New voices in the community
Joel Pitkowsky: Opportunities and challenges
Cong. Beth Sholom – a Conservative synagogue in Teaneck headed for three decades by Rabbi Kenneth Berger, now rabbi emeritus – recently welcomed Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, most recently religious leader of Cong. Beth Israel in Worcester, Mass.
Pitkowsky is the third full-time rabbi to serve the Teaneck synagogue since it was founded 60 years ago. Born and raised in Fair Lawn, he held his first service at Beth Sholom on Aug. 5, after serving for eight years at the Massachusetts synagogue. Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2001, he is one of only several dozen Conservative rabbis certified to write gittin, or Jewish divorce documents.
The rabbi, who arrived here with his wife, Ingrid, and children Jonah (10) and Lili (8), said he is “trying to adjust to the move, to the [children’s] schools, and to life in Teaneck.” Ingrid will be teaching kindergarten at the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford.
His is an unusual synagogue, because it includes as congregants a number of the very JTS faculty members who were his own teachers.
“They’ve been very supportive – wonderful and kind,” he said. “It’s clear that they are here to be supportive members of the Jewish community, providing whatever resources they can. I’m thrilled to have them.”
Far from feeling daunted, he said, “I feel I need to do my best to have something to teach everyone in the community – including my teachers.”
Pitkowsky said Beth Sholom is similar to his last congregation, in that they “both have a committed group of laypeople.” Still, he said, “There’s more of everything here. Larger regular Shabbat attendance; a larger number of other synagogues. I’m not used to it. There’s so much more Jewish culture.”
While this creates “a wonderfully rich community,” it also creates “an open market,” he said.
“We are in a strong position to help in building bridges to other synagogues in the community, to help explain what Conservative Judaism means, and to work together toward furthering common goals and interests.”
The rabbi said the synagogue has handled the transition from one rabbi to another “wonderfully.”
Berger served for 30 years, deeply affecting all aspects of the synagogue, Pitkowsky said, adding, “My role is to figure out where the shul is now and where we need to be in the future, building on the foundation he set.”
The 400-member-unit synagogue has a wide age range, he noted, with members ranging from people in their 20s to their 90s. There also are many children, he said “the vast majority” of whom go to day school.
The shul’s merger four years ago with Cong. Beth Israel in Bergenfield brought a religious school to the Teaneck congregation. “It’s now our religious school,” he said. “We’re pushing hard to have it be the best it can, so we can provide the best education in different settings.”
Pitkowsky is excited to arrive at the synagogue as it celebrates its 60th anniversary.
“I feel we have built a wonderful foundation of learning, commitment to Jewish life, and prayer, and [can now] take it into the next 60 years,” he said.
Among his duties, he said, he will “care for the religious, spiritual, and Jewish life of every member of the community, providing pastoral care, teaching classes, and helping to organize all the synagogue’s educational programs.” He will also teach occasionally in the religious school.
The synagogue has alternative minyanim each week, he said, adding that in addition to leading the sanctuary service, he plans on “having a presence” in each of the other services, as well.
While opportunities abound, there also are challenges.
One challenge is “creating a community that appeals to all different kinds of Conservative Jews,” he said. For example, if a family is shomer Shabbat [Sabbath observant], sending their children to day school and Jewish summer camps, that family should be as comfortable in the shul as a family whose children attend public school and receive supplementary religious education.
“My goal is to create an environment where people feel personally connected to the community, seeing how Judaism can enrich their lives and how a committed Jewish community can enrich the greater community. The mission of the synagogue is to be a vehicle for personal and communal growth,” he said.
“I’m privileged to be in a community where so many people care about what happens here, about the Jewish community, and about the broader community. We can really make a positive impact on the world around us. That’s something I want to help foster.”