While all rabbis are teachers by definition — the word rabbi means teacher or master — the title rabbi educator is not simply a duplication of terms, said Rabbi Jordan Millstein, the religious leader of Tenafly’s Temple Sinai.
“A rabbi educator in the Reform movement is a specific designation, indicating that this person is in charge of all the education programs in a synagogue,” he said. And if that person also is a rabbi, so much the better.
“The board created this position very deliberately, because we wanted to have someone who could run educational programs and who is also a rabbi and can do additional functions only a rabbi can do,” Rabbi Millstein said. The position of rabbi educator at Temple Sinai is new; until now, the synagogue had a director of education. Sara Kaplan, who held that position for many years, retired in June.
In July, Rabbi Beth Kramer-Mazer became Sinai’s first rabbi educator. “Beth spent many years as a Jewish educator, with a master’s from JTS,” the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Millstein said. “She has run two religious schools,” most recently at Beth El of Spring Valley in Rockland County, where she worked with Rabbi Ron Mass for 11 years.
The two are now good friends, and Rabbi Mass, who since has retired, said he is “deeply honored” to have been asked to do Rabbi Kramer-Mazer’s installation on October 5. For her part, the new rabbi educator considers Rabbi Mass to be her mentor, someone “who helped to shape me as the rabbi that I am.”
“Beth is now the director of lifelong learning — of congregational learning — in charge of education at the congregation for every age range other than preschool,” Rabbi Millstein said. Early Childhood Center Director Risa Tanenbaum will continue in that position.
“The core piece of Beth’s job is running our religious school and then also working with teens, supervising youth programs and high school programs, and working with adult education,” Rabbi Millstein said. “Right now she’s focused on the religious school.” While he still is the primary educator for students in eighth grade and up, including adults, “she will step in and do more of that. She also does some pulpit work,” he said; Rabbi Kramer-Mazer gave a sermon on Rosh Hashanah and has led several Shabbat services.
Musing again on why the congregation wanted a rabbi for the new position, Rabbi Millstein said that Rabbi Kramer-Mazer will play a large part in community building. “We believe it is crucial to build community to be an effective congregation,” he said. “It’s about helping people make a connection to the community, build relationships, and get to know one another. Involvement is not just transactional, not just about purchasing a good Jewish education and having a bar mitzvah. It needs to be about more than that.” He hopes that the rabbi educator will be able to reach out to young families with this message.
For her part, Rabbi Kramer-Mazer said she feels privileged to be part of such a vibrant congregation. Her enthusiasm was evident. “I’m thrilled to be here,” she said, adding that she’s not new to the area — she worked in Closter for some five years — but that this is her first time in Tenafly. The rabbi and her husband, Ross Mazer, live in New City, N.Y. They have two teenage daughters, 17 and 19.
“It’s a joy stepping into such an engaging congregation,” she said. “I’m blown away by it every day. I feel really proud to be part of this team.” She described her job as “a hybridized position that blends together traditional rabbinic work and the whole realm of educational work. Essentially, I’ll direct the religious school, about 200 students strong, ranging from young children to high schoolers; I’ll be involved in family education programs and some adult education programs; and, of course, I’ll have typical rabbinical work — on the bimah, leading services, and offering pastoral support.
“I’m a very open presence in the community and I really make it my business to focus on nurturing Jewish souls,” she said. “I care a lot about details, but also about the big picture. Every learner in our community needs their Jewish neshama” — their Jewish soul — “to be nurtured and cultivated. I bring that intention to the work I do. It starts and ends with relationships.
“I can’t be effective in my work if I’m not in a sacred relationship with the adults and children.”
She said her job entails “a delicate balance of Jewish literacy and knowledge but also a strong sense of genuine, proud Jewish identity. I want to cultivate that kind of balance in the people I serve.” As an educator, she is responsible for disseminating a certain amount of cognitive information. “But in the end, it must be a balance of mind and heart. I want to allow people to grow in their minds and hearts through a Jewish lens.”
Having worked in Reform synagogues for 22 years, she said, she also feels confident as an administrator. “Those jobs can feel unexciting, but they must happen and I have a good team to help me do it,” she said. As part of her job, she is working closely with the early childhood center director. “There are 100 kids in the center and I’m spending time in the classrooms to build connections with the kids, families, and caregivers,” she said. “It’s the greatest part of my day when the little ones march by and say hello.”
Rabbi Kramer-Mazer said she wants to be “a leader who can think outside the box, to come with a fresh set of eyes and help to improve upon the many incredible strengths the synagogue already has.” And, she said, she wants to do it “with compassion, strength, love, and kindness. I want people to know that I’m available to help them on their Jewish journeys in whatever way I can.”
Rabbi Mass, who served his Spring Valley congregation for 30 years, said that Rabbi Kramer-Mazer was hired as rabbi educator during the last third of his rabbinate. “It was an absolute pleasure working together first as colleagues, then as friends, then as close friends,” he said. “She’s extremely generous, forthcoming, and hospitable. Being her friend is a joy.”
He recalled that “at some point during her tenure, she decided she had a calling and was destined to become a rabbi as well. She decided, with my encouragement, to go to rabbinical school. She chose the Academy for Jewish Religion. She had so much on her plate — attending the academy, working full time, family life. But she balanced it remarkably.
“I was thrilled to watch her go through rabbinical school,” he added. “I was her mentor, but I always saw us as equals. I learned from her as well.”
But their close relationship is not the only reason Rabbi Mass is so excited to be doing the installation. “I grew up at Temple Sinai,” he said. “My parents moved to Bergen County in 1958 and they have been members there since 1959 — that’s without a break for 60 years. That’s a tribute both to the temple and to them. There are a special category of members whose loyalty and devotion go far beyond. They believe in supporting the institution even when their own needs have decreased. And they believe in supporting Reform Judaism and Jewish institutional life.” While they were not founders of the synagogue — they joined seven years after it was established — “they helped build it. They’re part of the foundational group, sustainers.”
Rabbi Mass has wonderful memories of being a child in the congregation. He spoke fondly of Rabbi Irwin Blank and Cantor Ian Cosman, who prepared him for his bar mitzvah. “These two men were spiritual giants,” he said; Cantor Cosman was also a police officer and a teacher, “talented beyond belief.”
In 1990, Rabbi Mass said, “I happened to be reading the newspaper and saw that he had passed away. I felt a need to express my condolences. I tracked down one of his daughters, a doctor in Pomona.” Ultimately, Cantor Cosman’s daughter joined the Spring Valley synagogue, and her family grew up there. “I officiated at her son’s bar mitzvah,” Rabbi Mass said. It all grew out of affection and memories. There’s something spiritual and cosmic about that.”
Rabbi Millstein said he is looking forward to Rabbi Kramer-Mazer’s formal installation on October 5 and invites all members of the community to attend the ceremony, which will take place at 7 p.m. during Shabbat services at Temple Sinai. “It’s an exciting moment for the congregation and the community,” he said.