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Our new local rabbis

Appreciating diversity

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Rabbi Noah Fabricant and his wife, Ali Harwin, hold their baby, Lorry. Noah Fabricant

Noah Fabricant, the new rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, is a true child of the Reform movement, a Reform Jew – and a Reform rabbi – by both birth and conviction.

Rabbi Fabricant grew up in northern New Jersey; his family belonged to Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in West Orange, where he and his two younger brothers first became involved and then drew their parents into increased involvement in their wide wakes.

Rabbi Fabricant, 32, first started singing in the synagogue’s choir, which of course meant that he had to be at services. He became active in the Reform movement’s youth group, NFTY, becoming president of the regional body, called GER, for Garden Empire Region. He went to two of the Reform movement’s camps, Eisner and Kutz, and learned to play guitar so he could be a song-leader.

And then, it seemed, enough was enough.

By the time he got to Harvard in 2000, “I had no interest in being Jewish full-time,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “I wanted to do other things. I decided I wasn’t going to concentrate in Jewish studies, and I wasn’t going to make Hillel my primary activity.” Yeah, right.

“But one thing I decided I wanted to do was learn Hebrew,” he continued. “Growing up in the Reform movement you don’t learn it, so I started Hebrew B.” (Harvard has its own idiosyncratic vocabulary, he said; the b stands for basic.) “It’s five days a week, all year long. I loved it, I became very interested in Hebrew language and ultimately in Hebrew literature – and I became a literature major.”

At the same time – this was when he had decided to distance himself somewhat from Jewish life – Rabbi Fabricant was teaching Hebrew school and working in Camp Kutz. Clearly, the distancing did not work. “So I went to the Reform minyan, and ultimately led services there,” he said.

It was at Harvard’s Reform minyan that Rabbi Fabricant met Ali Harwin, who is now a Yale Law School-trained lawyer, Rabbi Fabricant’s wife, and the mother of their toddler, Lorry.

As he studied Hebrew language and literature, Rabbi Fabricant considered his options. “I am a very academic person,” he understated, and he was drawn inexorably to Jewish life. Given that, “I was deciding between a Ph.D. program or rabbinical school. Ultimately, I chose to become a rabbi because it’s more diverse.

“I love teaching and learning and studying, but I also love singing with children and adults, being part of communal events, and working with people of all ages.” So he went straight from college to rabbinical school.

All North American Reform rabbinical students are obligated to spent their first HUC year in Jerusalem. They are each assigned to one of the movement’s three North American campuses – in Manhattan, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles – and report there for their second year. Rabbi Fabricant requested and got Cincinnati, the movement’s spiritual home.

“I am from the East Coast, and I know what East Coast Jewish life is like,” he said. “I wanted to experience a different kind of community.

“In New York, everyone lives in a different place, and it’s so expensive that you have to work constantly to support yourself. Because it is cheaper and more communal, in Cincinnati you are more part of your community. There is a real campus, and people hang out there and spend time with each other. It is not a commuter school.

“In my first year in Cincinnati I thought I had made a horrible mistake,” but soon – and with marriage – that feeling turned around entirely, and he felt entirely at home.

Rabbi Fabricant graduated from HUC at a hard time. “That was 2009 – it was a terrible year for rabbinical placement,” he said. “Only about one third of my classmates who wanted it got placed in congregations.”

He was lucky, and got a job that he both wanted and liked. For five years, he worked at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, where he was first an assistant and then an associate rabbi. “I was part of a team of five rabbis and two cantors,” he said. “It is a 3,000-family congregation, one of the largest in the country of any denomination, that makes it a unique place.” Among his responsibilities were both teaching and presiding at life cycle events – he worked with bar and bat mitzvah students and officiated at both funerals and baby namings. “And I had the particular pleasure of doing a lot of weddings,” he said. “Washington is a very young city, and I ran our Introduction to Judaism classes.” Many of the couples with whom he worked were interfaith.

About two years into his tenure in Washington, Rabbi Fabricant had the chance to pursue his other, second-best professional passion, academics. He entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland, studying Jewish literature and working as a teaching assistant. “I was a full-time Ph.D. student and a full-time rabbi,” he said. (How did he manage two full-time careers in one very full-time life? He can’t quite answer that question.)

He has now finished his classwork and is working on his dissertation, which is about the origins of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature at the end of the 19th century in Europe. In order to do this work, he had to learn Yiddish.

A few years ago, Rabbi Fabricant and Ms. Harwin, who is from Manhattan, started feeling the urge to move closer to their families, and he decided that it was time for him to “take my next professional step,” he said. “I wanted to be in a place where I could be involved in all areas of synagogue life.”

He wanted to be in charge, and to work in a more intimate setting than was available in Washington.

“In a giant congregation you have a portfolio. You do some things, but there are other things that you never do. As a solo rabbi in a medium-size congregation, you get to be involved in all the different parts of the life of the congregation.”

He interviewed in many places, he said; “one of the things I wanted to keep a focus on was that I wasn’t only looking for a job. I was looking for a congregation that I want to be part of, and where I want to raise my family.”

He is thrilled with Beth Or. “It has a lot of flexibility and openness, which I really appreciate,” he said. “A congregation can be very set in its ways, but Beth Or, particularly with a new rabbi and a new cantor, is energized to try new things.

“I am interested in learning and teaching and engaging in Judaism in a serious and authentic way,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “I found that the people here are interested in Judaism and its relevance to their lives, not just in having the synagogue exist for the education of their children.”

His first priority, he said, is “to build relationships.” He has begun meeting with various constituencies within the synagogue. “My most important task is to be connected.”

He hopes to channel the work and emotion that goes into a bar mitzvah “into a Jewish path,” he said. “The idea that there is only one path doesn’t work. The challenge is finding a lot of different opportunities to engage with teens.”

He hopes to attract more young families to Beth Or. “The YJCC has a wonderful preschool program,” he said. “One of my goals is to develop the relationship with the Y, and with the other organizations in town.

“Bergen County has a real wealth of institutions and synagogues. Our congregation has not always taken full advantage of the strengths of our wider community.”

That brings him to another issue, adult education. “One of the big problems facing the synagogue is how to engage adults after the bar or bat mitzvah,” he said. “At congregations, people become empty-nesters when their children are 13.

“The people in our congregation are very smart and accomplished and well educated. For most of them, though, their formal Jewish education ended at 13. I try to make the classes I teach pretty similar to the ones I was teaching at the University of Maryland, and I think that adult learners appreciate that.

“I think that adult Jewish education often is not challenging enough for serious people to take seriously. If I am going to err, I would rather have it be on the side of being too serious.”

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