A life is not pure chronology; a tick-tock of what happened when and where and with whom.
On the other hand, it’s also not pure floating timeless nuggets of wisdom, gathered who knows when or where.
Instead, anyone’s life is a combination, unique to that person, of narrative and learning, set in a very specific time and place.
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff’s new book, “Open Up Our Eyes: Moments That Shape Our Lives,” is a memoir with wisdom running through it, a combination of advice on living in general filtered through a very specific life.
Rabbi Kroloff retired from Temple Emanu-El in Westfield in 2002, becoming its rabbi emeritus, after 36 years as the huge Reform congregation’s senior rabbi. He and his wife, Dr. Terry Kroloff, still live in Westfield, as deeply rooted members of the community. His book includes some vignettes from his life with some lessons he learned through them.
“What I do is engage readers in reflecting on their lives as well as mine,” Rabbi Kroloff said. “What is in my experience can trigger memories for them, about things that have made a difference in their lives.”
He starts his book with a story from his childhood, on Chicago’s South Side, which then was a Jewish neighborhood. He and his friends were attracted by the shiny hood ornaments that beckoned from the big, fancy cars parked in the neighborhood. (And, of course, that attraction was not accidental. Those hood ornaments were engineered carefully to be appealing. They were hood candy.) The kids looked for ornaments loose enough for them to unscrew, and young Charles found one, on a ’46 Buick. A few turns, and it was off the car and in his hand. He brought it home proudly.
“My father asked, ‘What’s this?’ and I said, ‘It came from a Buick! Everyone’s doing it. They just fall off.’
“And my father said, ‘That’s stealing. You have to return it.’”
The next day, he did. It was difficult, and the lesson stayed with him — and so did the way his father taught it to him. “My father said that I was stealing, but he did not say that I was a thief,” Rabbi Kroloff said. “My parents were very supportive, and very positive. So I learned a lesson, but not in a way that destroyed me in any way.”
The first part of the lessons was from Exodus, Rabbi Kroloff said. “Do not follow a multitude to do evil. And I have had seven or eight people come to me to tell me that something similar happened to them. They picked something up in a store or in a front yard, innocently or not so innocently, and took it home, and then they got a lesson in ethics from their parents that has stayed with them for 70 years.”
The other part of the lesson was about kindness. “I learned that when others are kind to you, you are inspired to be kind to others. One kindness leads to another. ‘Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.’ One mitzvah brings another in its train. One act of kindness has multiple iterations. It goes on and on.”
Charles Kroloff was born in 1935. When he was 9 years old, Rabbi Kroloff’s family — which included his sister, Carol — moved to Atlanta; his father, Max Kroloff, who had been the assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League, then headquartered in Chicago, took a job in private industry. Rabbi Kroloff’s mother, Mary Goldstein Kroloff, had deep roots in Atlanta; her father moved there in 1890 and started a business. “I had a marvelous youth,” Rabbi Kroloff said. “There was a very social, very closely knit Jewish community there.”
As was not uncommon at the time, his family had ties to both the Reform and Conservative movements. The Kroloffs belonged to the huge, prominent High Reform institution formally named the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation but universally known simply as the Temple, but Charles became a bar mitzvah at the Conservative synagogue in town, because “the Temple did not do bar mitzvahs at the time,” he said. “Southern Reform was a little churchy then.” And his grandfather was a founder of the Conservative shul. But he was confirmed at the Temple, and his lifelong identity as a Reform Jew was set.
The rabbi at the Temple, Jacob Rothschild, arrived in Atlanta at the same time that the Kroloffs did; he was there when the synagogue was bombed in 1958. No one was hurt, but it was an ominous symbol of the hatred and fear of change in the air then. “I was inspired by Jack Rothschild, and by his strong sense of social justice,” Rabbi Kroloff said.
He also was inspired by Young Judaea. “It gave me a sense of my Jewish roots, my Zionism, my Jewish ethnic character,” he said. “My first visit to Newark was to attend a national board meeting of Young Judaea. Little did I know at the time that I would end up in New Jersey.
