Rabbi Ira Kronenberg retires
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Rabbi Ira Kronenberg retires

Rabbi Ira Kronenberg of Passaic clearly has staying power.

He also has a strong sense of responsibility and a deep concern for the people he serves.

Director of religious services at the Daughters of Miriam Center/The Gallen Institute in Clifton for some 39 years, the rabbi also enjoyed a long association – from 1972 to 2008 – with the United States Army. In both arenas, he played many roles and touched the lives of countless people.

At Daughters of Miriam, Rabbi Kronenberg conducted religious services, paid pastoral visits, supervised the kitchens, mentored social work students during their internships, and served as staff coordinator for the ethics committee and the residents’ council.

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A rabbi and an officer: Ira Kronenberg played many roles. Courtesy Daughters of Miriam

In the military, where he attained the rank of colonel, he served as a chaplain – both on active duty and in the reserves – coordinated the work of the chaplaincy corps, and held yom tov services in both Iraq and Afghanistan. On his retirement from the military, he was awarded the Legion of Merit.

So what has given him the most pride?

“After 39 years, I’m most proud of the fact that I have maintained a minyan” at DMC, Rabbi Kronenberg said in a telephone conversation from Israel, where he was attending a grandson’s bar mitzvah. ”

“And it’s getting harder and harder. All Jewish nursing homes have changed their business models,” he said, noting that while such facilities had mostly Jewish residents in their early days, that has now changed.

“Also, those who first came were from the generation of Jews that came here at the turn of the last century or after World War I,” he continued. “No matter what their religious status, they were used to going to shul. With those who came in later, it’s more of an effort to get them there.”

Rabbi Kronenberg said that when he first came to Daughters of Miriam, the nursing home model was “closer to that of an old age home. They got people, especially men, who when their wives died, didn’t know how to make a cup of coffee.” In addition, he said, Medicaid only looked back six months when checking residents’ financial status.

“Now it looks back six years, so people try to keep [loved ones] at home as long as possible because of the financial situation.” As a result, he said, “people coming in for long-term care are sicker, both mentally and physically, than they were 30 or 40 years ago.”

In addition to maintaining a minyan, the rabbi also has ensured the kashrut of the facility’s kitchens.

“I’m proud that when we built a new kitchen, we could make it a perfect glatt kosher kitchen,” he said. “The state inspector of kashrut came on a surprise visit. He said we were a perfect example of what’s supposed to be done.”

A graduate of Yeshiva University when he began his tenure at Daughters of Miriam – he received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Yeshiva College and later earned a master’s degree in Semitic languages from YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies – Rabbi Kronenberg headed back to the university shortly after he was hired.

This time, he attended the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, on the advice of Harvey Adelsburg, then DMC’s executive vice-president.

“He wanted me to get more counseling skills, to have more credibility with doctors and nurses,” Rabbi Kronenberg said. “So I got the training and started to do some things that normally are not done by rabbis,” like offering training in dealing with Alzheimer’s, residents’ rights, and so on. “It also made it easier to deal with families. Education never hurts.”

The rabbi began active military duty after receiving smicha.

“My father came here after World War II,” he said. “I went to yeshivas on scholarship my whole life. I was a math major in college, but I went on to receive smicha because I figured it was only three years more. I wanted to do something for the Jewish community and, at the time the war in Vietnam was going strong. The more liberal groups didn’t support it, and there was a shortage of Jewish chaplains. So I volunteered.”

He was not the first person in his family to join the military. In 1941, his mother was “one of the few religious girls” who joined the WACS.

After three years of active duty, Rabbi Kronenberg realized that he liked chaplaincy work. So even after he was hired by Daughters of Miriam, he stayed in the army, joining a reserve unit. In 2003, the unit was mobilized and assigned to Fort Dix.

“I would get off for Shabbat and come back to [Daughters of Miriam],” he said. “Some of the residents – particularly those who were veterans of World War II – would get a big kick out of my leading services in uniform – especially with the rank of colonel.”

Over the next several years he was sent to both Iraq and Afghanistan, leading religious services during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach.

“There’s a lot of truth to the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes,” he said, noting that the services attracted “quite a lot of soldiers.

“There was one Jewish captain at a forward operating base who wanted to come,” he remembered, but because it was the spring, and the seasonal rains had ended, the base anticipated an enemy offensive.

“He asked if I could come to see him. I flew out there after Pesach and the young soldier, from Fair Lawn, had wanted to see a chaplain because he had yahrzeit for his father.” The rabbi not only assisted the son, “but I called his mother when I got back.”

Also memorable, Rabbi Kronenberg said, was “lighting Chanukah candles in Saddam’s palace. I conducted the davening in a room with pictures of Scuds hitting Jerusalem during the first Gulf war.”

Rabbi Kronenberg is confident that his successor, Rabbi Moshe Mirsky, will do an excellent job at the center.

“He’ll continue everything I did and may do some things better,” he said. “I don’t have a good singing voice, and he does.”

In the meantime, the rabbi still plans to work at the center – but as a volunteer. “I’ll come on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to blow shofar,” he said.

Next week, we will introduce Rabbi Moshe Mirsky to our readers.

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