|Rabbi Halina Rubinstein|
Born in Mexico City, Rabbi Halina Rubinstein grew up in what she describes as “an interesting household.” Her mother – an actress in the Yiddish and Mexican theater – was a Polish immigrant whose family was involved in the international Jewish socialist movement called the Bund. Her stepfather, a Spanish Civil War refugee, was a published author and journalist.
Her Jewish training has been equally eclectic. After attending a leadership program in Jerusalem, where she perfected her Hebrew, Rubinstein returned to Mexico, completing a master’s degree in anthropology while simultaneously studying at Hebrew Teacher’s College. When she graduated she taught at the Yiddishe Shule, the biggest of seven Jewish day schools in Mexico City, and became an instructor at Teacher’s College.
Later, after immigrating to the United States with her husband, Boris, she worked as a teacher in a Westchester synagogue and studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she earned a doctorate in Jewish philosophy. It was after completing her doctoral studies that she decided to become a rabbi.
She chose the Academy of Jewish Religion as her rabbinical school.
“They were very pluralistic, very much ahead of their time,” she said. “When they created the school, no one had heard of the many styles of being Jewish outside the major movements.”
Rubinstein said she has a lot to learn about her new congregation and community.
“We’re trying hard to communicate who we are,” she said of the synagogue, which recently celebrated its 80th anniversary. While there is a mix of ages, “it’s aging.”
Nevertheless, she is delighted with the congregation, which she described as “very welcoming and warm, very energetic and positive.” It’s very intimate,” she said of the Conservative shul, which has about 100 member units. “It has the feel of an extended family.”
Rubinstein said she is impressed by the students at the synagogue school, which is for children in third-to seventh-grades.
“Their skills are phenomenal,” she said, calling the small school “very special.”
“It’s a very active school for such a small one. I’m impressed by the way these children are Jewish educated,” she said. The teachers “pay so much attention to each child, and the technology is very advanced.”
Rubinstein, who lives in Westchester County and does not plan to move, began her tenure at the synagogue on Aug. 1. She said that she is “totally new to the Bergen County area.”
Her schedule, she said, is three-quarters time. “I’m very much there,” she said, noting that she has the responsibility of running the Hebrew school and leading every Shabbat service.
Rubinstein has two daughters and a son; her younger daughter is a cantor in Florida. The rabbi said that while she has a deep love for music, her husband, a child psychiatrist, has been a student of cantorial music for years.
“That’s where my daughter got it from,” she said. “He really loves it,” she added, noting that she and her husband helped found the Rosh Pinah Chavurah in Westchester nine years ago.
Reflecting on her goals for the Park Ridge shul – whose longtime rabbi, Gerald Friedman, recently retired, becoming rabbi emeritus – Rubinstein said, “I feel that this congregation has a big blessing. You tend to think about active shuls as big places. But I feel that being a small place is a blessing and not a curse because it allows members to make long-lasting friendships.”
Her goal, she said, will be to continue fostering the relationships that have been developed.
The congregation, she said, faces the challenges confronted by every small synagogue. Plus, “there seems to be a gap in the Jewish population of the area. In general, it is growing older. I don’t know if we’ll get an influx of younger people.”
But the synagogue has “a fabulous location,” she said, and people can come to it from Rockland County as well.
“Once they know who we are and see the greatness of this little place, I hope they will come,” she said.