United Synagogue at centennial crossroads

United Synagogue at centennial crossroads

United Synagogue's new education chief enjoying Bergen County's Jewish riches

Rabbi Jim Rogozen doesn’t need stories from Rabbi Solomon Schechter to teach him about tradition, change, the 20th century moment when Conservative Judaism emerged, and the importance of the vital center.

He has the stories of his two grandfathers – both natives of Vilna, both ordained as rabbis at the Orthodox yeshiva in Volozhin 75 miles away, and both immigrants who moved to Cleveland in 1904, living a few blocks from each other.

“My father’s father was very very strict, in all ways,” Rogozen said. “And hardly any of the people on that side of the family grew up with their children being observant.

“My mother’s father was more open. When they removed the mechitza from Park Synagogue” – founded as an Orthodox synagogue, rebranded in 1922 as the Cleveland Jewish Center and affiliating with United Synagogue – “he was one of the biggest supporters of the change. He was more open to ideas. He communicated that.

“When you look on my mother’s side of the family, you have rabbis and cantors and more people keeping kosher.”

For college, Rogozen studied in the joint program at UCLA and the University of Judaism.

“I figured Jewish education was the route for me,” he said. “I went to rabbinical school because I wanted to learn. I studied Jewish education all along.”

He decided that “the best way to create passionate Jews was through day school education,” and he ended up back in Cleveland, where he headed the Solomon Schechter school for 25 years.

His wife, Marci, taught at the school; she now teaches at the Schechter school in West Orange. They have two adult daughters.

Rogozen said another key influence in his life was the Boy Scouts.

“I went all the way to become an Eagle Scout,” he said. “There’s a lot that I learned there that I would like to bring in appropriate ways to what we do in Judaism. There’s a lot of leadership training in the Jewish youth world that I think can be strengthened.”

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter said, “I had the privilege of doing the High Holy Days with him more than 20 years ago. He’s a serious, respected, learned, good person. He’s the Tiffany standard for Jewish educators.

“He will make all the ships rise.”

Rogozen likes the Jewish intensity and richness of Bergen County – “I love the shul we go to, Beth Sholom” – and the plethora of kosher restaurants, which he said threaten both his budget and his waistline.

He’s still getting used to the pace of life here.

“It’s a different speed – driving around Route 4 and going shopping with people who are running down the aisles. It’s going from a 33 record to a 45,” he said.

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