Synagogues welcome new, and not so new, rabbis

Synagogues welcome new, and not so new, rabbis


06-1-L-rabbi-don-rossoff-0825Rabbi Don Rossoff

Barnert Temple, Franklin Lakes

As interim rabbi of Barnert Temple, Rabbi Don Rossoff “will serve as the rabbi and do whatever it is that rabbis do in the context of that congregation,” he said.

A friend of now-retired Rabbi Elyse Frishman — they graduated from HUC the same year, Rabbi Frishman from the school in New York, Rabbi Rossoff from the one in Cincinnati — Rabbi Rossoff said that “Barnert has its act together on a very high level, in terms of leadership and programs.

“I respect Elyse tremendously,” he added. “She did an amazing job, nurturing an incredibly dedicated and talented leadership.”

Rabbi Rossoff said the role of the interim rabbi is “to help the congregation make the transition from the previous rabbi to the ‘settled’ rabbi.

“When a rabbi, such as Rabbi Frishman, has been there a long time, it’s really difficult for another person to move in,” he said. “What often happens, if they replace a longtime rabbi with a settled rabbi, is that he or she becomes an unintentional interim rabbi. An interim needs to find a balance between a sense of continuity and initiating whatever changes would be helpful, to make it easier for the next person to come in.

“People have been welcoming and open,” continued Rabbi Rossoff, who took up his position on July 1. “It’s tough, but they know that change is what happens. Transition is how you experience change and move on. They understand they’ll be in a better place.” As an interim rabbi, he brings 34 years of congregational experience and “a sense of calm to the congregation, personifying the sense that the congregation has a future.” He also brings music — he is a flutist, and uses the instrument during services.

This is Rabbi Rossoff’s third year as an interim rabbi, following a long tenure — from 1990 to 2015 — as the religious leader of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown. The rabbi has a plan: several years as an interim rabbi, and then a new career as a marriage and family therapist. “I wanted to retire from the congregation,” he said. “My long-term goal is to be a therapist. My intermediate goal was to do four years of interim work.”

His earlier interim positions were at a Reconstructionist synagogue in Illinois and a Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Am, in Framingham, Mass. “Their problems were totally different,” he said, calling the experience “very interesting.” He pointed out that the training he and other interim rabbis receive through the Interim Ministry Network — which is mostly Protestant — presents a model for service that differs somewhat from what rabbis experience. “Most of their interims serve from 18 months to two years,” he said. “Shuls don’t want an interim that long.”

Last year, Rabbi Rossoff was called upon to tutor b’nai mitzvah students, something that pleased him greatly. “I loved that,” he said. “I hadn’t really done that for a long time.” He also had a Saturday morning Torah study minyan for senior citizens. “Those were the two activities I loved the most,” he said. Noting that Barnert has “an amazing preschool,” he said he looks forward to working with the children.

Rabbi Rossoff was born in Red Bank, but he and his family moved to St. Paul, Minn., when he was 2, “so I’m really a Midwesterner,” he said. Now he lives in Towaco — “an unincorporated part of Montville” — with his wife, Fran, and has four children, ranging in age from 26 to 31. Listing their order as “boy, girl, girl, boy,” he said that “each child is different. The youngest is with us right now. Later he will fly to Israel to teach English there for a year.”

Rabbi Rossoff loves the life he has chosen. “The challenges are always different, and each place we go, we make new friends, which adds to our lives,” he said. Because his wife works for a national insurance company and therefore can do her job online, she joins him at his interim congregations.

He pointed out that Rabbi Steven Wylen [another interim rabbi, introduced below] graduated the same year as he and Rabbi Frishman, and that “a few people from my class have done this.

“Some of my friends have been at it for many years, finding it their specialized calling.”

06-2-L-stephen-wylen-0825Rabbi Steven Wylen

Temple Beth Rishon, Wyckoff

Rabbi Steven Wylen is no stranger to the Jewish community of northern New Jersey — he was the religious leader of Wayne’s Temple Beth Tikvah for 20 years. But for the last several years he has worked as an interim rabbi, temporarily heading communities in Glastonbury, Connecticut, and Jackson, Mississippi.

(Incidentally, while those synagogues no doubt labeled him as “clergy,” it’s a word he dislikes. “I refuse to be demoted to clergy,” he said, defining the term as “people who dispense rituals of the church. It’s not appropriate for a rabbi,” he added. Rabbis, he said, are “scholars of Torah.”)

This year, as interim rabbi of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, Rabbi Wylen has come home. He’s quite happy about that — not least because he literally gets to come home to his wife Cheryl. Last year, they’d had to live separately; Cheryl Wylen stayed up north to help with their grandchildren while her husband worked in Mississippi. So this year is much easier for them. “We’ve been married for 36 years and we’re pretty tight,” he said.

