This year, we welcome eight new rabbis to northern New Jersey and Rockland County
Over the summer, the new rabbis have joined synagogues across our area, some as senior or solo rabbis, some as educators, some in more than one role. Here are brief profiles of each; as other new rabbis move here, or as we hear about them, we will write additional profiles.
We wish each one of them a long, enriching, challenging, and joyous career.
Hebrew School Principal
New City Jewish Center
Arriving at the New City Jewish Center after several years as the principal of the Hebrew school at Temple Beth Abraham, across the Hudson in Tarrytown, Rabbi Allison Berlinger has come armed with enthusiasm, commitment, and a dynamic plan to bring more joy to Jewish education.
And as both an ordained rabbi and a trained Jewish educator, she believes she is particularly well suited for the task.
“New City has an interesting demographic,” Rabbi Berlinger said. “There are three congregations in close proximity — two Conservative and one Reform. They all have their own Hebrew schools.” The Jewish Center’s K-7 school had about 140 students enrolled; the first- and third-grade classes are big, mirroring the age of the children in the community. And now there are six more — Rabbi Berlinger and her partner, Jason Bernstein, are joining the community with their six children, three boys and three girls, who range from 9 to 15 years old.
Rabbi Berlinger’s smicha is from the Aleph Rabbinic Ordination Program. (Aleph is the Renewal institution created by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.) Her master’s degree in education is from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She studied at the University of Judaism in California for a year; then she left “and went into Jewish education,” she said. “Then I discovered the Aleph program, liked what I saw, and continued my studies there.”
She puts her educational philosophy front and center. “I don’t believe students don’t like Hebrew school,” she said. “They don’t like being bored. They don’t like having their time wasted. They don’t like being yelled at. They don’t have a problem waking up early on weekends; they do it for lots of things and love going.” That’s at least in part because they “have fun and to meet kids they like. Nobody yells at them. They have benchmarks and accomplish things, and there’s a place to highlight those moments.
“Hebrew school has to mirror the same things, and it has not done that,” Rabbi Berlinger said. “It may have been tweaked, but it’s stayed in the 1950s model. We have to look at it and change it and say ‘Judaism is joyous.’ We should be teaching from that point of view, experience it through a joyous lens.”
She already has overhauled the school curriculum “and brought in the fun factor,” Rabbi Berlinger said. Hebrew and tefillah” — praying — “are not necessarily fun subjects,” she admitted — but they might be if they are taught differently. “We’re modeling it after what they do in camp,” she said. “Color war. We’ll have a tefillah Maccabiah throughout the year, and students of all ages will be on different teams, competing against grade-level opponents.” The program will match up with the Jewish calendar, incorporating lessons tied to holidays at the appropriate times.
“We’ll give points for good modeling, and there will be a prize,” she said. “I have no problem with that.” In addition to enlivening studies, “it builds communities. The older ones help the younger ones, and they also see how much they have learned.”
Rabbi Berlinger also has hired an artist in residence. “Kids should have freedom of expression, bring their work to life,” she said. “As part of this multiyear plan, the educational staff will choose yearly themes and have the children paint murals on the school wall.
“For me, the goal is for all students, when they come through the doors of the building, to feel like a rock star.”
Rabbi Berlinger wants the shul to be a “sacred space. All learning is awesome, but the most important thing is a space where you can leave all the stuff from your day at the door — just be. That becomes the beauty of Judaism and the synagogue.
“I’m very excited about everything we’re going to do, and one thing impressed me in all my conversations,” she added. “Everyone is ready — kids, parents, our team. That’s nice.”
Fun doesn’t stop in the synagogue. Rabbi Berlinger said that she enjoys live music “and is an avid Deadhead.” Between six children, music, and her plans for the school, she expects to be quite busy.
Temple Emanu-El of Closter
Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg, Temple Emanu-El’s new assistant rabbi, is eager to meet one-on-one with each of the congregation’s 800 members.
Rabbi Fineberg grew up in Skokie, Illinois, and recently graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary. “I worked at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg and in Temple Israel in South Merrick,” on Long Island, “when I was a rabbinical student,” he said, but there just wasn’t time to get to know many of the members there.
“For me, the big difference now is being full time and able to establish relationships with people of all ages,” he said. “I’m beginning work involving different things with people at different stages of life, not just parachuting in.”
