Rabbi Joshua Waxman, who has led Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff since July 1, said attending Hillel during his college years took him to the next level in his Jewish journey.
“I grew up in the Reform movement, and had a wonderful synagogue experience,” he said. Still, Rabbi Waxman, who grew up in New York City, said that he hadn’t been exposed to a wide variety of different kinds of Jews until he joined Hillel.
“Seeing all kinds of communities was incredibly exciting to me. I encountered a new aspect of Jewish learning and Jewish text that I hadn’t been exposed to growing up.”
He wanted to share what he was learning — and what better way was there for him to do that than to become a rabbi? He chose the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, for his training, and was ordained there in 2003. He had heard about the Reconstructionist movement through his wife, Aimee Kahan, who had worked at Hillel.
“I was struck by it, by communities centered around values,” Rabbi Waxman said. Again, he was encountering and learning from people of different backgrounds. “I loved this place” — the RRC — “and this program,” he added.
Nevertheless, his path to the rabbinate was not a direct one. Before he enrolled in RRC, Rabbi Waxman, who is in his late 40s, studied Russian history and literature at Harvard University, worked with progressive Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, and lived and studied in Israel.
After ordination, for 15 years he was the rabbi of Congregation Or Hadash in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, where he was named rabbi emeritus. He has also served on the faculty of RRC in the department of biblical civilizations and is a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. He also was a Wexner Graduate Fellow and is an alumnus of the Clergy Leadership Incubator fellowship.
And yet, even while living for so long so far from his native New York, “my three kids grew up as Yankees fans,” he said. Still, he has only fond memories of his Pennsylvania pulpit and “the lovely, wonderful people there. It was not an easy decision to leave, but I was ready to explore other opportunities.”
As someone who is “not a big fan of labels, I appreciate Beth Rishon, which is an unaffiliated congregation,” Rabbi Waxman said. Labels, he explained, “tend to divide us, put us in boxes. It’s one of the gravest issues we face as a society today.”
Rabbi Waxman described the Wyckoff congregation as “a warm, genuine congregation that wants to build a vibrant Jewish life and to forge their own path in doing it. The key values at the heart of it are inclusion, building a participatory community, egalitarianism, and intellectual integrity.
“I’m a believer in reaching across divisions,” he continued, noting that he’d been president of the Board of Rabbis in Philadelphia. “It’s more critical than ever, with the resurgence of anti-Semitism, to make sure we’re forging relationships” and not waiting for a tragedy to happen to unite the community.
Rabbi Waxman said that he brings with him a deep excitement for Judaism and Jewish life. He doesn’t have a preconceived “one size fits all” idea of what that should look like. He pointed out that some people can connect deeply through religious services while others cannot. “Maybe it’s through adult education, or through building social connections with other Jewish families,” he said.
He will tell the congregation, “Here are the gifts Judaism has to offer.”
His goal, he said, is to “find ways to offer what people need, while moving them to a place of deeper commitment. I will listen and pay attention, approach them with a genuine sense of openness and curiosity.”
He is excited about his new clergy partner, Cantor Olivia Brodsky (see below). “We’re both brand new,” he said. Especially after the upheaval caused by the pandemic, the two are exploring “what we can build from the ground up,” making synagogue programs and events as vibrant as possible.
“It doesn’t have to be done the same way it was done before,” Rabbi Waxman said. He noted the positive aspects of Zoom, which can be used to connect with people at a distance. “It’s vital to hold onto that,” he said. “We have to be able to hold onto anything positive from that horrible experience.”
The synagogue will continue to Zoom Shabbat and holiday services and will expand virtual Saturday morning Torah study. “People can join remotely, fully, and equally,” he said.
Rabbi Waxman believes he’s a good fit for his new congregation, valuing the things his congregants care about. “There’s a genuine connection to Judaism and an appreciation for Jewish tradition, while being innovative and creative, finding different ways to reach out to people in their Jewish lives. Our values are all lined up.”
Rabbi Waxman and Ms. Kahan live in Fair Lawn with their 20-year-old son, Tzvi, their 17-year-old daughter, Yael, and their 14-year-old son, Adir. In his non-rabbi-ing time (though he says there’s rarely a time he’s not rabbi-ing), he enjoys word games and he makes his own hot sauce. “I couldn’t find a decent Pesach hot sauce,” he said, explaining why he needed to make his own. “It took off from there.”
Cantor Olivia Brodsky is no stranger to singing before a large audience. She grew up in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and she had the good fortune to study with Cantor Meir Finkelstein. He’s also a composer, and she performed his original cantata, “Gates of Righteousness,” with him — and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
She graduated from a double-degree program at Tufts University and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston — she earned her B.A. in Judaic studies at Tufts and studied classical vocal performance at NEC — and was one of the few members selected from the university’s gospel choir to perform at the December 2014 “Holidays at the White House” for Michelle and President Barack Obama.
After she graduated from college, she spent five years at cantorial school, earning a master’s degree in sacred music and ordination from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan. During her time at HUC, she was a student cantor at Temple Emanuel in Roanoke, Virginia; Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head, South Carolina; and the Jewish Community Project and Congregation Rodeph Sholom, both in Manhattan.
And yet, Cantor Brodsky said, “This was not the route I wanted to go down.”
While she knew she wanted to have a profession that somehow involved singing, when she was a kid growing up in a Conservative synagogue, “I felt that [religion] was being imposed on me. Some things didn’t sit well. I found it too dogmatic.” Indeed, she recounted a story from Hebrew school, where she was given detention for questioning an apparent contradiction in the Torah; she wanted to know why Genesis first says that Eve is created from dust, and then that she’s made from Adam’s rib.
Things changed after her bat mitzvah. “After I started singing in shul, I got interested in synagogue involvement; and when I went to Israel, it was like an epiphany,” she said. “All those places I had been studying about, which seemed mythical,” were real. “It really came alive.”
It was the combination of hearing beautiful music in the synagogue and developing a newfound appreciation for Jewish history and heritage that culminated in Cantor Brodsky’s decision to redefine Judaism for herself “and make it personally meaningful.”
Her new position allows her the latitude she had lacked as a student cantor, “where I was an employee but also learning. Now I’m not ‘underneath’ the cantor.” And her new congregants “couldn’t be warmer or more friendly. They go out of their way to introduce themselves, and offer to host me when it’s safe. They’ve taken a real interest in helping me during the transition.
“I’m really drawn [to this congregation] because it’s unaffiliated,” she said. “It seems perfect,” allowing the synagogue members to “pick and choose the best aspect from every movement, cultivating their own sense of Judaism to find what’s meaningful to them without requiring a label. It fosters the idea that Jews are Jews and are supposed to be connecting on various levels.”
She thinks that being young — she’s in her late 20s — is an advantage. “It inevitably helps kids to relate better,” she said. That, plus her enthusiasm, are particularly valuable in her role as a bar/bat mitzvah tutor. “I’ve got a unique way of connecting,” she said; she tries to apply the lessons she learned in her own youth, “what worked well with me. I try to make it the most compelling experience possible, so they want to be involved. I try to make every experience a positive one.”
Cantor Brodsky has moved to Edgewater, taking full advantage of its Hudson River views. “I always gravitate toward water views,” she said. “It’s so tranquil.” Her other passions include watching documentaries (“so I know a little bit about everything”) and putting together 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, which she credits with getting her through the pandemic.
She plans to work to increase membership at Beth Rishon, even at this difficult time. Even if people just come and develop a new appreciation for services, she will be pleased. She wants those services to be “fun, musical, beautiful, and introspective,” all at the same time, and is hoping that this will help members learn new things both about their own needs and about Judaism.