‘I have been blessed’

‘I have been blessed’

Rabbi Kenneth Emert of Beth Rishon, about to retire after 22 years, looks back with love

It’s the whole insider/outsider thing.

The question of whether a person feels that he or she can fit easily and comfortably inside a stereotype, or if that set of assumptions somehow is a tight, even constraining fit, can be the question that undergirds a lifetime of experiences.

It also combines (bear with me here, please) with the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty thing.

If you don’t quite fit into any one box, are you doomed to live outside it entirely, or can you make a career out of combining boxes? Of balancing between them? In other words, is it a bad thing that you don’t quite fit in, or can you turn that into a wonderfully good thing?

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Emert, who is 65 and about to retire after 22 years at Temple Beth Rishon at Wyckoff, straddles the Reform and Conservative worlds. (Ouch! Sounds painful.) He’s a member of both the Reform movement’s Central Council of American Rabbis and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. Beth Rishon is happily unaffiliated with either movement, instead bridging the gaps between them.

So how did that happen? How, in a world of deep division, does Rabbi Emert manage his balancing act? Why does he even want to? Why does it seem to give him such great joy?

Let’s start at the beginning, with a happy but unconventional family for a rabbi.

Edith and New York City Police Detective Fred Emert.
Edith and New York City Police Detective Fred Emert.

Kenneth Emert’s parents, Edith and Fred, had five sons; Kenneth was the fourth of them. Fred Emert, a New York City police officer, eventually became a detective, and a member of the NYPD’s Shomrim Society, the association of Jewish city cops. “We first lived on the Lower East Side,” Rabbi Emert said. But then the family moved up and out to Queens. They settled in Electchester, an apartment development (don’t call it a project!) in Flushing built, as its name suggests, for members of the electricians’ union and their families. “My father wasn’t an electrician, but he knew someone,” Rabbi Emert said. “We grew up in a very nice three-bedroom apartment. With one bathroom…”

Before his father made detective, his job included guarding important people. “My father guarded Eisenhower,” Rabbi Emert said. (That, of course, was President Dwight David Eisenhower.) “As a result, a guy showed up at our apartment one day with a slew of toys. They came with a truck, and it was a truckload of toys. All kinds of toys.”

Like all police officers, his job also often put Fred Emert in danger. “He was shot in a hospital in Queens when I was in grade school,” Rabbi Emert said. He recovered, but it was a formative experience for his sons.

The Emert brothers and their father.
The Emert brothers and their father.

The Emerts were active Jews. “My father was the president of the Electchester Jewish Center” — a Conservative shul — “and Rabbi Aaron Pearl was my rabbi and my mentor growing up,” Rabbi Emert said. (That relationship, always important to Rabbi Emert, took on additional significance when Rabbi Pearl, who had moved to Wyckoff, recruited Rabbi Emert as his successor — but that’s far in the future at this point in his story.)

Rabbi Pearl often was a guest on two late-night radio shows. One was a well-known, eclectic, eccentric talkfest hosted by the influential host who called himself Long John Nebel. The other was the equally influential Barry Gray. “I would stay up from midnight to five in the morning to listen to Rabbi Pearl on Long John,” Rabbi Emert said. “And sometimes he would mention my name.”

Kenneth Emert went to Hebrew school at his shul, and then to a regional Hebrew high school at the Queensboro Hill Jewish Center. (That shul’s rabbi was Albert Thaler, who for decades, as a summer job, headed Camp Ramah Nyack, the day camp that has educated and thrilled thousands of metropolitan area kids.) He continued his Jewish education at Prozdor, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s high school afterschool program. He also was very active in his shul’s USY group. During college, he was a counselor on USY on Wheels, the trip that toured the United States, hauling high school students around the country in buses, and he also worked on USY Encampment, as the end-of-summer USY leaders’ get-together was called.

 Rabbi Emert went to Queens College — just a short walk away — and then spent a college year at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. He was fluent in Spanish, majored in that language, and decided that he wanted to teach Romance languages. Everything seemed straightforward.

Except there was that Jewish thing. That nagging pull. That desire that never could sate itself in Spanish.

After his year at Stony Brook, Rabbi Emert went to Israel to study. He was there for a year and a half; when he came home and returned to Queens College, he switched his major to Hebrew language and literature. And then “I applied to rabbinical school,” he said.

He applied to the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan, was accepted, and eventually was ordained there.