Describing the synagogue as “a successful, thriving community,” Rabbi Fineberg said that his duties will be similar to those of the shul’s senior rabbi, David-Seth Kirshner. That includes officiating at lifecycle events, offering pastoral counseling, teaching, and more. “There isn’t a hyper-focus,” he said. “It’s the classic rabbinic portfolio.” He is particularly pleased that he has a strong clergy team to work with, providing “a lot of stability and rootedness, as well as a lot of openness to change and flexibility.”
Rabbi Fineberg said that he’s interested in many things, and reads books of all kinds, “Jewish and otherwise. I love bringing different books to people.” He also loves to sing “and bring music to tefillot; to create opportunities for singing and musical engagement.”
His love of singing was honed, at least in part, at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. “I got to lead a seudah shlishit involving between 50 and 100 people, and helped lead and teach songs for many years,” he said. “Those are the types of experiences I’d love to bring to the community. It provides a catharsis and the opportunity to connect in a different way.”
Rabbi Fineberg said that one of his favorite ideas, sourced from Jewish literature and Jewish thinking, “is that every person has something to contribute to the canon. It’s an ancient rabbinic idea. We were all part of Sinai. If I could teach anything, it would be to empower people.” He wants people to know that “they’re not only allowed, but encouraged, to express ideas.” It’s important, he said, “to hear what others have to say about our sources.”
Rabbi Fineberg said he has found the Emanu-El community to be “very warm and receptive. The community cares and is invested in the community itself, and in the success of its clergy. People have been really lovely and kind, offering themselves and their connections to help me feel comfortable.”
Much of what he’s doing, he said, “is a lot of schmoozing. I’m meeting congregants from every demographic, often over coffee and pastries, to see where they’re at. And all the conversations end with, ‘What can we do for you?’ That’s a really special thing.”
The shul community is “decently demographically diverse,” he continued. “We’ve got a big Hebrew school and teen program, and the community would love to have a nursery program. We have the facilities, and we’re working on it.” He noted, however, that good nursery programs exist elsewhere in the community, and Emanu-El’s leaders want to be careful “not to step on toes. The push and focus will be on lifelong learning from a holistic perspective.”
When we spoke, Rabbi Fineberg was counting down the two weeks to his marriage to his fiancée, Heather Kesselman. The couple will live in Closter. They have been delighted to find many “beautiful trails and forests nearby,” he said. “I love to go running.” He also loves to cook — his specialty is pretzel chicken — and to host people for dinner.
The idea of community is particularly important to Rabbi Fineberg. “In addition to helping people learn and to remember that they have something to add to the tradition, I want them to know and remember to value every human life. We’re all made in the image of God, and it’s an increasingly important part of community life to remind people of the importance of others — to think about how the community can be supportive and helpful, to Jews and to non-Jews.”
Assistant Rabbi/Music Director
New City Jewish Center
He has a coffee budget?
Yes, that’s right, the new assistant rabbi at the New City Jewish Center said.
“One of my goals is to build relationships,” Rabbi Daniel Graber explained. “One way to do that in the short term is to say to a member that you want to take him for coffee, to hear his life story and find out what’s meaningful to him; you want to make sure that the community is part of his life.
“I want to be part of people’s lives and for them to be part of mine, not a person providing a service, but a resource to help them access their own Judaism in the way that works best for them. I’ll also be doing pastoral work, being there for both simchas and tzuris,” for happiness and grief. “I’ll visit people in hospitals, but also dance with them after the chuppah.”
That kind of outreach fits well with his personality. “I’m a schmoozer,” Rabbi Graber said. “I love people, which helps in this line of work. And I love Torah. I get a lot of pleasure from teaching, and I’m interested in learning from other people. I have a desire to see what works. I don’t have all the answers.”
Rabbi Graber was born in Queens, he said, and he’s spent his whole life in New York, graduating from Stony Brook University and receiving both his master’s degree in Jewish education and his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. For the last two years, he was the assistant rabbi at the Oceanside Jewish Center on Long Island.
He came to the New City Jewish Center, which has some 500 members, in July. “New City has a really warm community,” he said. “That’s what drew me to it. It’s a friendly place. People know and care about each other.” In his new position, “I’ll do everything a rabbi does, including a lot of teaching.” His emphasis, however, will be on “engaging young families and putting out a strong youth program.” To that end, he will work with the Hebrew and nursery schools and organize family events.
“We’ve got a growing nursery school, a vibrant Hebrew school with a newly reconfigured curriculum, thanks to Rabbi Allison Berlinger, the new Hebrew school principal” — she’s profiled on page 34 — “and a new role has been created to increase the focus on post-bar mitzvah students as well as college engagement.
