Up from the South
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Up from the South

At 90, Fair Lawn's Rabbi Simon Glustrom looks back at 41 years at the shul

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The Fair Lawn Jewish Center broke ground for its new building in 1949.

On March 8, Simon Glustrom, rabbi emeritus of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, celebrated his 90th birthday by reading the haftarah.

He stood at the bimah of the Manhattan shul to which one of his daughters belonged; slim, straight-backed, and strong-voiced, he chanted the verses that accompany parashat Va-Yikra.

He read slowly, savoring the words as they came out of his mouth, as if he were deliberating on their meaning even as he chanted them. It was as if, after all those years on the bimah, he could still come fresh to each rereading of every well-known text. There was no melodrama, and no milking; it was almost conversational.

“Fear not, My servant Jacob, Jeshurun whom I have chosen,” he read, from Isaiah 44. “Even as I pour water on thirsty soil, and rain upon dry ground, so I will pour My spirit on your offspring, My blessing upon your posterity. And they shall sprout like grass.”

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Rabbi Simon Glustrom introduced egalitarianism at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.

It felt, to those of us lucky enough to be in the room, as if he were not only relaying but also conferring the blessing. It was an extraordinary moment.

So who is Rabbi Glustrom, and how did he end up on that bimah at 90?

Simon Glustrom’s father, Solomon, was born in Odessa; his first stop out of Eastern Europe was in Brazil – “He never really told me very much about it, but I think he was picking cotton there,” Rabbi Glustrom said – and from there he moved to Birmingham, Ala. That town was not a hotbed of excitement, and he was single and did not want to be, so he moved to the nearest big city, Atlanta.

There he met Ida Okun, who was born somewhere around Minsk, in White Russia, and was living with relatives, who had sponsored her. “The story is that my parents were sitting in a park, and my father proposed to her,” Rabbi Glustrom said. “She was looking at one of the horses, and it was neighing, and moving its head up and down. She took that as a sign, and said yes.

“She was not too sophisticated,” he said. “But she was bright and insightful. She had” – wait for it – “horse sense.”

It was a hard life for Jews in Atlanta. Solomon Glustrom began as a peddler, going from house to house selling clothing; eventually he owned a dry goods store, but he never was very successful financially. And Atlanta was not an easy place to be Jewish. Leo Frank had been lynched there – ostensibly for murder, although he was not guilty, but really just for being Jewish – only nine years before Simon’s birth. The community lived with the fear that the hatred that killed the young Jewish businessman could get them too.

Jim Crow ruled throughout the South then, and Rabbi Glustrom remembers that even when he was a child, he knew that it was wrong, but he knew as well that he was powerless against it. “It made me very uneasy. It bothered me terribly,” he said.

“I saw people pushed off the streetcar because they had the temerity to sit in the middle, in empty seats, instead of standing in the back.

“I remember a motorman actually pushing a woman off into the street.

“And black people lived in abject poverty, and I saw it.

“When I hear the word schvartze – and I still hear it – I glow with anger.”

Simon was the youngest of four children – “I was the mascot,” he said. “I was cute. But no one took me seriously. That’s how I learned to be argumentative – to get them to listen to me.” The family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue, and the children went to public school.

The shul, Shearith Israel, was home to “immigrants, hard-working people, who had little in the way of resources,” Rabbi Glustrom said. Its rabbi was Tobias Geffen, who was a link in a long line of rabbis. (Perhaps the most well-known member of that family is one of the few men in it who did not get smicha – Rabbi Tobias Geffen’s grandson is Peter Geffen, a well-known force in Jewish education, winner of the Covenant award and founder of the gap-year program called Kivunim.) Tobias Geffen and one of his sons, Sam, were huge influences on young Simon.

