The man who ‘makes Jews’

The man who ‘makes Jews’

Rabbi Stephen Lerner looks back

It was not until he found himself in a doctoral program in Iowa that Stephen Lerner realized that what he really wanted to be was a rabbi, not a historian. He was interested, he said, in making Jews.

He had no idea at the time, however, how appropriate a phrase “making Jews” would be in his case. Lerner, who is about to close the shul he led for 30 years, has converted close to 1,500 people in his career. More about that later.

A “committed Conservative Jew,” as he put it, Lerner fought for religious egalitarianism and provided draft counseling at a time when both of those were unpopular issues.

Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner now.

His story began in the Bronx.

Lerner grew up one block off the Grand Concourse, in a neighborhood near Claremont Park that did not have a name because, as he pointed out, Bronx neighborhoods then tended not to be named. “It wasn’t Brooklyn,” he said.

“The neighborhood was totally Jewish, but the Bronx wasn’t strong on Jewish institutions or large numbers of organized Jews,” he said. Instead, it saw the good life as a mainstream one. “Once you got bar mitzvahed, you were acculturated into American life.”

Lerner, 72, was born in 1940. He remembers little of World War II, but some words have lingered: “Whistle while you work/Hitler is a jerk/Mussolini is a meanie/And the Japs are worse.” His parents, like his friends’ parents, were too old to be drafted, and his parents had lost touch with any relatives left in Europe. At first, the Shoah was something about which he and his friends were only vaguely aware.

The outside world, too, was fuzzy.

“My public school had maybe five percent non-Jews – their parents were store owners. We never met a white Protestant. There were black Protestants, a few Catholics, some Greek Orthodox.

“A girl moved in in the second grade. I wouldn’t talk to her because she was Greek (and, of course, also because she was a girl). I learned years later that she was a Greek Jew. There was a synagogue for Balkan Jews a few blocks away.”

Lerner’s Jewish background was typical for the time and place. “My dad was a real shul Jew – he wasn’t wealthy and had never finished college, but he was a real leader of the East Concourse Hebrew Center. We had a kosher home, but I don’t remember ever making kiddush, even though my mother did light candles.” One set of grandparents was chasidic and the other Orthodox, but Lerner did not learn Yiddish.

During the summers, he and his family would go to Rockaway, “where it was just the Bronx, continuing,” he said. “We went down in the morning and played softball, and then basketball, then went to the beach, then walked the boardwalk. There was no organization. There was punchball, stickball, this ball, that ball.”

All in all, he summed up, “not a bad growing-up.”

Like many of his friends, Lerner went to Bronx Science for high school, and then “60 or 70 or maybe 80 people from my class went to Columbia or Barnard,” which was then, according to Lerner, at least 40 percent Jewish. He and his friends were younger than the cohort of intellectual Jews who had gone to CUNY or other city colleges, but it was long enough ago that college still was within working-class reach. “In the 1950s and ’60s, you could work in the Catskills over the summer and afford a college education,” he said.

At Columbia, Lerner worked on its newspaper, the Spectator, eventually joining its managing board. It was a solid education; almost no one on the paper with him went into journalism, but each took its lessons with him.

It was at college that Lerner realized how important Jewishness was to him. He had kept it in mind all along; he had taken Hebrew as his language in Bronx Science. (Note, please, that he had the option of taking Hebrew as his language in the late 1950s in Bronx Science.) “When I went to college, I stopped keeping kosher,” he reported. “But I would only eat pig in a Chinese restaurant, because it was exotica, not pig. And I would only eat corned beef in a kosher deli because it should always be available for people more observant than I.”

During that time, Lerner took an adult ed course at the Jewish Theological Seminary, just up Broadway from Columbia, and then he took various other courses with Jewish themes. He became interested in ancient history, only to realize that his real interest was not ancient history in general, but specifically Jewish history. He won a grant for a Ph.D. program in Iowa “to work with a top guy in papyri. And finally I realized that I didn’t give a damn about the Roman imperial army.” It was the Jews facing that army he cared about.

Iowa was a new experience for this Bronx-bred prototypical New York Jew. “I suddenly thought, when I got off the bus – where are the Jews? And then I realized that even though I knew nothing, I knew more than anyone else.” So he taught Hebrew school. Iowa did have a Hillel, and its director, a Conservative rabbi, made both it and the little local Conservative shul work. Lerner learned that he, too, wanted to work with people, and that it had to revolve around the Jewishness at his core. “That’s how I started to think about rabbinical school,” he said.

Iowa had its share of visiting Jews; during Lerner’s year, they included the budding novelist Philip Roth. Abraham Joshua Heschel also came to campus three days a week for a month, and Lerner spent time with him. A week or so after Heschel’s last visit, Lerner went to New York for his JTS interview, “and who chaired the admission committee but Heschel?” As Lerner waited for his interview, growing increasingly worried, the man ahead of him came out, stricken. Lerner felt his chance at admission, which he had not rated too highly in the first place, drop. “I didn’t even keep kosher then! And Heschel knew it! And there was Heschel, and he’s holding the longest cigar I’ve ever seen. I wondered how he could hold it up. And then someone asked me what my favorite mitzvah was, and Heschel said, ‘Mr. Lerner and I had a long talk about it in Iowa.’ Whenever anyone asked me anything, Heschel would say, ‘Mr. Lerner and I had a long talk about it in in Iowa.'”

