New hope for Bayonne’s Conservative community

New hope for Bayonne’s Conservative community

Rabbi Shaul Praver, whose varied career ranges from Sandy Hook through a prison chaplaincy, takes the helm

Temple Emanu-El is renting space from Temple Beth Am in Bayonne. Inset, Rabbi Shaul Praver
Temple Emanu-El is renting space from Temple Beth Am in Bayonne. Inset, Rabbi Shaul Praver

Temple Emanu-El of Bayonne is a Conservative shul with 110 years of history — but an uncertain future. Bayonne is not a thriving Jewish community.

Shaul Praver is a rabbi whose connection with a tragic episode in recent American history has marked his career since then. He led the synagogue in Newtown, Connecticut, when a 20-year-old with an AR-15 and other firearms killed 20 children and six adults at the town’s Sandy Hook elementary school.

The relationship between Emanu-El and Sandy Hook is not necessarily intuitive. A shul grappling with demographics and a rabbi burdened with nightmare experiences who used them to take on a public presence and a career in the prison system seem to live in different universes.

But they are coming together.

Rabbi Praver has used the years since the Sandy Hook massacre — it happened on December 14, 2012, just six months short of a decade ago — to devote himself to helping defuse the societal reaction toward violence through the quiet but revolutionary act of listening. He left the full-time rabbinate, but he never stopped being a rabbi.

Now he’s going to Bayonne, where he and the shul’s leaders hope he can help revitalize the community.

And now, coincidentally — and terribly — the lessons he’s learned at Newtown, about how to handle the mass trauma that is the aftermath of a school shooting, of tiny victims in tiny graves, and of the fear that causes. Parents fear that their children might be victims, and children feel unsafe in school. And the gun control debate rages.

So how did Shaul Praver get to where he is today?

Rabbi Praver was born in 1960, and grew up in Great Neck, an almost stereotypically overwhelmingly Jewish suburb on Long Island’s North Shore. “I grew up secular, but my grandmother was a serious Jewess,” he said. “When she got me alone, she really encouraged me to go to Israel to study.” His grandmother convinced Rabbi Praver’s younger brother, “who’s now charedi, and lives in Monsey,” he said. And she also convinced Shaul, who became “part of the baalei teshuva movement of the 1980s,” he said. “It was a great period. I learned the old style of gemara.

“So I’m really a mixed bag,” he continued. “I have an Orthodox background” — it’s pretty yeshivish, he said; he was ordained by the chief rabbinate of Jerusalem in 1989. Since then, he’s moved from the Orthodox world through the Conservadox to the Conservative; he’s worked as both a rabbi and a cantor, and recently he was accepted by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“I am always gray, not black and white,” he said. His internal pendulum is swinging back to the Orthodox side of his own range, he said, but it’s likely always to keep adjusting. “I am as I am,” he said.

In 2012, Rabbi Praver led Congregation Adath Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Newtown. He was “a perfectly happy small-town rabbi, doing happy little small-town rabbi things,” he said. “And then boom, it happened.”

“It” was the murders at Sandy Hook. Rabbi Praver was a first responder. And he knew one of the victims. “We lost a little boy, whom I named,” Rabbi Praver said. That was Noah Pozner, whose father, Lenny, has become one of the most visible of the parents pressing for change after the massacre. “It was a very unhinging experience.

“My healing process has been to work to reduce violence in society,” he continued. So he left the shul — “I had been there for 12 years, and it was kind of time anyway, and it was time to transition.

“The shooting changed a lot of things,” he added. One of them is a synagogue’s ideal role. “Should it be an oasis of peace or an advocacy voice in the world?” For him, the answer became clear. It was time for advocacy.

Rabbi Praver took a job as a chaplain in the state correctional system. “I did that for nearly 10 years, and during that time I did my doctorate.” He earned a Ph.D. at the school that then was called the Hartford Seminary and since has become Hartford International University for Religion and Peace.

“I graduated in 2019,” Rabbi Praver said. “My doctorate is in ministry.” For his dissertation, “I created an original project for the Connecticut state prison system.” It’s about rehabilitation, and “of the 32 graduates, only three of them have gone back to prison.

“It is based on the insight model, so they can understand themselves. I regard true insight as the greatest catalyst for rehabilitation.”

His work often spans any gap between clinical and spiritual care and psychology, but there isn’t much of a gap, he said. “Right now, there is a lot of movement amongst my colleagues to have each discipline cross-pollinate and enrich each other.”

