From Beth El to Beth-El
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From Beth El to Beth-El

Rabbi takes new pulpit

For Rabbi Debra Hachen, her next move is just some 17 miles and a hyphen away.

But despite the shared name, Hachen will encounter a new, urban flavor as she moves from Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter, in suburban Bergen County, to Temple Beth-El of Jersey City, with that aforementioned hyphen.

Hachen’s career has been a progression from a new congregation to an older congregation to an old-new congregation. In 1980 she became the first rabbi at Cong. B’nai Shalom in Westborough, Mass., helping to guide it as it grew from some 80 families to more than 500, she said.

She came to Closter in 2004, and after her seven years in suburbia, she is looking forward to her urban experience. Jews in urban areas are a different mix, she said, and she is looking forward to working with “an eclectic group of people.”

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Rabbi Debra Hachen will succeed Rabbi Kenneth Brickman at Temple Beth-El in Jersey City. Brickman will be rabbi emeritus of the 146-year-old shul.

For Hachen, rabbinic life runs in the family. Her great-grandfather, and then her father, were Reform rabbis.

Hachen is married to Peter Weinrobe, chief information officer for the Union for Reform Judaism. His job transfer to New York brought the family to New Jersey.

In cities there is typically a mix of singles, newly-marrieds, and empty-nesters. Hachen herself falls into the latter category. Her children – Philip, Carolyn, and Melissa – are grown .

“I can’t wait,” she said, of her impending transfer to the urban life, saying she always planned to return to a city environment. She and her husband will live in a Hamilton Park condo. “The proximity to Manhattan is very exciting,” she said, likely echoing the feeling of many of her new congregants.

Hachen said she will miss her garden but will enjoy the greenery in nearby Hamilton Park and leave the gardening tasks to others.

“I love that the synagogue goes back a long time,” she said, and that it is now attracting new people. Temple Beth-El was founded in 1864 and has been at its present site since 1926.

Although it has a long history, Beth-El is growing again, with new members coming to the area to enjoy the urban lifestyle, she said. She described it as a “congregation that’s starting to take off and grow,” comparing it to her first position in Massachusetts. A difference now is that she has 30 years of experience, she said.

“I love working on happy lifecycle events,” she added. “There are so many young people in their 20s and 30s, so many getting married.” She finds preparing children for b’nai mitzvah very rewarding.

Hachen said she looks forward to helping set curricula and advising in the religious school. “I’ll be a rabbi educator again,” she said. She also looks forward to working with music, as she did in her early days in Massachusetts, she said.

“I’ll be working with a diverse community,” she said, citing a strong outreach to intermarried couples and members of the LBGT community.

She noted that in the ’80s, when she began her career, gays and lesbians had their own synagogues. Now, however, they are more likely to be part of the larger Jewish community.

“This is a congregation that laughs and has fun,” she said. “They all hang out together and know each other,” she said, and she looks forward to getting to know each congregant personally.

Hachen noted that so many have their roots in the cities. When people in Closter learned she was moving on, “people came out of the woodwork to tell me Jersey City stories,” she said, many of them going back three or four generations.

Looking back on her years at Closter, “I’ll miss the congregation and all the wonderful people,” she said. “I’ve learned so much.”

It’s only a 40-minute or so drive between Jersey City and Closter, and she expects to keep in contact with her many friends up north in suburbia, she said.

At Jersey City, Hachen succeeds Rabbi Kenneth Brickman, who is retiring but will serve as rabbi emeritus. At Closter, Rabbi Jim Simon will serve as interim rabbi for a year during the search to choose a replacement.

Hachen said, “I am so grateful to Rabbi Brickman for leaving such a dynamic, forward-looking, healthy congregation for me to continue my work.”

Irwin Rosen, congregation president, offered words of welcome to Hachen. “She is a brilliant and energetic rabbi who will continue the good work of Rabbi Brickman,” he said.

Brickman, Rosen continued, “devoted over 20 years of his life to our congregation and I expect he’ll be an important part of our congregation for years to come.”

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