Remembering Rabbi Lawrence Troster

Remembering Rabbi Lawrence Troster

Teaneck-based rabbi was environmentalist, bioethicist, interfaith leader — and in so many ways, magician

Larry Troster cuddled with his grandson, Jacob, last year.
Larry Troster cuddled with his grandson, Jacob, last year.

If you just read the list of what Rabbi Lawrence Troster of Teaneck did, you’d see clearly he was a man of deeply passionate vision, always informed by Jewish wisdom and insight.

He was a Jewish environmentalist before there were environmentalists who not only happened to be Jewish but who saw the world and all that endangered it through a specifically Jewish lens.

He was not only a believer in interfaith dialogue but a practitioner of that form, not only when it was easy but specifically when it was not.

He not only believed that egalitarian Jewish life was possible but worked and wrote and thought and fought to make it possible, even as a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained.

What you might not see, at least if you weren’t looking carefully, was that Rabbi Troster, who died on May 24 at 65, was also a man of unstoppable intellectual curiosity and openness, whose work was driven by that curiosity.

And what you also might not see, but what his wife and daughters know to be the most basic truth, was that much as he loved all those things, he loved his family more.

The whole family posed together in March.

“Larry was interested in absolutely everything,” his wife, Elaine Kahn, said. Dr. Kahn is a writer, and also a native Canadian. Her doctorate is in global affairs, from Rutgers, and her book “Been Hoping We Might Meet Again: The Letters of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Marshall McLuhan” came out earlier this year. “At some point he got interested in science, and then he taught himself physics. He’d had no interest in that in high school. But it started before and then overlapped his interest in environmentalism, and it helped him understand the science behind it.”

Oh, and yes, it also fueled his work as a bioethicist, “which he started getting interested in when it was still pretty new,” Dr. Kahn added.

Lawrence Troster was born in Toronto in 1953, and he earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto. “We met at a party,” Dr. Kahn said. It was 1975.

But what was he doing at that party? He was a magician; he’d always loved magic, and that’s how he earned extra money, starting in high school. “He used to hang out in magic stores in Toronto, and he met a lot of the great magicians who came through Toronto then,” Dr. Kahn said. “He was on TV, on a kids’ show, a few times.”

Elaine and Larry Troster took two of their grandchildren on a march warning about climate change.

So when they met, Rabbi Troster — just Larry then, way before he was ordained — “was doing a magic show, and he asked me to help him with the ring trick.” That’s when the magician flourishes apparently solid metal rings in front of an audience, perplexing them as they go inexplicably from linked to separate. “He was a total stranger, and he just asked me to do this trick.” He was a friend of a friend, though, and three days later, walking on campus, she saw him with her friend. “I hadn’t been so observant before, but I was starting to get interested in Jewish stuff, because of the Zionism is racism issue” — that was the infamous United Nations Resolution 3379, which equated the two — “and I saw that Larry was wearing a kippah.” That was it. They were married the next year, in 1976.

“A few months after we were married, a friend talked him out of being a professor, and into rabbinical school,” Dr. Kahn continued. He’d wanted to study and teach medieval Jewish history. “History was a lifelong passion,” she added. So he went to the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, in Manhattan. During his time there, he and Dr. Kahn were among the founders of the Group for the Rabbinic Ordination of Women. (Ultimately, they were successful.)

After he graduated, Rabbi Troster and Dr. Kahn, by then the parents of twin daughters, Rachel and Sara Kahn-Troster, moved back to Canada for 11 years; he was the assistant rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto and then rabbi of Shaarei Chaim, a synagogue outside the city that later became part of Beit Rayim.

When the twins were 14, the family moved to Bergen County, where the girls graduated from the school now known as the Golda Och Academy in West Orange and their father headed Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. Four years later, they moved to the Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Center; when that closed, Rabbi Troster went to Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Throughout all these changes, Rabbi Troster kept working on the issues he cared about so intensely. “He was involved with environmental work while we still were in Toronto,” Dr. Kahn and their daughters said. “And he did a lot of interfaith work in Toronto, where he was part of a regular television panel.”

Rabbi Troster called himself an eco-theologian, and attributed much of his passion to the summers he spent in the parks and woods where he grew up. There are many wild northern places very close to Toronto, and he was affected by their mystery and grandeur.

“There were so few people doing environmental work through a Jewish lens at the beginning,” Dr. Kahn said. “I think that in some ways he never would have said that, but one of the reasons he found such a home in the environmental interfaith movement is because a lot of Christian environmentalists have been building the idea of ‘creation care,’ and he found people in that movement with whom he could have deep conversations.”

Rabbi Troster was the magician at his grandaughter Liora’s fifth birthday party.

Rabbi Troster was the founder of Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth, a rabbinic fellow for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and Hazon’s rabbinic advisor. “For the longest time he would go around with a copy of Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth,’ and he’d screen it,” one of his daughters said.

“And he’d always end up with pictures of the two of us, and then later also of his grandchildren,” she added. “He’d say, ‘I am doing this for my children and grandchildren.’”

His interfaith work took him to Tehran, Iran, in 2005, where he was the only rabbi among 50 people invited to a two-day international conference on the environment. Although he was suspicious about the set-up, “It was really important for people to see a rabbi in this situation, speaking about the Jewish tradition,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported.

Rabbi Troster wrote books and essays — “Mekor Hayyim: A Source Book on Water and Judaism” among them — but he always was a father first.

“Especially for a rabbi in the 1980s,” when his daughters were young — “he always was home for us,” his daughters said. “He was home for dinner. He often made dinner. He was a wonderful cook; he made complicated, ungepatchked meals. He always was present as a father. He took us to doctors’ appointments. He was always engaged.

“His favorite books were the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and he passed down to us an abiding love of science fiction and fantasy. He would do dramatic readings of key moments in the story.”

“And he always was their father,” their mother said. “He was not their rabbi. He was their father.” “We did our bat mitzvah tutoring with the cantor,” one of their daughters said. “Of course he could have done it, but he wanted to be our daddy.”

Like her father, Rachel Kahn-Troster is a rabbi. Also like him, she’s driven by the need to advocate for human rights — she’s the deputy director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and like him, she was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Kahn-Troster loved knowing her father as a colleague, and it made her happy to know how well respected, and even loved, he was. “We had overlapping friendships,” she said. They both were active in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. “When I introduce myself and people sort of knew my name, I would say, ‘You probably know my dad.’ And then I would hear from people that he also was introducing himself as my father.”

Rabbi Troster’s survivors include his wife, Dr. Kahn, and their daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren. Sara Kahn-Troster, a health policy researcher, lives in Portland, Maine, with her husband, Rabbi David Freidenreich, who teaches Jewish studies at Colby College, and their two children, Jacob and Naomi. Rachel Kahn-Troster lives in Teaneck with her husband, Dr. Paul Pelavin, a pediatrician, and their two children, Liora and Aliza.

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