Why did this active Conservative Jew decide to be ordained by the Reform movement? It wasn’t that he wasn’t comfortable in either; it’s more that he felt at home in both. A choice was necessary. “I was always on the left wing of the Conservative movement,” Rabbi Emert said. It was pretty much of a toss-up, which movement to choose. And which school — HUC or the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

Kenneth Emert as a young, earnest rabbinical student.
Kenneth Emert as a young, earnest rabbinical student.

Part of his choice had to do with music. When he was a child and a teenager, some big Conservative shuls used organs at Shabbat services, but music was far more important to the Reform movement than in the Conservative world. Rabbi Emert came from a musical family — “One of my brothers is an oboist in the Brazil Philharmonic,” he said — and he plays piano, sings, and “loves chazzanut,” he said.

Still, HUC was unfamiliar ground for him, at least at first. “I had a liturgical background,” he said. Although it has changed a great deal since then, when he was a student there HUC was classical Reform, with formal (its critics might say airless) services and Protestant-influenced decorum. At HUC, “they did not know the siddur,” Rabbi Emert said. “And I kept kosher — I still keep kosher — and they were bringing in treif sandwiches. I had to put a barrier up when I ate in the cafeteria.

Dr. Alfred Gottschalk ordained Rabbi Emert.
Dr. Alfred Gottschalk ordained Rabbi Emert.

“I got a greater appreciation of Jewish music from HUC. And it also had a better background in philosophy.

“I didn’t know if it was the right school for me when I went there,” he said. “And then later, I knew it was the right one.”

Rabbi Emert’s first congregation was a small one in Smithtown, way out on Long Island’s Suffolk County. “It was Conservative, but to the left of the left of the left,” he said. “I had never seen anything like that.” Next, he went to Rockford, Illinois. “It was called the Rome of the Midwest,” he said. “It had 500 churches in a town of 135,000 people. You are the rabbi not only for the Jewish community, but for the Christian community as well.”

He loved it.

The synagogue was classical Reform. “They almost didn’t hire me because I kept kosher,” he said. “But they wanted me, I think, because they saw an energetic spirit, and I think they were looking for authenticity.

On Sukkot in Smithtown, Rabbi Emert shook his lulav.
On Sukkot in Smithtown, Rabbi Emert shook his lulav.

“When I first got there, I said that this is a synagogue, not a temple” — that’s terminology that often demarcates where in the Jewish world you stand. The Reform movement has temples, the modern Orthodox world has congregations, synagogues, and shuls, and the Conservative movement has some of all of them. “Someone there said no. This is not a synagogue. It is a temple. We had people there who were really glatt Reform, and to some of them I looked Orthodox. There were two factions, but I was able to move them slowly from a congregation that had very little to one that was more mainstream Reform.”

When he was in Rockford, Rabbi Emert earned his doctoral degree at a Christian seminary, the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. “I wanted to really understand Christianity more,” he said.

That desire came from a program at an evangelical church in Rockford. “I said to the pastor, ‘My tradition says that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come. What does your religion say?’”

“I knew that there is no salvation outside of Christ. The question of how does an evangelical Christian answer that question authentically is what spurred me to go to Dubuque. The question is how do we have a dialogue?” What happens when theology and basic human decency, the instinct to politeness, clash?

“The standard answer is that all of us can be saved,” he said; it glosses over the fact that you must accept their savior for that to happen.

At the seminary, “I was the only rabbi in my class. In fact, I was the only Jew in the class. And I was the only rabbi they’d ever had in the seminary.”

Rabbi Emert looked for textual answers to those questions. “One question was whether Jewish sources — normative Judaism — allow for interfaith dialogue. I found that yes, they do.”

His dissertation is called “Disquisition: Model for Jewish-Christian Dialogue”. It’s a text-based look at the history of interfaith relationships, from the talmudic period until after Vatican II.

Rabbi Emert was in Rockford for four years. From there, his Midwestern tour continued as he moved to Wichita, Kansas, where he led a Reform synagogue that was more traditional than most. “The community was ready to do more,” he said. “I kept kosher, but I didn’t hit them over the head with kashrut. And I brought in Saturday morning services, instead of just Friday nights, and I brought in a cantor.

“There were some people there who said, ‘You took away my God’ — they were classical Reform — and others who embraced it.”

It was sometime during his Midwestern sojourn that Rabbi Emert joined the Rabbinical Assembly. Very few rabbis belong to both the CCAR and the RA, but his odd position at the cusp of the two movements allowed him to do so.

“I feel an allegiance to both movements,” he said. “I am eclectic. My service in Wichita was more traditional than it is here in Wyckoff. You can’t really label me. I choose the best, the more spiritual, the most spiritually elevating parts of both movements.”