“It’s a blessing to work with so many talented and dedicated people who really give me a perspective on each thing they’re addressing.”
Rabbi Graber paid tribute to his “brilliant and beautiful” wife, Liat, who is finishing up her doctorate in clinical psychology at Columbia University. “I consult with her for wisdom on how to be a good rabbi,” he said. They have two children, Zev, 3 l/2, and Sivan, 2 months old. “We’re planning to be part of the fabric of the community, to raise our children in a place that is warm, loving, and Jewish.”
Rabbi Graber said that he has been pleasantly surprised by both “the openness and desire for innovation both from professional staff and lay leadership. Often, in large established congregations, people like things to stay as they are. But the attitude here is to do things that work, not just do what we’re doing.”
When he’s not working, Rabbi Graber “loves to spend time learning and studying Talmud. But I also love to read fiction and fantasies, with dragons and wizards, and to sing, cook, and dance.” The singing proved to a key element in securing his new position.
“Cantor Rifkin retired after 44 years, and the congregation’s assistant rabbi was moving on. So they were looking for a pastoral cantor, or a rabbi who could sing. It wasn’t really a job search — it was a shidduch.
“It’s the right place for me, and from what I hear, they feel I’m right for them.”
Miriam Midlarsky Lichtenfeld
Orangetown Jewish Center
Rabbi Miriam Midlarsky Lichtenfeld, who was born and grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and is a self-avowed outdoorswoman, thoroughly enjoys the area around Orangeburg, where she and her family can hike, bike, and do some birding. “We’re working to identify trees and plants we’re not familiar with,” she said.
A recent transplant from upstate Niskayuna, New York — she ran the B’Yachad collaborative religious school in Albany — she and her husband, Rabbi Ted Lichtenfeld, now live in Orangeburg with their three children — Tali, 16, Aryeh, 13, Shuli, 8 — and their dog. Although it can be challenging to have two rabbis in the family, “We make it work,” she said.
As an undergraduate, Miriam Midlarsky went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied international relations and environmental studies. After teaching environmental education at outdoor environmental schools in New England — she worked with Nature’s Classroom, a residential environmental education program in which students literally learn outside the walls of the classroom —she went back west to Santa Fe, New Mexico. According to the synagogue website, it was while she was teaching at a Hebrew school in Santa Fe that she discovered her passion for Jewish education. She went back to school, earning her ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
At Orangetown, Rabbi Lichtenfeld will lead a new educational program called Kulanu. It’s a result of the shul’s revising its Hebrew school last year; that process “came up with an experiential education model, large-cohort-based as opposed to grade-based. It will enlarge project-based learning and individuated learning.”
Rabbi Lichtenfeld is excited “to be putting the vision into practice,” she said. The synagogue is so committed to this plan that “space is also being redone to reflect this vision. One room is called the living room, with couches and some tables for things like arts and crafts, and the other main room is the bet midrash, a space with an ark and Jerusalem-stone-like wall to simulate the Kotel. That’s an amazing part of it.”
Along with the synagogue’s other rabbis and its two rabbinic interns — one of whom grew up as a member — Rabbi Lichtenfeld will teach. That intern will run parent-education programs. And, Rabbi Lichtenfeld said, “The fourth week of every month we’ll have a family education program, whether social action, visiting nursing homes, cooking, or a holiday activity.
“What I love about this job is that I got my start in experiential education,” she said. “It’s the best way to get people excited about something. As a rabbi, my focus, of course, will be on Judaism.”
Being a rabbi will be helpful, she said, “because of the depth and breadth of knowledge I bring to it. Also, people will look to me, as a rabbi, to answer certain questions” — questions they would not ask of another teacher.
Rabbi Lichtenfeld describes her new community as “unique — a nice combination of traditional observance and services but also warmth and creativity. There’s lots of singing and an openness to new songs. The culture feels open.” In addition, she said, she is impressed by the strong volunteer base she has found at the synagogue.
“They’ve been very warm and welcoming,” she said. “I’ve been to a lot of congregations both in leadership capacities and while traveling, but from my perspective, this synagogue is unique in terms of its warmth, volunteer base, and commitment. I’ve very pleased.”
In addition to her more vigorous pursuits, Rabbi Lichtenfeld also enjoys gardening, knitting, cooking, and traveling. And, she said, “I’m very excited to be back in the New York area, with family. We live right across from synagogue.
“We have a strong Jewish community, and a beautiful area in terms of nature. I’m grateful for this.”