The couple has four grown children — son Jeremy and daughters Elisheva, Shoshana, and Golda — and eight grandchildren.

Rabbi Wylen is from Philadelphia; he met Cheryl in Seattle, where he went after he graduated from HUC in 1980. His first job was as assistant rabbi at Temple DeHirsch Sinai in Seattle. “Cheryl was a Seattle native,” he said. “We’re a bicoastal family. The two older children were born out west, the two younger ones in the east.”

His years as an interim rabbi have been instructive. Living in Mississippi, despite its cultural differences, showed him that in some ways “people are just people.” If the racism there is a bit more overt, those who denounce racism up North deny the reality that “it’s even more built in here,” he said. “It’s easy to look down on racists when your town is all white.”

The Jewish community in Jackson is divided on the issue, he said. “When I went down there, they told me their history with great pride.” Rabbi Perry Nussbaum, who headed Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson for 19 years, was an outspoken critic of racism and segregation and a strong civil rights activist. So active, in fact, that the Klan blew up the synagogue in 1967 and then blew up his house. He survived both incidents. “He was lucky,” Rabbi Wylen said.

“Since the congregation was boasting, I thought we were all on the same team,” he continued. Accordingly, he devoted his first Rosh Hashanah sermon to the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which, he said, had been significantly narrowed by the Republicans in Congress. But “I almost got fired before Yom Kippur.” After a discussion with the synagogue president, “we agreed to disagree,” Rabbi Wylen said.

Still, life in Jackson was good. “Folks from the Deep South are very hospitable,” he said. “I loved that part of it. When you go through a supermarket line, you don’t just check out. First you chat about the weather. Yankees are in such a hurry.”

“I took to Mississippi like a catfish to a muddy pond,” he added. He might have considered becoming their permanent rabbi, but “interim rabbis can’t do that. It’s part of the code.” Besides, with his wife up north and with babysitting responsibilities for one of his grandchildren, it wouldn’t have worked. As it was, he commuted back and forth.

Now, back in New Jersey, “I try to be an all-around rabbi,” he said. And what makes a rabbi, he added, is daily Torah study. “You take the wisdom acquired through Torah and apply it to life.” But while a rabbi may serve as a model of Jewish living, “I have learned in raising four children that you can’t tell anybody anything.” Congregants, he said, “will decide for themselves” what lessons to draw from his example. In the meantime, he’s gratified to be in a position “where I can make a difference in the world.

“I had a congregant being installed as president of a county medical society,” he said. “I was asked to do the invocation. I mentioned that when I told my mother I was going to rabbinical school, she said, ‘You could have been a doctor.’ After my talk, I was surrounded by doctors who said, ‘We have plenty of doctors. It’s a good thing you became a rabbi.’”

One of his favorite jobs is working with children. “I love my involvement in religious school, working with children of every age, preschoolers through high-schoolers,” he said. He takes pride in being a good teacher and is most gratified by the fact that during his last year in Wayne, he had 19 post-confirmation students.

Rabbi Wylen said his two goals as interim rabbi in Wyckoff “go hand in hand. I hope to maintain the continuity of congregational life — make sure it functions as it should… [but also] pave the way for a successful future. I want to establish a setting in which the new rabbi is set up for success.” How that is accomplished depends on the congregation, “on the place, time, and people you’re dealing with.”

Beth Rishon is a thriving congregation, Rabbi Wylen said. And it’s unaffiliated. The members can be described as “liberal Jews,” but some are closer to the Reform movement, others to the Conservative. “They have found what works well for the membership,” he said. “We’ll build on that.”

The congregation “doesn’t need fixing,” he added. But it will be hard for a rabbi to follow Rabbi Kenneth Emert, who recently retired after 22 years at the shul. Congregants have deep emotional feelings for a rabbi, “even if they’re reluctant to admit it,” he said. “They’re not ready to accept a new rabbi.” As an interim rabbi, “I can smooth the transition.

“I’ve come to see how valuable this is,” he said. “Any congregation in transition that doesn’t use an interim rabbi is missing an opportunity for a year of growth, development, and evolution. It’s not treading water. You’re cherishing the inheritance from the past and setting the paving stones for growth into the future.”

Viewing synagogue members as a community of stakeholders with slightly differently stakes, with people inevitably wanting to influence things in their direction, his job, he said, is “to take all the input and really listen, making sure it’s not pulled too much in this or that direction.”

Rabbi Wylen said he was “a passionate bike rider for 25 years.” An accident last year, however, involving several broken ribs, ended his bike-riding career. “Now I take morning walks, bake bread, and play golf,” he said, adding that “golf is a better sport as one begins to age.”