He cited Dr. Lisa Miller of Columbia University Teacher’s College, who teaches psychology and education there, and founded its Spirituality Mind Body Institute, as a model for that kind of cross-pollination.

“During the nearly 10 years that I was a chaplain for the state, getting my doctorate and becoming board-certified as a chaplain put me more and more into the clinical world, and I began to see more and more that the missing aspect in American Judaism is the rabbi as spiritual exemplar,” Rabbi Praver said. “The model for American Judaism is the rabbi as functionary. As the person who knows how to do a successful bar mitzvah and other life-cycle events. Hiring a rabbi is centered around whether you have those skills.”

This is Emanu-El’s new sanctuary in Beth Am’s building.

That might be what American Jews have, but on a deeper level it’s not what they want or need, he continued. “What I am finding now is that people want their spiritual leader to speak with them, to listen to them. Judaism should be able to improve their lives. It should make them happier, more comfortable in their own skin, more self-loving, and more able to love others.

“When the rabbi has the skills not only to preach but also to be an active and compassionate listener, there is something very unique that they can get only in person, from a spiritual caregiver. The rabbi should be not only a preacher, but also a listener; the rabbi should enter into Socratic dialogue with the congregant, and help the congregant see the different parts of their life experience that could be holding them back from becoming the best version of themselves.”

Some of this is generic, he concedes, but some is specific to Judaism, which “has a unique contribution to the world of spirituality. It is very action-oriented. What you believe is not as important — we all have our beliefs — as the actions you take, and the proof is in the pudding.

“So the core thing, for me, is strict monotheism. A first principle is resistant to any kind of image of God, because as soon as you say that God is like a man, or a tree, or any other imagine of God, then a person could delude themselves into thinking that they found God, and then they stop searching.

“That is reductionist, it is materialist, and it is the opposite of spirituality.

“A Jewish person learns how to become comfortable existing in ambiguity, in saying ‘I don’t know what God looks like now.’ With the incredible view of the universe we have now, we see how little we really know. That makes many people uncomfortable, but Jews have learned to become comfortable living with a question mark over the whole world.

“I will run the risk of being a little too proud, a little too Jewishly absorbed, by saying that I think that the reason why Jews are good thinkers, why Jews invent cool things and ideas, is because pure monotheism is in our blood. So we don’t rest on our laurels. We don’t say something is like this or like that. We go to first principles and say what it really is.

“Strict monotheism enables us to remain in a suspended state of ambiguity, wherein we continue to search for deeper and more accurate understandings of the world in which we live.”

There’s also sociological religion, Rabbi Praver said, and it also matters. “We know that on Friday afternoon it is time to finish cleaning the house and turn off your devices. A lot of people live in the world of sociological religion. We also have a lot of highly thoughtful, highly educated people.” There are many such people in Bayonne, he said, “and that is why I think I can do something there.

“Judaism has become too pediatric,” he continued. “It has done as much on a higher intellectual level, where people who have secular educations are able to grasp it. So it is necessary to speak about Judaism in a parallel kind of way, rather than speaking down to people because they might not know the language or the laws. But when you empower them, when you speak to them rather than preach at them all the time, you discover that they know a lot. So it is important to reach them in that place. Otherwise, Judaism becomes just nostalgia, with a short life.”

Rabbi Praver’s work in Bayonne will be part-time — he’ll stay in the community for every other Shabbat, and on holidays, and can work on Zoom during the week — but he plans to make good use of that time.

“I want to do a lot of listening, and hear where people really are, before I start preaching,” he said. “I want to know what will excite them in their Jewish education.”

At Hartford, he studied with teachers who “do consultancy work with many different houses of worship, including Jewish ones,” he said. “They are sociologists of religions. They find out how to reinvigorate dying houses of worship.

“Ninety percent of the people who go to any house of worship in any denomination in America go to 10 percent of the built structures, which tells you that as you drive along the landscape of America, 90 percent of the houses of worship are empty shells. Nothing is going on inside them — maybe they do blood drives. So religion in America is in crisis.”

A good rabbi can help staunch or even reverse that crisis “if the rabbi gives genuine spiritual care,” he said. “If the rabbi is someone who is listening to you. Then, you could have a spiritual, therapeutic, nurturing relationship. There would be a full standard set of clinical rules of confidentiality and trust.

“Of course, you have to be ethical and moral for any of this to exist.”

He has a realistic model of change in mind. “My professors can take a small place, a church that has 12 people who come for nostalgic reasons, and they can turn it into a place where 100 people come.”

