RWM: Rabbi with a mission

RWM: Rabbi with a mission

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler likes to use alliteration and mnemonic devices. "They make things easier to understand," said the religious leader of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, who hopes to make "all things Jewish" more accessible to his congregants and to the community as a whole.

For example, the new rabbi (he took up his position in August) likes to think of the initials of his synagogue, JCT, as representing "Journeys, Connection, and Tradition," which, he suggests, "sum up the purpose and potential" of the congregation.

Also easy to remember is his "three-c" program — cholent, cugel (Zierler’s variant spelling), and conversation — which will take place each month on the Sabbath immediately preceding rosh chodesh. The event, to be held after the Shabbat morning service, will provide a chance for congregants to "gather around the rabbi’s tish" (table) for food, fellowship, and discussion, said Zierler, who noted that on days when the program is offered, he will not give a traditional sermon.

"I will provide a trigger text and then there will be ‘give and take,’ he said, adding that his job will be to "help interpret heavily nuanced issues in a context of access," not through "straight delivery" of a heavy rabbinic message. "I would like the gatherings to feel like an extension of my family’s Shabbat table," he said.

The Teaneck rabbi is enthusiastic about what he calls "social capital." In an article on mentoring written for the Coalition for Advanced Jewish Education, he noted that "the Jewish community should leverage Jewish social capital by mentoring students with role models from within to help guide their future careers and increase their community connectedness." In brief, he explained, that means "membership has its benefits."

One reason to be Jewish, he said — besides the rich Torah tradition — is to be "embraced by people," which helps to build "community, career, and character," another, easy-to-remember alliterative phrase.

Zierler said his leadership style as rabbi is to "maintain dignity — but with a sense of humor." As a proponent of "reflective Judaism," which emphasizes interpretation, his goal is to teach and empower his congregants "through invitation, rather than intimidation," he said. In his adult education classes, which he prefers to call "lifelong Jewish learning" experiences, he will "try to remove the obstacles and alibis" that hinder members’ Jewish growth. "I want to serve as a tour guide," he said, noting that during the High Holy Days, he offered a workshop on "Machzor mapping," making the holiday prayer book more accessible to congregants. He is also offering a class entitled "Blood Lines and Blood Libels," on Jewish membership and belonging. Focusing on issues such as conversion and assimilation, the class, he said, "will provide substantive information so members can make informed decisions and assessments." Zierler said that "he operates from chemistry" and that it "didn’t feel right" to be behind a large wooden lectern at Kol Nidre services, so he spoke from a small table placed closer to the congregation. In the future, he hopes to use a portable Lucite stand.

Ordained at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Zierler holds master’s degrees in both clinical counseling (John Carroll University) and bio-ethics (Case Western Reserve University). Over the past ‘0 years, he has held several pulpits, served as a JCC executive leader, and worked as a communal educator. Pursuing what he calls a "mid-career reassessment," he spent two years at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Israel, which, according to its Website, "helps provide outstanding leadership for the nonprofit world."

Zierler told The Jewish Standard that he hadn’t planned to take a job as pulpit rabbi on his return. Nevertheless, he said, he realized that the position in Teaneck offered his children the rich Jewish resources of the area and that the center itself "is an untapped resource," offering an exciting professional challenge.

While the synagogue formerly dubbed itself "traditional Conservative" or "Orthodox without a mechitza," said Zierler, he prefers the term "independent traditional." The shul, with 400 member-units, boasts three Shabbat minyans — a traditional service with mixed seating, a mechitza minyan, and a learners minyan, offered since ‘003 by the Jewish Learning Experience. Two other minyans, both of which included ritual participation by women, have been discontinued.

"I want to think creatively, but realistically," he said, pointing out that as an Orthodox rabbi, he wants to expand participation in a halachic context. Not everything works in every congregation, he said. However, he added, it would be wrong to offer a rich variety of learning experiences to women and then "turn off the spiritual spigot." He would therefore encourage such things as women’s megillah readings and rosh chodesh tefillah groups, and a women’s bet midrash. Not surprisingly, he said, he is encountering some resistance from "both sides," those who contend women should have no ritual role and those who seek their greater participation.

Zierler — who lives in Teaneck with his wife Berni, a certified physician assistant and trained singer, and children Roni, 16, and Sunni, 11 (son Yoni, 18, is in Israel, studying at a yeshiva in Otniel) — said that while he expects there to be a "learning curve," both for himself and for the congregation, so far, his ideas have enjoyed a positive response. He will soon be working with congregants on a marketing effort so that everyone in the congregation "speaks the same language."

Zierler will be formally installed on Nov. 15. The program, themed "Then, Now, and Tomorrow," will pay tribute to the founders of the congregation, which Zierler described as "the foundation stone of the Teaneck Jewish community," and will feature special guest and Knesset Member Rabbi Michael Melchior, with whom Zierler worked closely in Israel.

Zierler’s passion for inclusion began at an early age, he said. When he was 10, his parents, observant Jews, left southwest Ontario for Toronto to provide their children with a richer Jewish life. "I was almost locked out against my will," he noted, describing how all but one day school turned down his application since he had little prior Jewish education. Fortunately, he added, "he got the right encouragement to proceed" from one Orthodox day school. It is that kind of encouragement he now seeks to give other members of the community.

"There are segments of the population not being reached," said the rabbi, who added that he wants the Teaneck Jewish Center to be "a community resource, a place of fellowship, the address for different services to people of all ages.

"I want to turn the congregation into a full-service facility, offering not just religious and educational services but cultural and recreational services as well. The population is at our doorstep," he added, noting that the congregation is uniquely placed to "tackle the issues of aging, family, careers, irrelevance, and anonymity."

"I want it to be a place where the rabbi knows your name," he said — "a place where partnership helps people foster their own Jewish identity."

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