Most of Rabbi Glustrom’s mother’s family had emigrated to Palestine, and one of his uncles, Moshe Chaim Okun, was “a very formidable person,” he said. Mr. Okun made a fortune in butter and cheese products. He and his wife had no children, and he took a special interest in his young nephew. “He came to Atlanta twice,” Rabbi Glustrom continued. “He was very traditional in some ways, and modern in others. We went to the public pool in Grant Park, and he had a bathing suit on, with one strap, and he had a beard. He looked like Tarzan. All the WASP kids looked at him, and you could see them wondering who this man is, this man who is jumping into the water with us.”

Rabbi Glustrom graduated from high school when he was 16, and Rabbi Geffen arranged to get him a scholarship to Yeshiva College, the undergraduate division of Yeshiva University.

New York was a huge shock to him. “Who knew about New York winters?” the one-time Atlanta boy asked rhetorically. “I wasn’t dressed properly. I had nothing. No winter coat. It was during the Depression – my father would send me whatever he could,” but it wasn’t much. And his scholarship included tuition and a room, but not food. He learned both to skimp and to ask for help.

YU was not a perfect fit. The school is modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, and there had been a history of young men starting there and then moving over to its archrival, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the headquarters of the Conservative movement. The Orthodox and Conservative worlds were not as far apart then as they are now, and the divisions between them were not particularly sharp, so many young men drifted back and forth between them freely.

“Dr. Bernard Revel,” YU’s president, “was very nice to me,” Rabbi Glustrom said. “He called me in to talk, because his son Herschel had lived in Atlanta, and he had heard of me. But word got around that I was somewhat of a rebel.” He had been seen out in public without wearing a kippah, he reported, and at a local Horn and Hardart restaurant, which was not kosher; to guarantee he was not breaking too many rules, he said, someone went through his medicine cabinet “to make sure I was not using a razor.” (It was acceptable to trim a beard with an electric shaver, but not with a single blade.)

At one point, a high-level administrator confronted him. “He said, ‘I understand you might be interested in the seminary,'” Rabbi Glustrom recalled. “I hardly knew what the seminary was. The next week, I went to visit it.”

It was love at first sight. “It was custom-made for me,” he said.

How did he know? “It was a choosh,” he said. “An instinct.”

Among other sights, the seminary’s library held “all sorts of people, men with beards, Lubavitchers, girls who were studying at the Teachers’ Institute. And the atmosphere was so very relaxed. And it was the same thing in the dining room. Just so pleasant.”

Newly inspired, he worked very hard at his studies, graduated from Yeshiva College and from YU’s Teachers’ Institute at the same time, when he was 20, and then entered rabbinical school at JTS.

“I became more religious-minded when I came to the seminary, because I did not have to live surreptitiously,” he said. “I lived the kind of life I wanted to live, and I became more traditional than I was at Yeshiva, when I was the rebel. I did not have to be closeted at the seminary. Nobody watched me. I could be what I was by nature.

“I was so very happy,” he said. “Probably the happiest I ever was. I knew that this is where I belonged.”

Rabbi Glustrom was ordained in 1948. Three days later, he married the former Helen Stein.

They’d met romantically. “A fellow student said, ‘Simon, I have a beautiful cousin coming in from Toronto. Would you take her out Saturday night?’ I said ‘I can’t. I have a date with someone else.’ He said ‘Put it off.’

“I did. We met under the clock at the Astor Hotel.” Again, it was love at first sight.

(Today, Helen and Simon Glustrom, still very clearly in love, are the glowingly proud parents of three children, Jan, Beth, and Aliza, and the devoted grandparents of six grandchildren, Jonathan and Daniel Yaffe, Jonah and Zoe Belkin, and Lydia and Eli Dubois.)

Rabbi Glustrom’s first pulpit was in Durham, North Carolina.

There were far more open pulpits than rabbis then, he said, so he, like his classmates, had his pick. He chose Durham, a small congregation, as a good place to learn. “It was eye-opening,” he said. At 24, “I had never officiated at a funeral. Never. Our class in practical rabbinics was very poorly organized. And I was still very unworldly. I learned a lot there.”

