to be known for something more than selling hot dogs," he says. "So I sold my company and found an opening at a congregation in Saratoga."
Although he’d been previously married and was the father of four grown children, he now decided he wanted to date again. "I was hoping to meet a woman who was spiritual, but not part of my synagogue community. That could create an awkward situation for a rabbi." J-Date seemed like a good option for meeting women outside Saratoga.
Elissa Kaplan had also been married and was now living in Rockland County with her daughter, Tracy. She’d grown up in Riverdale, N.Y., and had combined a teaching career with work in show business as a singer and performer. "I was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and Actors Equity Association when I was 9," she says, "and did commercials, voice-overs, and clowning as an adult. It helped that one of the original Bozo the Clowns had been one of my teachers at the High School of Performing Arts."
During the summer of ‘003, while her daughter was in camp and Elissa was recovering from major surgery, her mom urged her to go back on J-Date. Since a friend had recently moved to Woodstock, Elissa thought there might some interesting men up there, so she typed in what she thought was the Woodstock area code. "Turns out I’d put down the wrong numbers, and I started getting responses from men in Albany and Saratoga." One of them was David Senter.
"I’d dated a lot," Elissa explains, "Guys in advertising and the theater, lawyers. I really liked David’s ad, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve never dated a rabbi.’"
She was also intrigued because she’d recently decided she wanted to become more involved in her religion after teaching in a yeshiva. "I’d always been a spiritual, observant Jew," she says, "but I wasn’t Orthodox."
She emailed him with a less-than-flattering picture she was tired of men who pursued women only for their looks and David nearly didn’t respond. Fortunately, he decided to give her a try, and when they spoke on the phone, it was an instant connection. "I even sang to him in Hebrew," Elissa recalls.
David began driving down to see her two or three times a week. "We were best friends immediately," she says. "He’s such a great listener, and he was wonderful with Tracy."
The two met in late August, were engaged by November, and married the following May. David understood that he would need to find a synagogue closer to Tracy’s father in Suffern and so he ended up moving his new family to Flanders. But Tracy missed her friends in Rockland County, and Elissa found it hard to be away from New York City. When David learned of an opening in Pompton Lakes at Cong. Beth Shalom, it seemed like the answer to a prayer. David, Elissa, and Tracy were once again close to friends and family.
Six months ago Elissa became a chaplain, or what she calls a "non-denominational spiritual facilitator," for Renaissance Gardens at Cedar Crest, an independent living facility for seniors. "It’s beyond rewarding, and David is there to advise me on spiritual matters." He also conducts the Friday night Shabbat services at the facility.
Together this couple has created a marriage that combines faith and love with good communication. As Elissa says, "Listening and laughing and talking are so important. We really talk a lot, and laugh a lot."
David concurs. "We do get angry at each other, but it doesn’t last long, because we talk it out and then we’re able to laugh over it. Though we take the relationship seriously, neither of us takes ourselves so seriously that we can’t laugh.
"Our family dynamic has inspired me professionally," he adds. "I had grown up Orthodox and became Conservative, while Elissa was on the observant end of Reform. We’ve had to find common ground and face challenges in our home that I’ve been able to translate into my rabbinate. And since our synagogue contains every part of the faith spectrum, I can now pitch this broad tent where such a diverse group is comfortable. Elissa and I have learned to respectfully compromise, and that’s permeated my rabbinate and brought that same spirit into Beth Shalom and refreshed it."