Congregation Shomrei Torah, Fair Lawn
As assistant and then associate rabbi of Fair Lawn’s Shomrei Torah, Rabbi Andrew Markowitz has already done a great many things. But come September, as the official senior rabbi of the Orthodox congregation, he anticipates doing even more.
Rabbi Markowitz was born in Brooklyn and received his semicha from the Beren Kollel Elyon, the advanced kollel of Yeshiva University. Among other teaching stints he undertook during his years of study, he taught and was campus rabbi at NYU. He’s been at Shomrei Torah since 2010.
“I’ve done everything from pastoral duties to helping grow the community,” Rabbi Markowitz said, listing educational initiatives and social events he has coordinated at Shomrei Torah. Asked if he was responsible for the community’s children, he replied that while he certainly engaged the children through parent-child learning, “Every rabbi is responsible for the children. We’re here not just for the parents, but for the children as well.”
He and his wife, Dr. Sara Markowitz, have five daughters of their own. Three attend Yeshivas Beis Hillel of Passaic, one goes to Shefa in Manhattan, and the youngest stays close to home, at Shomrei Torah’s own Leah Sokoloff Nursery School.
What will change now that Rabbi Markowitz has taken over the helm of the synagogue that Rabbi Emeritus Benjamin Yudin held for 50 years? Rather than citing the cliched big shoes, he replied that he has “different shoes to fill.”
“The most exciting part of being a rabbi is never knowing how the day will end,” Rabbi Markowitz said. “Where in my previous position it was a little bit predictable, now it will be far less predictable.” He knows there will be surprising new responsibilities, but he is savvy enough to know he can’t anticipate them all.
“I love to talk to people one on one, hosting Shabbat meals, opening my home,” he said. “It’s a great way to engage people where they are. And I love teaching Torah, connecting to people and seeing the moment where things light up.” His teaching, he added, is meant to reach beyond the classroom. “I want to show how living a Torah life is so enriching and fulfilling, not just in the synagogue but beyond. How do we engage in the boardroom, in the office, by your desk?”
What he wants is “to bring Torah to life.”
Shomrei Torah has grown tremendously over the past 10 years, “with people coming every Shabbat to try the community,” Rabbi Markowitz said. “And last summer, lots of babies were being born. At the same time we’re multigenerational and very diverse, philosophically and hasgachically. We try to meet all their needs.”
One of his goals is keeping up the growth. Right now, the congregation has about 275 member units. “There’s a lot more to come,” Rabbi Markowitz said; the shul already has hired a new youth director.
Rabbi Markowitz said that Shomrei Torah’s greatest strengths — its growth and diversity — also present its greatest challenge. “To meet the needs of so many different types of people of all ages and backgrounds is a great strength but also a great challenge.
“It’s very exciting, though — challenge accepted!”
His wife is another great resource for the community, he added. “She’s a dynamic partner. We work together in the community.” As a practicing psychologist, Dr. Markowitz is interested in “teaching, enhancing, and growing” the lives of community members. And, he said, “She enjoys teaching Torah and counseling.”
Rabbi Markowitz, a big fan of the New York Mets, said he enjoys playing sports and running, a practice he took up several years ago when nine members of the congregation ran for Chai Lifeline in Florida on behalf of a community member. He also is a voracious reader.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “I feel lucky and privileged to be chosen the new leader of the community. I’m very proud of where we are and how we have been brought to this point. I’m excited about growing, learning, and furthering relationships.”
Rabbi of Lifelong Learning
Temple Emanu-El of Closter
Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg, who is in charge of Temple Emanul-El of Closter’s new Lifelong Learning program, grew up in Norfolk, Virginia. He came to New York as a student — he did his undergraduate work at the program run jointly by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s List College and Columbia University, and then he stayed at the seminary, earning his rabbinic ordination there.
When he was in college, Rabbi Ruberg was the vocal percussionist for Pizmon, the coed Jewish a capella group on campus. He also spent time working at Camp Ramah in New England, for the Jewish Federations of North America, and for Hillel at Rutgers University.
According to the shul’s website, Rabbi Ruberg’s new portfolio, which he sums up as “focusing on educational matters for the congregation,” will include overseeing “all of the educational portals at Temple Emanu-El from youth to Hazak programming.” He is the first person to hold this position.
“I’ll be supervising the religious school, teen programs, family activities, adult education, programs for seniors, and any other educational matters,” Rabbi Ruberg said. “It’s a broad umbrella — from zero to as long as you’re alive.” This year’s calendar already is complete, and he plans to encourage congregants to “be a star this year,” offering Shabbat under the stars and teaching about Jewish rituals that center on stars.
