Rabbis in new pulpits in time for holidays
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Rabbis in new pulpits in time for holidays

Family member, friend, teacher, leader, mentor, arbiter, peace maker, confidant – a congregational rabbi can be all of these things at the same time. In Bergen County, four new rabbis have taken on these roles, and more.

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Rabbi Kenneth Stern

Rabbi Kenneth Stern, who served for 12 years as the religious leader of the 126-year-old Park Avenue Synagogue (Agudat Yesharim) in New York City – a congregation of some 1,500 families – took up the position of rabbi at Cong. Gesher Shalom/JCC of Fort Lee on Aug. 1.

Born to Holocaust survivors and raised in New York City, he said he is proud to be a Bronx High School of Science graduate. Noting that he enjoyed “an excellent Jewish education” at his Hebrew school, which was sponsored by the now-defunct immigrant German Orthodox Cong. Ohav Sholaum, Stern is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s joint program with Columbia University and of the JTS rabbinical school. A member of the Rabbinical Assembly, he serves on the advisory board and national council of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

Stern noted that in each of the congregations he has served, he has always received a warm welcome. At Agudat Yesharim, which had German/Alsatian origins much like his beloved Hebrew school, “many of the tunes were not just the same but evoked a tremendous feeling of nostalgia; and the cantors, aware of this, would occasionally sing something just for me. There was also a formality to the services … that was familiar.”

Stern, who said the congregants there called him “the people’s rabbi,” said, “those are the things that matter the most to me – that I was able to make that kind of a personal impact and difference in people’s lives.”

Of his new position at Gesher Shalom, which has about 350 families, Stern said, “I have served [large and small] congregations. In the final analysis, size doesn’t really tell anyone anything substantive about a synagogue, its members, the prayer services, or the quality of its offerings. What really counts is that I am happy to be here.”

The rabbi said he tries to lead and to effect change by example, hoping congregants “will come to appreciate the kind of religious life that I live and come to appreciate that as something meaningful in their own lives. [Judaism is] more than kashrut and Shabbat and the holidays. It’s day in, day out, both discipline and rhythm.”

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Rabbi Jordan Millstein

The Jewish teaching on changing the world, tikkun olam, is particularly salient to Rabbi Jordan Millstein, who took the pulpit at Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly on July 1.

The son of a rabbi who served for 25 years as religious leader of Temple Israel in Queens, Millstein attended Harvard University, where he majored in social studies and worked for the Coalition for the Homeless and Legal Services, helping indigent people obtain Social Security disability benefits.

An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, Millstein was ordained at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He later served as an assistant, and then associate, rabbi at North Shore Cong. Israel in Glencoe, Ill.

Moving on to Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Mass., where he served for nine years, he worked together with his wife, Rabbi Paula Feldstein, the synagogue’s preschool director and a teacher in the Hebrew High program.

Millstein is a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and is on the board of the Association of Reformed Zionists of America.

“Israel is very important to me,” he said.

Millstein said he was drawn to Temple Sinai by “the energy and quality of the people, interesting people with a lot to offer. It’s a wonderful congregation in a wonderful area…. It has a strong history, and it’s a young congregation with a great future. It has a tremendous religious school, an outstanding early childhood center with well over 100 children, and more than 300 children in the religious school.”

Another draw for Millstein is that his family and extended family live close by.

“I’m a New Yorker. I originally came from Queens and lived in Great Neck before I became a bar mitzvah,” he said. “For me, this is coming home.”

Millstein said he wants to get to know the congregants and learn more about the congregation.

“I need to become part of the community,” he said. He also stressed “deepening the Jewish connection, the neshama of the community and individuals who are members here,” and “helping them do that for themselves.”

Rabbis Millstein and Feldstein have two daughters, Eve and Sarah.

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Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick

A woman rabbi doesn’t raise eyebrows any more, said Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick, new religious leader of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township. Originally from Rockland County, she came to the rabbinate later than most, not certain that she wanted to be a congregational rabbi.

“Like many people, I had a strong cultural Jewish identity, but I questioned Judaism as an organized religion,” she said.

After graduating from Connecticut’s Wesleyan University in 1988, she spent four years working at non-profit organizations before earning a master’s degree from Yale University in philosophy of religion and Hebrew letters in 1992.

In 1993, while attending a colloquium on medieval Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she felt a need to be with the Jewish community “and not in an ivory tower.”

She was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2001. During her four years of study, she served as a student rabbi at Cong. B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Conn. Following ordination, Zlotnick served as associate director of programs for a think tank called, at the time, “Synagogue 2000″ (now “Synagogue 3000″), which is devoted to revitalizing synagogue life.

Moving on to become associate rabbi and director of lifelong learning at Central Synagogue in New York City, a congregation of more than 2,000 families, she realized that she was ready to take on the challenge of being the spiritual leader of a community. “I also felt the need to be in a smaller community, where there is a real sense of communal bonds,” she said. Indeed, 150 members of her new congregation joined together at a barbecue welcoming her on the eve of the synagogue’s 50th anniversary.

Zlotnick said she was drawn to Temple Beth Or because it is both a warm and “heimish” community and has the “dynamism” she experienced at Central Synagogue. “It seems like a community eager to strengthen its Jewish identity and look to the future as being a transformative house of worship.”

The rabbi said the congregation is at a very interesting moment, facing the challenge of “how to grow.” She wants to help to manage that growth, she said, maintaining “that culture of warmth and menschlichkeit that they have while continuing to create a way of bringing Judaism in a holistic way into families’ lives.”

Zlotnick said she thinks synagogues should be proactive in renewing themselves and addressing the current needs of their members.

A member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, she and her husband, Richard, have a daughter, Suzannah.

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Rabbi David Saltzman

Rabbi David B. Saltzman – interim rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood as of Aug. 15 – faces a different challenge. According to Saltzman, since the congregation’s former rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, left in June to head a shul in Washington, D.C., the interim rabbi is entering a congregation already in the throes of change. A Brooklyn College graduate, Saltzman earned a master’s degree in education administration from Loyola University in Chicago. He received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, which also awarded him a doctor of divinity degree. He served as a Navy chaplain with the Seabee Battalion in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, followed by a stint as chaplain with the I Corp of Marines in Danang during the Vietnam War.

Saltzman sits on the joint chaplaincy committee of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest and on its religious pluralism and community relations committee. He previously served as director of education at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Ill., and as executive director of the southeast region of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Florida.

Though this will be his third interim position – he’s also filled in at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center and at Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen, as well as serving part-time at Cong. Beth Torah in Florham Park – Saltzman said the path he’s chosen seems to be a “new trend.”

“Many congregations are deciding when a rabbi leaves, rather than looking for an immediate successor, it’s a very good process to bring in an interim rabbi for one year,” he said.

Saltzman said he does not find it difficult going from one congregation to another.

“Our basic message is always the same,” he noted. “Tradition has something to say; the Jewish people have an important role to play in the history of the world.”

He sees his role as interim rabbi as helping the congregation to clarify its mission and identity and create a sense of well-being.

“It’s listening to people and hearing people and working to bring out the best of any community that you’re with,” he said.

Saltzman, a grandfather, lives in Boonton with his wife, Judi Fabricant.

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