He thinks a similar renaissance may be possible in Bayonne. “We are not trying to make it into a megachurch,” he said. But listening and working with people to help them understand what they want and work toward it together can make a community grow.

Then Rabbi Praver turned to the issue of gun violence; it’s a subject he’s learned a great deal about since the horror in Newtown, and that has become current again after the horror in Uvalde.

“Republicans are not against regulation,” he said. “They are against federal regulators. I was once one of those people crying and begging the Senate to pass laws. I was involved with the Toomey-Manchin proposal,” in 2013. A Republican filibuster kept that bill from passing. It was acutely painful, Rabbi Praver said, but he realized that given the strength of small rural states, those states’ tradition of gun ownership, and the fact that those states have the same number of senators as larger, less gun-favorable ones, some other tactic would be necessary. “I call it the California/Wyoming dilemma,” he said. “The 16 rural states always can be counted on for both senators voting down even the most minute bit of federal legislation, and that gives you 32 right out of the box. They will always win.

“So if I’m right, let’s stop crying and talk real politics.”

That would have to entail listening to people on both sides, he decided. And based on that listening, he proposes a solution.

“Put all of the regulation of firearms in America into the hand of the National Guard,” he suggested. “Don’t confuse the word ‘national’ with ‘federal.’ The boss of the National Guard is the government of its state.”

The argument from the Republican side is about regulation. “With regulation comes tyranny,” Rabbi Praver said. “And as a Jewish person, I would have wanted firearms in 1934, as I ran for my life into the deep forests of Poland.”

When you address the Republican argument, “you can say neanderthal as much as you want, but it will not turn them around.” There are fundamentalists on the left as well, he said. “I do come from the left, and I do care. I am sick and tired of Sandy Hook and Uvalde. But I am talking real politics.”

That means conceding that both sides firmly hold their beliefs, not out of stupidity but the result of conviction, and that each side has said things the other cannot forget. That’s why, “if we really want change, we have to give it to the National Guard.

“They are capable, reputable, and have expertise. Vetting would take place in the form of training, so that when a person who shouldn’t be there comes to the training, which will be vigorous, they would be spotted as being mentally or emotionally deficient for handling firearms.

“We have to rebuild a sense of true patriotism. The National Guard would be well trained and armed, and they would shape their form of regulation and standards, in Alaska and in Wyoming and Idaho, in their image, and in New York City in our image. That’s how you solve it through the states.”

That’s for legal guns, Rabbi Praver said. As for illegal ones, “I know from being a prison chaplain that drug dealers who are there for shooting a person might never had used that gun if they had the opportunity and the education to become a plumber or a doctor or an electrician.

“That means rebuilding the inner cities of America.”

His decade of work as a prison chaplain, his close-up look at the devastation of Sandy Hook, and the thought he’s given to the question of gun control have provided Rabbi Praver with a great deal of insight into the problems of gun violence. It’s experience that feeds into his understanding of his rabbinate because all of it combines in his life experience and it makes him an unusual pulpit rabbi.

Since he left his own pulpit, he’s traveled to other shuls to work as a cantor on the High Holy Days. He’s spent quite a few years at the Glen Rock Jewish Center.

“He’s a mensch of a leader and person,” Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg, who leads Glen Rock, said. “He guides with soul. You can really feel that when you have a conversation with him.

“He’s very open, although he is committed to his values, and those values guide his stances on public issues.

“Our community fell in love with him. In addition to his bringing his voice to the community, he became beloved to many here because of his unassuming, calm presence. That make people feel comfortable in opening up to him.

“He was not just a rent-a-cantor. He would come not just for the holidays, but for rehearsals. He would bring his family, and we’d have meals together. We would walk to tashlich together.

“He became part of our community, and we’re sad to see him go,” Rabbi Schlosberg said. “He brings a nuanced approach to critical thinking that considers a lot of the factors that he is weighing.

“He is a delight to work with, a sweet, kind mensch of a soul, and a thoughtful leader,” she concluded.

Meanwhile, Emanu-El has moved out of its unnecessarily big building, with its unrealistically high maintenance costs, and now is renting space from Temple Beth Am, the Reform synagogue in Bayonne. This is not a merger, synagogue leaders stress; Emanu-El has its own entrance to the building, and it will continue to remain a separate legal entity.

Max Kleinman, who retired after many years as the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, now is a consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project. He has been working with Emanu-El, and helped it sell its building and create its sturdy Centennial Fund with some of the proceeds. He continues to work with the community and is heartened by its decision to hire Rabbi Praver.

There still will be choices for Jewish life in Bayonne.

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