“My goal is to inspire as many people as possible to continue learning about their Jewish interests and to delve deeper into Jewish traditions and history and hopefully find meaning to bring home,” he said. “Everyone will apply it differently.”
For the last nine years, Rabbi Ruberg was the assistant rabbi of the New City Jewish Center. It’s “a wonderful community, special to me and my family,” he said. “I have the fondest feelings toward Rockland County, but I was looking for a new professional opportunity.” His new community, he continued, is a “very warm, welcoming, and thoughtful intergenerational community. I’m interfacing with young families as well as those with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” It’s not so different from Rockland, he said — “but larger.”
Rabbi Ruberg said that in his new position, he will share some responsibilities with another new rabbi, coincidently named Jeremy. (Jeremy Fineberg is profiled on page 34.) “It’s fun,” Jeremy Ruberg said. “We’re confusing everyone.”
Asked to differentiate between his old and new shuls, Rabbi Ruberg said that in some ways, “shuls are much the same, but with a local flavor.” And he’s still learning the ins and outs of his new congregation. “I’m a rabbi’s kid,” he said, adding that his father, Rabbi Archie Ruberg, has been in Norfolk for more than 30 years. (Archie Ruberg is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El there. “And my mom, Miriam Brunn Ruberg, is a Jewish educator.” So he is deeply familiar with congregational life.
“I have a lot of experience working with youth and families,” he said, gained from his work in New City, Hillel, and Camp Ramah. He enjoyed his time at Hillel so much, “I thought I would go into Hillel work. I have a passion for working with inquisitive, interested new minds.” New minds? “Anytime they walk in, they’re opening their minds up,” he explained.
An avid sports enthusiast who loves watching Sunday football, Rabbi Ruberg said he’s passionate about encouraging people to watch both men’s and women’s teams. When he’s not watching sports, he’s often at the gym. He also enjoys “shoutcasting, the world of people playing and narrating video games. You watch people play, since you don’t have time yourself. I enjoy it in small bursts.”
Rabbi Ruberg’s wife, Rebecca, is the teen engagement consultant for the Jewish Education Project. The couple has a six-month-old daughter, Aliza, and a dog named Caleb. Illustrating the warmth of his new community, he said that when Caleb ran away, “he was found with the support and love of the community. They posted on Facebook, “and I received tons of support from people in Bergen County I never met before, Jewish and otherwise.” He also heard from friends in Rockland who were on the lookout in case the dog ran home. “It was special, how warm everyone has been to someone who is new,” Rabbi Ruberg said.
Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Unlike the other new rabbis interviewed here, Rabbi Shargel did not agree to an interview, choosing instead to respond to questions in an email. Her answers are unedited.]
Tell me something of your background:
I am a proud Conservative Jew, raised in a home steeped in Jewish learning and religious observance. I cherish the memories of my years in Jewish day schools and summer camps, and I always loved going to shul. My father is a rabbi and my mother is a Jewish historian, both trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). That is where I earned my rabbinic ordination as well.
Did you go right from college
to rabbinical school?
No, I am a “second-career” rabbi. I majored in music (classical piano) at Brandeis and spent the next 20 years in music education. On the side, I also tutored b’nai mitzvah and others in limudei kodesh (Jewish studies). Later, I felt a midlife stirring to immerse myself in Jewish text and to serve the community’s spiritual needs in a deeper way. With the loving support of my husband, David, and our school-age children (now grown), I enrolled at JTS. We belonged to Temple Israel Center (TIC) of White Plains, a large and vibrant congregation. Its clergy team was headed by Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Cantor Jacob Mendelson. Shortly before my ordination, I was offered a position on the clergy team and served there until this past June, 15 years in all.
What did you enjoy most
about your work at TIC?
Jewish learning and music have always been especially important to me. With the guidance and inspiration of our senior rabbi and cantor, who set a high bar for excellence, I was able to incorporate both in my rabbinic life. I always felt I was learning and growing. At the same time, as a rabbi, I was able to help others gain knowledge and ritual skills within the congregation.
Have you ever served
as a senior rabbi before?
No. This is my first pulpit as a solo rabbi, which is both exciting and humbling. FLJC/CBI is a mid-size, multi-generational congregation with a long and venerable history stretching back almost three-quarters of a century. It is smaller than TIC and the atmosphere is cozy and haimisch (homey). The community gathers for services during the week, on Shabbat and holidays. FLJC/CBI boasts a robust religious school and Adult Education program, and there is a rich array of opportunities to become involved in tzedakah projects and social activities. There is something for everyone.