When he was in Wichita, Rabbi Emert was recruited for the opening about to be created at Beth Rishon through the retirement of his old mentor, Rabbi Pearl. He wasn’t sure if it was the right move — he was for a while pretty sure that it wasn’t — but he made it anyway.

It was exactly the right move.

Caption TK

“I was 42 then,” he said. “I looked around, and saw that this was such a vibrant place. So many kids in the schools. And theologically it was just right for me. I could have gone to New York, been one of 1,000 rabbis, or stayed in Wichita, and been a big fish in a small pond.” Wyckoff was perfect; not too big, not too small. It’s also institutionally unaffiliated, which is perfect for someone who is dually affiliated.

It’s rare to hear a rabbi talk about his community with as much open-hearted ardor as Rabbi Emert talks about his.

“I was worried about this community when I first heard about it,” he said. “I heard that it was rich, and I thought it would be full of spoiled brats. But it has the nicest kids, with parents who care so much about education. In the 22 years I have been here, I have never had any kid talk back to me. Not once. Not ever.

“This is a rabbi’s dream. These are very educated, very good, very kind people. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”

It’s also been exactly right for him in terms of observance. “This is a unique congregation,” Rabbi Emert said. “It is unaffiliated. It is independent. When they join, people sometimes ask what it is, and I say, ‘Nit ahin; nit aher.’” Not this, and not that. Its own thing.

“The service is traditional,” he continued. “It has a traditional tam” — a traditional flavor.

Caption TK

“I have always stood for a high level of Yiddishkeit. For not keeping the level where it is, but for always bringing it up. For never settling. My job is to bring people from wherever they were to another level. Never to settle for mediocrity.

“This is a class act, this synagogue. I have been blessed.”

He’s upheld the standards he cares about at Beth Rishon.

“Here, I don’t allow non-Jews to be called to the Torah, or to light Shabbat candles. They don’t stand next to the spouses at the Torah service, as some liberal congregations will allow. In some ways, I am more traditional than my colleagues.

He also does not perform interfaith marriages. That is a highly controversial position in the Reform world. (Rabbis who perform interfaith marriages are expelled from the RA, although the question of how to deal with the obviously here-to-stay question of intermarriage is roiling the Conservative world nonetheless.)

Rabbi Emert believes very strongly that a rabbi must combine absolute approachability with a sense of separateness. “I try to be real,” he said. “I try to be authentic. I told the search committee that you shouldn’t hire a rabbi who you don’t want to come to your house for dinner.

“I don’t put on airs. I wear jeans.” But on the other hand, on the bimah he still wears a robe.

“I am a contradiction in many ways,” Rabbi Emert said. He believes in being appropriate; informal when that makes sense, decorous when it is called for. “I am a social worker” — with a degree from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work — “and a teacher. And I am also a realist.

“I am not Ken. I am Rabbi Emert, although some people take the liberty of calling me Rabbi Ken. It is not being pompous; it is making clear that there is a time and a place for everything. The formality, the robe set a tone in the sanctuary.

“I think that the democratization of the synagogue was both a negative and a positive thing. We are set apart. We are klei kadosh” — holy vessels. “It is a sacred role, and it is reinforced by the formality of the robe in services.” Still, in that insistence, “I know I am one of a dying breed,” Rabbi Emert said.

Despite his need for authenticity, Rabbi Emert felt compelled to keep one secret for much of his life.

He is gay.

He knew that about himself for a very long time, so he never took the ultimately tragic route that many gay men once took, marrying a woman, thus ruining two lives. But he did feel compelled to hide that basic truth about himself. For many years he was partnerless, but about 20 years ago he met the great love of his life.

Ken Emert and Travis Lash never lived together — Rabbi Emert felt that he could not make so public a statement — but they were partners for 13 years. Mr. Lash, who was Jewish, often would come to services at Beth Rishon, and he was a fixture there on the holidays. Rabbi Emert did not try to hide the great affection between the two men, but he never declared it publicly either. “The people who knew, knew, but I didn’t tell people,” he said. He let them figure it out — or not. “It’s the one thing I regret. I try to be authentic, and I was not authentic about this.

Mr. Lash died four years ago, unexpectedly, of an aneurism. He was 54 years old. It was a huge, staggering blow to Rabbi Emert, who realized that he could not keep it to himself.

Rabbi Emert with his partner, Travis Lash.
Rabbi Emert with his partner, Travis Lash.

