Retiring rabbi says movement has changed
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Retiring rabbi says movement has changed

Rabbis were coming and going so frequently at Temple Sinai in Tenafly before Rabbi Bruce Block was hired, that — in many cases —children in the same family routinely went to the bimah as b’nai mitzvah under different rabbis. In fact there was a joke among the rabbis in the region, "There’s a new rabbi in Tenafly. Let’s give him his farewell dinner now."

Block’s farewell dinner (farewell Shabbat, actually) has had to be postponed until June 6, ‘008 — more than ‘0 years after that joke was made.

During the interim, he turned things around for the struggling congregation. For example, as positions in the Hebrew school opened up, he sought highly credentialed candidates from the Reform movement’s Placement Commission.

"The result has been a well-qualified staff of Temple professionals who have provided our members with a sense of stability and continuity by virtue of their longevity in office," wrote Block in "Temple Lines," his column on the synagogue Website.

That stability was desperately needed as an era of dramatic change began, Block wrote in his column, noting that today, there is a greater spirituality and traditionalism in services, outlooks, and rituals.

Instead of the mostly English Union Prayer Book, "Gates of Prayer" was used throughout his tenure and is now gradually being replaced by "Mishkan T’Filah." Charity and social involvement have shifted from national and world concerns to a more hands-on approach to tikkun olam, including programs to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and combat domestic violence and child abuse. Where interfaith relations used to mean working with Protestants and Roman Catholics, it now includes outreach to the Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Shinto, Zoroastrian, and Baha’i communities.

According to the rabbi, where ‘0 years ago, congregations would expect sermons on civil rights, police brutality, the Vietnam War, abortion, race relations, and Israel, now they look for a dvar Torah on Shabbat instead of a formal sermon. In addition, lessons on Jewish teachings have taken the place of some of the history and political classes rabbis were asked to teach ‘0 years ago.

"In the early years of my rabbinate, it was rare for a hospitalized Temple member to request a prayer when I would visit. Now a Mi Sheberach for healing is quite common in services at Temple Sinai and other Reform congregations, and many hospitalized Temple members are comforted by a bedside prayer."

Demographics have also changed, said Block. "In 1989 … the only Chabad-Lubavitch institution was in Teaneck. Temple Sinai was the only synagogue of any denomination in Tenafly. The only other Jewish institution in Tenafly was the JCC on the Palisades. The nearest Conservative synagogue was Temple Emanu-El, then on Tenafly Road in Englewood. The nearest Orthodox synagogue was Ahavath Torah, also in Englewood. There was no eruv in Tenafly, let alone a modern Orthodox congregation across the street from Temple Sinai."

Also, he said, today there is a strong pro-Israel stance, pro-Zionist stance, "at the heart of Reform Judaism … and at the heart of this temple as well."

Block said that while growing up, Reform Judaism was more a religion of "reason." "Gradually, Reform has evolved and continues to evolve … halacha gets a vote, not a veto," he said, but pointed out that over the past five years, rabbis have become far more concerned about ritual matters and practices. "People are looking for Judaism to be spiritually uplifting, not just intellectually stimulating," he said, noting that this is reflected in the use of more Hebrew and more music in the services.

Born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, Block graduated high school in 1960 and had the option of going into law, medicine, teaching, or the family business.

He was inspired by his own rabbi, the late Selon Russlander. "I can’t tell you the number of young men who considered becoming rabbis…because of this very dynamic and wonderful and loving human being who was part of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ He was one of those World War II chaplains and took a congregation that had been set in its ways and made its work relevant and dynamic for all ages," said Block.

The Tenafly rabbi was also moved by the ideals of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. "I was looking for a way to understand more about God, about Judaism, about what it meant to be a Jew, about myself and try to take all of that and find a way of working with people, helping people at key points in their lives…. The rabbinate offered such a variety of ways to utilize the skills and talents that I had."

Entering seminary prior to the Vietnam War, Block said his class was one of the last that "really wanted to become rabbis."

Besides being an ordained rabbi and holding degrees from Miami University, the University of Cincinnati, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, Block is a counselor and psychotherapist, with a doctorate in pastoral care and counseling as well as a certificate in chemical dependency and spiritual counseling from HUC-JIR. He said he’s long had an interest in counseling, and over the years has seen how effective pastoral counseling can be in his role as a rabbi.

In the early 1980s, Block was a member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations task force that created the curriculum for the Reform movement’s Introduction to Judaism course, which has been used nationwide for more than ‘0 years. He is also a past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, a member of the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and a vice chairman of the Rabbinic Liaison Committee of the UJA-Federation, among other groups.

Block said his involvement with so many organizations is not unusual for any rabbi serious about the position. "Part of the work of being a rabbi also involves representing Judaism and the Jewish community in general causes and representing one’s congregational community in the larger Jewish community," he said.

Block — who will be named rabbi emeritus of Temple Sinai — was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity by HUC-JIR in 1994, in recognition of ‘5 years of distinguished service as a Reform rabbi. He maintains a small counseling practice and plans on expanding that to full time for his "retirement."

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