As with every place, this one too had its complications. The Jewish community was mainly made up of merchants and their families, and the town was home to Duke University. “It was a town/gown situation,” he said. Rabbi Glustrom, as an intellectual, felt more at home with the gown side.

Beyond that, though, was his loyalty to the Conservative movement. He demanded that the synagogue affiliate with United Synagogue and label itself as Conservative. He met with some resistance. “They wanted everything to be old-timey,” he said. “To some people, religion is timeless, and that means that nothing can change.”

Eventually, he won that fight, even though one of his favorite congregants, a man with whom he would study, said “I’d rather join a Catholic church,” and then left in high dudgeon. “He also had a pawn shop, and he’d go to work on Shabbat mornings, after shul,” Rabbi Glustrom said. Life is complicated.

Although he and Helen were happy in Durham, soon they heard about a new shul, about to open in a new New Jersey suburb, and they were intrigued by the possibilities it offered.

In 1950, Rabbi Glustrom became the first rabbi of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, a place where many of the ideological and sociological shifts that marked Jewish life in the second half of the 20th century played out.

If the Glustroms had encountered the classic town/gown dilemma in Durham, here they ran into the new tension of suburban Jewish life, the shul/pool divide.

Like many of the suburbs that ring big cities, Fair Lawn, which had been farmland until then – including some owned by Jews; the family that had owned Farmland Dairies, which was local, was Jewish, Rabbi Glustrom said – attracted returning World War II veterans to its new subdivisions. It also attracted Jews moving out of Paterson. Many of them had belonged to that city’s Temple Emanu-El, so they were used to Conservative shuls, but they tended to be secular in outlook nonetheless. Many of them were affiliated with the Jewish Welfare Board, Rabbi Glustrom said, and the model they had in mind came from the Paterson YM-YWHA.

“So there was no problem with having mixed seating, or a Conservative affiliation, and they knew they wanted a rabbi to be a teacher, to bury and marry – but they wanted an executive director in charge. The rabbi would be an also-ran.”

The Fair Lawn Jewish Center’s founders envisioned a large building, “but they said that we should have a chapel in it, and about 80 seats would be sufficient.”

That was not what Rabbi Glustrom had mind.

For the first five years of his tenure, “it was not clear who worked for whom,” he said. The rabbi and the executive director, “who was the tail but thought he was wagging the dog,” had a face-off. “I went to him, and I said, ‘I think that either you have to go, or I do,'” Rabbi Glustrom said.

He shaped the community for the 41 years he helmed it. “I tried to do it gently, using a soft hand,” he said.

In the 1980s, he brought in egalitarianism. “We had debates over it,” he said. “We had people on both sides, who expressed their views very fervently. A few left the congregation, especially since Shomrei Torah had opened. It was not easy for some of the Holocaust survivors, and some of the German Jews, to be flexible.

“But most people went along with it. We had a vote, and most people said that it should be egalitarian.

“And then in time it grew naturally. I had a woman intern, who did very well. Some people felt that they weren’t ready for a woman to preach. There was a past president, who was of German Jewish extraction. He told me, ‘I had felt that it was wrong to have her here, but I want to confess that it was the right thing to do. I learned a good deal from her.’ It took a lot of guts for him to say that.

“I was not a dictator, but I did believe strongly in egalitarianism. When a woman who was president wanted to carry the Torah on Kol Nidrei night, I was in favor of it. A few people walked out, but it was the beginning. We had a minyan in the chapel, and sometimes during the week we would have a hard time getting 10 men.” The shul had a gym, “and sometimes we’d call a sweaty kid in. After a while, I said that this is enough. If Mrs. Goldberg comes to the minyan every day in memory of her husband, and we have to wait for this kid, who is coming because he was forced to come, then we will stop this.

“We will count women, because women do count.

“Someone had to take the bull by the horns.”

Rabbi Glustrom also writes. After five years at Fair Lawn, Bloch Publishing put out his first work, “When Your Child Asks.” Since then, he has published four more, including a memoir, “I Would Do It Again – Perhaps.”