Has FLJC/CBI ever been
headed by a female rabbi?
No, I am the first woman to serve in that capacity. I know this will entail an adjustment for many people, both within the congregation and outside it. For example, when we were in the process of moving, one of our new neighbors came over to welcome the new rabbi on the block. Imagine his surprise upon discovering that it was I, not my husband, who was the rabbi! So far, congregants who have approached me directly have made only comments of support and approval. Some are excited by the prospect of female leadership.
What are you looking forward to doing most in your new position in Fair Lawn?
I am interested in engaging with as many members as possible across the age spectrum. The synagogue membership includes those whose families have been here for generations as well as more recent arrivals. I hope to help nurture a positive sense of Jewish identity in my congregants, to help bolster their faith in God, and to lead them to appreciate as fully as possible the beauty and wisdom of our Jewish heritage. I believe that the potential for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development is within the reach of everyone, and that we must come together with a sense of sacred mission and communal purpose. This is not something a rabbi can do singlehandedly, yet it is possible to serve as facilitator.
Temple Avodat Shalom of River Edge
Rabbi Jim Stoloff, who started his new job on July 1 and now lives in Ridgewood, came to the River Edge synagogue from Temple Israel of the City of New York, an Upper East Side congregation where he’d worked for six years. “The people were nice, there was warmth and inclusion, they knew each other’s names,” he said. “That’s unusual in Manhattan.”
While his transition has been smooth — “I had good feelings from the very beginning,” he said, “and all of what I was hoping for was confirmed within a few weeks” — he still had a lot to get used to, “coming from a very professionally driven synagogue with a huge staff to a more laid back place with lots of lay leaders.”
His fiancée, Charlotte Rocker, has joined him in Ridgewood, as has their cat, Albus, who was “dragged away from Brooklyn.”
While his focus will be mainly on traditional rabbinic duties, Rabbi Stoloff wants to “rev up” social action and social justice initiatives. “I want to bring some of that back,” he said. “I did a lot of programmatic stuff in the worlds of Israel and social action. I’ve developed a huge network of contacts with organizations and NGOs. That’s part of what attracted” the congregation. He has developed professional and personal relationships with American, Israeli, and international organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, covering a range of educational and social justice causes.
In addition to enhancing social action programs, Rabbi Stoloff also wants to develop a “Jewish life suite of options” for young families, for both members and non-members. “I’ve had lots of experience with young families,” he said.
Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Rabbi Stoloff graduated from the University of Memphis with a bachelor’s degree in music history, and he was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. While his formal musical training was in classical clarinet, he has a good deal of experience in playing his guitar as he leads services.
Describing his rabbinic portfolio, Rabbi Stoloff said that “All rabbis have a very similar job within the same movement,” encompassing duties such as education, worship, life-cycle events, pastoral care, tikkun olam, and social interactions with people of all ages. Reform synagogues also tend to have the same demographics, he added — “about one-third with children at home, one-third working or close to retirement, and one-third older retirees. What makes this place different and special is that it has a strong sense of its own identity. That’s unusual for postwar congregations here and in Long island. There’s a strong sense of self and love of this place. Members feel like it’s their home.”
But while Reform congregations have much in common in general, that does not necessarily extend to their rabbis. “I believe I was predominantly hired for my extremely strong interpersonal skills,” he said, describing himself as active and committed to building a great community. Described on the synagogue website as a warm and humorous rabbi whose door is always open and who has “hit the ground running,” Rabbi Stoloff, it says, “is profoundly and passionately committed both to teaching Torah in the broadest sense and to helping people strive to ‘Be Torah’ in their daily lives.”
Asked if anything has surprised him in River Edge, Rabbi Stoloff said, “It’s much more laid back in terms of dress code. People kept encouraging me to lose the tie.” He said he’s already “lost the jacket.
“The craziest thing was doing a funeral, graveside, in a Hawaiian shirt, at the request of the family,” he added. Apparently, the dead man had loved Hawaii. “When I got out of the car, I ran right into the funeral director” — someone he has known for many years — “in his crisp Manhattan shirt.”
Rabbi Stoloff is a big fan of outdoor activities, such as hiking and biking, “and I read a lot — rabbinic works, fantasy, mystery. A big change for us is having cars. All of a sudden, we’re exploring the Hudson Valley. It’s opened up a whole new world.”