“I remember flying up to the meeting at B’nai Abraham in Newark,” the synagogue that joined its Newark-born peers in migrating to suburban Essex County. (B’nai Abraham is now in Livingston.)
In 1951, Rabbi Kroloff, then about to finish high school, first went to Israel, to spend the summer with Young Judaea. “It took us four days to fly from Idlewild” — the Queens airport that became JKF International — to what was then Lod, and now is Ben-Gurion Airport,” he said. “We made lots of stops for mechanical problems, and we spent Shabbat in Shannon, Ireland. We already were 24 hours late by the time the plane got fueled up and ready to go, and it was a Friday afternoon, so we couldn’t go.”
The country was brand-new then.
“It was a transformative summer,” Rabbi Kroloff said. “We were in the Hula Valley; it was swamp then. I remember sitting down to a meal in a kibbutz, and there was a fly in the soup.
“The story was that the first time you saw a fly in your soup, you throw the soup out. The second time, you take the fly out with a spoon. The third time, you eat the whole thing.
“That’s what life on a kibbutz was like in those days.”
Rabbi Kroloff went to Yale when he was 16. “I applied to the Ford Foundation as a lark,” he said; he was accepted into the foundation’s experimental program. “They wanted to get a group of high performers through college before they were drafted,” he said. (The Korean war was going on at the time.) “It was a mixed bag,” he said. “It was marvelous in terms of learning, of growth and stimulation and opportunities — but socially it was a bit difficult.”
He majored in philosophy, and was on Yale’s debate team, Rabbi Kroloff said; he also taught a confirmation class in New Haven. It was while he was at Yale that he decided he wanted to become a rabbi. His parents had moved to Washington, and through them he met Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz, who became another great influence on his life. Rabbi Rabinowitz introduced him to the works of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, and that work also influenced him greatly.
When they were 18, Charles Kroloff met Terry Klausner of Jacksonville, Florida, a student at Wellesley College. (They were born seven days apart.) They both were counselors at Camp Blue Star in Hendersonville, North Carolina, “which today is the largest Jewish camp in the Southeast,” Rabbi Kroloff said proudly.
“I was going into my junior year, and I was in search of a girlfriend,” he said. Charles met Terry, “and somewhere within me a light went on. This was made in heaven. After about six months we realized that this was going to be it.” They were married two years later.
After Yale, Rabbi Kroloff went to the Hebrew Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, which then was the Reform movement’s flagship seminary. Terry Klausner Kroloff, who was two years behind her new husband in college because she’d started college at the conventional 18, transferred to the University of Cincinnati. “It was a big sacrifice,” her husband says. “I am forever grateful for it.”
Once she’d graduated — and later went on to earn a doctorate in English — “Terry and I decided to study in Israel for a year,” he said. “That was before HUC had a year-in-Israel program, and my professors tried to talk me out of it. They said I could learn more in Cincinnati than in Jerusalem. But we had friends who convinced us that was not the case. That we had a lot to learn in Israel. “It was 1959. We went to Israel, bought a motor scooter, and traveled through the whole state. We saw Israel on a scooter. Other rabbinical students did that too. We would sometimes go together.
“We were in Jerusalem when the first traffic light was installed, in Kikar Zion,” he continued. “People who grew up there didn’t know what it was. But traffic was getting dangerous. You could feel it build up, month after month. The country was growing.”
At Hebrew University, Rabbi Kroloff studied with Gershom Scholem, Nechama Leibowitz, and Ephraim Urbach. “They all taught in Hebrew,” he said. “Let’s say that my Hebrew was good enough so that I got maybe 50 percent of the lectures.” But his language skills got better and better.
Back in Cincinnati, he studied with such scholars as Jacob Rader Marcus, “the dean of American Jewish historians,” he said. “And I did my thesis on a subject that keeps coming back — the effect of suffering on the concept of God in Midrash Lamentations. There are many passages in that midrash describing God as weeping with people who are suffering. Even today, people talk about how God weeps with us.”