Rabbi Glustrom retired in 1991, after 41 years in Fair Lawn. He and Helen now live in Hackensack.

He’s working on another book, called “Unfinished Journey – A Rabbi’s Bout with Doubt.”

“It’s got to do with the changes in my own views since I retired,” he said. What changes in which views? “I don’t really believe in the chosen people, in the formalistic sense,” he said. “I believe that we are a people that is distinct and distinguished, but to feel that we are chosen, we have to ask the ultimate questions – why are we chosen? Why were we the ones to have to take it on the nose? Why did we have to suffer so much?

“And I have a question about questioning. So many of us take so much for granted because of our upbringing. It is difficult for people to break from that; they often throw the baby out with the bathwater. ‘I’m not a believer any more,’ they say. But I try to analyze the American Jewish setting, the growth of atheism, and of people who say they are spiritual Jews. I think that’s a cop-out.

“I give my own views of life and death, and if there is anything after life. It’s a summing up in many ways.

“I don’t have to worry at all at this stage about any criticism I might get,” he concluded.

Dr. Sam Menahem, a psychologist who lives in Teaneck and works in Fort Lee, is a good friend of Rabbi Glustrom’s. The two met not in shul – Dr. Menahem is a member of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck – but in a gym, and have spent many years walking its track together.

“He’s the best rabbi in Bergen County,” Dr. Menahem said. “We talked about everything. He taught me more about Judaism, and I taught him more about psychology. He has a lot of insight. We debated – it was fun. It’s good to have a rabbi you can talk to.

“He’s my rabbi, and he’s also my friend.”

Rabbi Benjamin Shull of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake spent three years as a rabbinic intern at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center in the 1980s. “It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Rabbi Shull said. “He was always very gracious in giving me opportunities; he was very supportive.” The shul sponsored many chavurot, it was a very innovative program, of which Rabbi Glustrom was proud, and Rabbi Shull benefited from it as well.

He also saw Rabbi Glustrom as a role model. “His leadership was always calm, and with a great amount of wisdom,” Rabbi Shull said.

He was particularly impressed with Rabbi Glustrom’s skill at conducting funerals, “with his ability to speak with truth, to say things about people that were not the easiest things to say, but he always said them in a way that was deft, tactful, and honest. That is hard to do, and when I prepare my own eulogies, I think about how he did them.

“I see him often at the YJCC – it’s amazing to me how active and fit he is – and I see him interact with the janitorial staff. He always compliments people on the good jobs they do. He makes clear that everyone, no matter what stage or rank or place in life, is someone. He takes care to express that.

“I consider him both a teacher and a friend,” Rabbi Shull said.

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Beth Sholom in Teaneck grew up in Fair Lawn, and he and his parents, Jerry and Judy, were active members of the Jewish Center.

“He was a wonderful presence in our family and at the synagogue,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “He was always very warm and gracious, and presented a great model as a rabbi who was caring about the individual and about the community.

“And he had intellectual depth. He showed us that pursuing intellectual excellence and challenging yourself and not being satisfied with just getting along all were important. As my family became more and more involved in the synagogue, he became a trusted adviser.

“As I’ve gotten older, I have developed a different level of appreciation for him,” Rabbi Pitkowsky continued. “Even in retirement, he has continued to grow and mature as a person, a rabbi, and a scholar. I can only hope I can continue to follow his example.”

Honoring Rabbi Simon Glustrom
Who: Rabbi Emeritus Simon Glustrom

What: Is being honored at the shul’s annual gala, which this year will be a festive brunch

When: Sunday, May 18, at 11 a.m.

Where: Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel, 10-10 Norma Ave., Fair Lawn

Why: The gala is in honor of Rabbi Glustrom’s 90th birthday, and his 41 years at the head of the congregation

Cost: $180 per person

For more information: Call the shul office at (201) 796-5040.

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