Not surprisingly, Lerner got in. “It wasn’t necessarily a wise decision,” he said, 40 years later. “I might have made me wait a year first.” Nonetheless “I lived in the dorm, and it made me a pretty observant Jew.”

His choice of JTS instead of either Orthodox or Reform training was not casual, or even influenced by Heschel’s decision. He believes deeply in the movement. “I liked the tradition, so Reform was not for me. But I came from studying history, so I had no thought that the Torah was divine.”

After JTS, Lerner spent two years in a synagogue in Riverhead, where Long Island’s north and south forks diverge. “It was a dull, dull place,” he said. “I got them to rejoin United Synagogue, and I made the Hebrew school three days a week. I did a number of things, but vey iz mir [loosely translated, “woe to me]! I was happy to leave.

“My experience in Riverhead is why I can’t imagine ever going to the Hamptons.”

Next, Lerner became rabbi at Town and Village, a Conservative synagogue on East 14th Street in Manhattan. It was the very early 1970s. “I introduced women’s rights there,” Lerner said. “It was as early as you could do it.”

Some context – in 1972, a group of committed, well-educated, mainly Conservative women presented a manifesto to the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, which was meeting at its annual convention. That group was called Ezrat Nashim, and it demanded that women be counted in a minyan. Steve Lerner was among its early supporters. He already had been confronting anger on the issue. “A woman once yelled at me, ‘When are you going to count us?’ when I wouldn’t allow them to say kaddish at a cemetery. I found out later that some of my colleagues would have allowed it because they assumed that somewhere in the cemetery there must have been a man who could have made up the minyan.

“It made sense to me to do it.

“Most people in a synagogue like mine – traditional, no organ, a full Torah reading – wouldn’t have done it for some time. But I’d been troubled for some time about the idea of not letting a person say kaddish. And then I realized that in the early ’50s there had been a 15-to-1 decision that a woman could be called up for an aliyah. It hadn’t really connected with anyone yet.” That decision was made by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, RA’s mechanism for rendering halachic decisions. “And then within six months, there was a decision that you could count women in the minyan. Basically, I overrode the congregation and the board, and we had an egalitarian service.”

As proud as he is of that decision, he is even prouder of the shul’s choice to set up a draft information center. The war in Vietnam was raging, and “we helped people get out of the draft. We won a national award from United Synagogue for social action for it. And I rewrote the prayer for the country’s president, with some barbs in it. Fortunately, it was a very liberal shul.”

After Town and Village, and a fairly brief stint at the Jewish Community Center of West Hempstead, Lerner moved to Teaneck. By this time, he had married Dr. Anne Lapidus Lerner, a noted scholar, and they had two children – David, who is now a rabbi in Lexington, Mass., and Rahel, who teaches at a Schechter school in Baltimore. Both the Lerner children are married, and Stephen and Anne have four grandchildren.

During this time, Lerner put his experience at the Spectator to use; he edited Conservative Judaism, the movement’s academic journal.

The shul that Lerner has guided as a part-time rabbi is 90 years old; incorporated as the Ridgefield Park Hebrew Association and located there for most of its existence, it was the first Conservative congregation in Bergen County. When it was built, Jewish shopkeepers lived in Ridgefield Park, and there were no Jews in Teaneck. When Lerner took over as rabbi, at first it flourished, under the name of Temple Emanuel of Ridgefield Park. As demographics changed, though, the shul withered. The congregation sold the building, hoping to relocate to where most of them lived, in Teaneck, but their timing was off. Eventually, the congregation, now called Kanfei Shahar – the Wings of Dawn – began meeting at the Lerners’ Teaneck home, and renting hotel space when larger quarters were needed.

Sadly, this High Holy Days season most likely will be the last for Bergen County’s first Conservative synagogue. Money has run out.

Lerner, however, is not about to retire. The project about which he cares most is still going strong.

When he began to work at Ridgefield Park, Rabbi David Kogen, a JTS administrator, asked Lerner if he wanted to work with potential converts. He did. It turned out that he loved the work, “because you are making Jews. And also the Jewish partner becomes more committed. When I entered the rabbinate, it was to make more Jews, although I didn’t realize then that it would be from scratch.”

The Jewish partner is Israeli in many of the interfaith couples with which he works. “Remember, in Israel no committed Jew is going to say ‘don’t go out with a non-Jew’ because there aren’t any.

“Really,” he continued, “there should be a course in how to be a yored” – a person who “descends” from Israel, as opposed to making aliyah, meaning going up to Israel.

“Israelis often ask why they have to study.” Soon, though, they become caught up in it. “You can see that change. It’s a very rewarding thing for me. It’s why I became a rabbi.”

Lerner welcomes people to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Kanfei Shahar. To learn more, call him at 201-837-7552.

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