After three years as an assistant rabbi in Temple Israel in Boston, where he acquired another mentor, Rabbi Ronald Gittelsohn, “who gave the historic sermon at the dedication of the cemetery at Iwo Jima,” and then another three years at the Community Reform Temple in Westbury, on Long Island, Rabbi Kroloff came to Westfield. It was 1966; Emanu-El had 400 families, “and I came thinking that I’d be here for maybe 10 years,” he said.
That was 56 years ago.
Soon after he got to Westfield, Rabbi Kroloff faced a tense situation. “Jews felt like strangers in Westfield in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said. “We had all kinds of zoning issues. The temple was acquiring additional property, and there was opposition to it.
“When I arrived here, there were Christmas pageants in public schools,” he continued. “They were solemn, church-like events, with students walking down the aisles with candles, and a Nativity tableau on the stage. The Jewish parents and students were very uncomfortable about this. When I arrived, they said, ‘Rabbi, we have to do something about this.’
“So a group of Christian and Jewish parents brought legal action. In response to the lawsuit, a group wanted to initiate a boycott against Jewish merchants in town. I met with the clergy, and I appealed to them to stand up for the Jewish community, and only one of them was willing to do it.
“We were meeting with clergy on the second floor of a local church. I looked out the window at the Lord & Taylor’s parking lot across the street, and I said to one of my friends, ‘You know, if they were to round up all the Jews in the parking lot today, I am not sure if any of those men’ — and by the way, they were all men — ‘would lift a finger to stop it.’ I really felt that it was that bad.”
But “the lawsuit was resolved in our favor in federal court in Newark. It was a clear violation of the separation of church and state. There was a consent decree from Federal Judge Frederick B. Lacey, and the board had to adhere to it.
“The Christmas pageant was ended, and they transformed the whole thing. It was a low point — but it also was a high point, because we went forward to build a community of great understanding”
Over time, “the community deepened,” Rabbi Kroloff said. “That’s in terms of knowledge, practice, social justice, and the creation of community. It became a cohesive Jewish community of consequence. A serious and fun place to be a Jew.
“In numbers, it grew from those 400 families to 1,200 when I retired. In the ’70s and ’80s, we had years were 60 to 80 new families came in, and fewer than 10 left. It was very, very rapid growth.
“And the town changed. It wasn’t a straight line. We had other issues later. But today, we have clergy who care about each other, and we have churches that are progressive and very supportive of people who are different from them; minority groups, both Jews and others.”
Despite the ugliness in the world right now, “I think the American people are inherently good, decent people,” Rabbi Kroloff said. “I believe in the decency and moral values of the American people. That’s true in Westfield, and in Livingston, and in Teaneck; in Englewood and West Orange and Montclair, and across the state and the country. We always have a small number of people who benefit from fomenting distrust and fear of others, but recently their voices have been amplified and encouraged by rightwing extremists.
“What do we do about it? There is no substitute for grassroots education — and for the clergy of America to stand up and say that enough is enough.”
The Kroloffs have a few reasons to stay in Westfield, Rabbi Kroloff said. He and Dr. Kroloff had formed deep friendships during his time heading Emanu-El, but either those friends were from outside the synagogue or they had to respect the invisible but inevitable barriers the Kroloffs had to put up. But “those close friendships became different and much, much easier the day I retired,” he said.
Dr. Kroloff, who retired from a career as an entrepreneurial writer and creator of business newsletters when her husband retired from the bimah, and Rabbi Kroloff have three children; they’re all married, and all of them live relatively close. Those couples — Micah Kroloff and Donna Etkins, Sarah and Roger Segel, and Noah Kroloff and Claudia Green — have seven children between them.
“I believe that people are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives, and for community,” Rabbi Kroloff said. His long career has been dedicated to both helping them and joining them on that search.