06-3-L-Lois-Ruderman-2Rabbi Lois Ruderman

Temple Beth Rishon, Wyckoff

Rabbi Lois Ruderman is starting her fourth year at Temple Beth Rishon. A rabbinic intern there for three years, she was formally ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion in April and now joins Rabbi Wylen there as assistant rabbi.

She speaks glowingly of the recently retired Rabbi Emert. “It was fantastic working with him,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better internship experience.” While one of her internship years was as the visiting student rabbi of a synagogue along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, she is particularly happy to be in Wyckoff, “because I always wanted a large congregational internship, and job. This is an excellent place to be.” The synagogue has nearly 450 families as members.

Those members, she said, are of all ages, “and I work with the entire range.” In addition to her duties with the preschool program, she assists Rabbi Wylen on Shabbat, visits congregants at camp, and conducts special programs in the religious school.

“I like to bring the joy of creative experience” to the membership, she said, noting her artistic bent. Working with sixth graders, “I made the entire class experiential. Every student made a tallit and at least one or two mezzuzot. Incorporated into those projects are real Judaica lessons. What is the meaning of the tallit? How do we tie the knots? The students picked various designs and we discussed what they meant.” Not only did each sixth grader have a tallit he or she could wear, but they had learned a lot about the items they made, Rabbi Ruderman said.

Rabbi Ruderman also conducts workshops for the religious school as well as parent-child workshops. “Within that time period, they get a lot of creative modality work, like writing rap songs or drawing,” she said. She also works with b’nai mitzvah students and their families.

For the slightly older crowd, Rabbi Ruderman teaches a Torah study class, called “Nosh and Drash,” on Saturday mornings, an hour before services. “It’s very participatory,” she said. “Each Saturday, I pick out an interesting idea, provide a source sheet, and we discuss how it relates to our lives. Some people come to the class with great knowledge, some with minimal knowledge. All are welcome, and everyone gets a chance to participate.”

This year she hopes to add in more interaction with the religious school and preschool and “ramp up” programming for high school youth. “My first two years I ran several classes for older high school kids, with a focus on mental health,” she said, noting that her thesis, “A congregational response to teen and young adult mental health issues,” dealt with such topics as substance abuse and suicide. At the shul, she has run sessions featuring experts on relevant topics. For example, “You’re looking forward to college — what choices will you need to make?”

Rabbi Ruderman grew up in West Orange and raised her three daughters — now all young professionals — in Warren Township. “But it was time to move closer to North Jersey,” she said. Now she lives in the Montclair area.

According to Rabbi Ruderman, the rabbinate is her third career. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and her master’s of science in speech pathology and audiology from Adelphi University. Then she had her first career, as a speech therapist in the Edison Township school system. Her second career was raising her daughters.

“I wanted to be a rabbi since I was 8 years old,” she said. Both her great grandfather and great uncle were rabbis. But she didn’t know that women could be rabbis. “This was pre-internet and we were all very uninformed,” she said, adding that this was true despite her being entrenched in the Conservative movement — “synagogue, camp, and USY.”

So she became a speech therapist and then a full-time mom. “But you can’t play tennis four times a week,” she said. Once she learned that she could indeed become a rabbi, and that the academy accepted older students embarking on a new career, she never looked back.

While she would like to run a congregation someday, “I’m happy being an assistant rabbi,” she said. “I would rather be in a large congregation, to deal with the full range of ages and do creative programming.” She enjoyed her experience in Virginia, working with an 80-family congregation six times a year, but that kind of setting is not her ideal. “It was a phenomenal experience,” she said. “We moved forward, but I couldn’t do creative projects without a critical mass.”

Beth Rishon, “unaffiliated, liberal, and independent, is a nice blend of people with different backgrounds,” Rabbi Ruderman said. She noted that the survey taken when the congregation was beginning its rabbinic transition showed that “it was almost 50-50 in terms of how people regarded themselves — some as Reform, some as Conservative. We do our own mix and it works for all of us.”

Her goal this year is to “continue serving in all the ways that I do,” including helping b’nai mitzvah students with their speeches, “but with a greater focus on the teen population, bringing them some awareness of options and issues.

“I want them to know there are options in life. They don’t have to go to the ‘best’ college. They need to make a good decision for themselves, one that will be emotionally helpful.”

She pointed out that last year, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey ran a program for teens on how to respond to Israel-related matters on campus. “We sent a few teens,” she said. “If I know it’s coming up, I will urge all teens to go. Knowing how to respond will keep them emotionally secure and safe.”

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