His congregation — his community — met his loss with pure love, he said. They surrounded him with the kind of care that anyone hit with life-changing grief out of the absolute blue needs; with the kind of care he’d given the members of his shul.

“They said to me — one by one, they said to me — ‘you have been there for us for 18 years. Why would you think — why do you think — we would not be there for you?’”

So they were.

He knew that his community was filled with good people, but he didn’t realize how good they were until then, Rabbi Emert said. It was a lesson bought at too high a price, of course, but it was a good lesson, and a necessary one, and it helped him stay sane in the midst of his grief.

“I think he changed for the better after Travis died,” Alyson Cohn, Beth Rison’s president, said. “It’s not that he wasn’t wonderful from the beginning. He was.

“What happened was that some people knew that he was gay, but he didn’t say so. I think when he became a rabbi he had no choice. He never could have said anything.” In fact, the Reform movement did not accept openly gay or lesbian rabbinical students until the late 1980s. “I give his rabbinic intern at the time and the cantor a lot of credit. They told him that you have to give people the opportunity to help you through this. They want to help you through this.”

There was a memorial service for Mr. Lash, and “there was standing room only in the sanctuary,” Ms. Cohn said. “Our congregants were really there for him, and really supportive, and it really did move him. And it definitely changed him. It made him more open.

“It must be very difficult to be open and warm and caring — which he always was — when you are keeping a big secret about your life to everyone around you.

“He was a wonderful rabbi before that, and he became an even better rabbi after it. It was sad — it was tragic — that that’s what it took,” she said.

Rabbi Emert’s decision to leave Beth Rishon, Wyckoff, and the East Coast is not unconnected to Mr. Lash’s death. He wants to be able to start a new life; 65 is not old, but the aging process is unpredictable.

He is planning to move to Palm Springs, California, where he will try to work less — although already he plans on taking on a weekend-only rabbinic gig. Not to work at all is not possible, it seems.

So now, the Beth Rishon community is looking for a new rabbi. There will be a temporary appointment, and then, after a year, it will find someone who can make a longer-term commitment to it. That rabbi will have a hard job, in that Rabbi Emert’s shoes are big, his shadow is large — pick your cliché. He is beloved, and will leave the next rabbi with a lot to live up to. But on the other hand, that rabbi will take over a congregation that knows a good rabbi when it sees one, and will work with that rabbi to chart its own course, always upward.

Cantor Ilan Mamber had been at Beth Rishon for eight years, and already had been through two rabbis, when Rabbi Emert got there. It took them about a year to adjust to each other, Cantor Mamber said — but that was 21 years ago.

He was impressed by Rabbi Emert’s musicality, and by his wide knowledge of Jewish music. “He introduced me to choral forms, and music from the Reform movement,” Cantor Mamber said. Before Rabbi Emert’s arrival at Beth Rishon, Cantor Mamber had introduced a Kedusha that he brought with him from Connecticut. It is a piece of music that he loves, and the congregation had come to love too. “Instead of getting me to change it, Ken learned to sing it,” Cantor Mamber said. “Once he became comfortable with it, he let me do my thing, which is harmonies, and we do it together.”

Often, Rabbi Emert, who has a good voice, the cantor said, sings lead, thus allowing Cantor Mamber to harmonize. He loves that. “We don’t have to say anything to each other,” Cantor Mamber said. “We know what to do.”

Over the years, the two have come to know each other well; they often have to exchange no words, just looks, on the bimah. “And off the bimah, certainly we yell at each other in the office, but it’s just between the two of us,” Cantor Mamber said. “And I will miss him.”

Ms. Cohn, the shul’s president, agrees.

She’s loved having Ken Emert as her rabbi.

“I love that I can talk to him about anything,” she said. “Literally anything. I love that my children have had substantial relationships with him.

“Before I became president, I spoke with presidents of other congregations. One of the things I heard was to be careful. Sometimes you will want things that the rabbi won’t want, and it will feel like it is the lay leadership versus the rabbi.

“I never had that with him. He actively listened to what I had to say. It wasn’t just kind of giving me lip service — or ear service. There were times when we didn’t necessarily agree, but we would talk it out. And either we would end up with a compromise or sometimes, after hearing what he had to say and understanding where he was coming from, I would change my mind. But just as often he would hear what I had to say and understand where I was coming from and change his mind. I don’t know how common that is.”

“I was told by people elsewhere that it was a true partnership. It really was. Echoing Cantor Mamber, “I’m going to miss him,” Ms. Cohn said.

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