Welcoming new clergy to the community

Rabbis and cantors are all the same/different/special, depending on your viewpoint. This year’s crop of new clergy members suggests that “different” and “special” are the appropriate labels. Some want to help fashion Judaism 5.0, some want to connect with and personalize their relationship to each of their congregants, and some — well, at least one — raises chickens.

We welcome them all to Bergen County.

Rabbi Keven Tzvi Friedman
Assistant Rabbi, Fair Lawn Jewish Center

Rabbi Friedman is a big fan of experiential education.

“I worked at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires this summer, doing something unique — mussar — character development — and hockey,” he said. His inspiration for the program, which “teaches midot” — values — “while playing,” comes from well-known New Jersey soccer coach Spencer Rockman, who uses this approach in teaching his sport.

Among the values Rabbi Friedman sought to impart was humility, teaching campers, for example, that instead of always focusing solely on making a goal, sometimes “they might work on making a nice pass to someone else. It’s a beautiful way to try to infuse mussar character development through the vehicle of the game.”

Rabbi Friedman, who was ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in May, now has embarked on his second career. He had earned a J.D. from Hofstra University’s law school and worked as a litigation attorney for more than 14 years; he was a public defender for the Legal Aid Society, a court attorney for the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, and a senior associate at Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, PA.

Rabbi Friedman sees a common denominator in his choice of jobs, legal and rabbinic. “They’re both about trying to connect with people, forming relationships,” he said. And he is fortunate to have the ability to do this, he added. Thanks to his legal work, “I can understand the stress people are under, and the need to meet people where they are.”

He noted that now, with the Fair Lawn Jewish Center’s religious leader, Rabbi Ronald Roth, facing some medical issues, “we’ve seen the community really pull together and support each other.”

Rabbi Friedman said he hopes to enhance people’s lives by “infusing them with Judaism, teaching Jewish values that can inform people’s everyday lives.” His goal, at least for now, is “really listening, and getting a sense of what gets people really excited about their Jewish journey.”

Rabbi Friedman and his wife, Rebecca, now live in Fair Lawn. They have two children, Madeline, 11, and Ariel, 8.

“I’m very appreciative of the support we’ve received, and the willingness of people to help,” he said. He added that he hopes to introduce some mussar character development classes in the congregation. While he acknowledged that the people he sees “are very busy, and time is of the essence, it gives the biggest bang for the buck, helping them learn practical lessons for leading a more meaningful life.”

Also — having been selected as an AIPAC Leffell Israel Fellow while in rabbinical school — he hopes to focus on Israel education. He speaks highly of the fellowship program, which brought together rabbinical students from across “the whole spectrum of the Jewish world, trying to build some bridges.” He hopes his classes will provide a vehicle for people to ask all sorts of questions, “to really delve in and be willing to look and learn.”

Cantor Elizabeth Goldmann
Beth El of Northern Valley, Closter

All roads lead home.

Cantor Elizabeth Goldmann, chazan of Beth El of Northern Valley, grew up in Closter, at Temple Beth El no less. “My mom is my congregant,” she said. (Her mother, Sophie Heymann, is a past mayor of Closter.)

Cantor Goldmann lived in Nyack for the past 17 years, and she’s back in Closter now. “I’ve never been far away,” she said.

Her profile on her synagogue’s website describes Cantor Goldmann as “a proud member of the original Temple Beth El Junior choir.” Clearly, she was motivated to take her love of music even further, earning her master’s degree in sacred music from Hebrew Union College in 1991. In addition, while she was the cantor of Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack — a position she held from 1991 until 2004 — she founded the Regional Rockland/Bergen Junior Choir Festival and served on the faculty of the URJ’s Crane Lake Camp. After 2004, “I was freelancing — a wandering Jew,” she said.

Now, at Beth El, she is excited to be working with the shul’s music director and accompanist, James Rensink, who for 30 years has been arranging “extraordinary programs, bringing top-notch New York musicians to the synagogue on Friday nights, including the principal cellist at the Met for Kol Nidre.”

Not all Cantor Goldmann’s passions center on music.

Describing her family — “My husband, Michael, is a veterinarian, my daughter, Shira, lives at home and works at American Express, and my son, Noah, is a student at Syracuse” — she added another detail. “We have two cats and eight chickens.” (Beth El’s website describes them as sweet cats and charming chickens.) Clarkstown, she said, allows everyone to have chickens. And, given her love of animals — she volunteers at the MacBain Farm in Closter — the chickens are kept “just as pets, and for eggs.”

Cantor Goldmann also enjoys gardening and mushroom hunting, which she learned from a naturalist in Closter.

Cantor Goldmann said this year is “very special” in the life of Beth El, which is merging with Temple Beth Or of Washington Township. “It’s our last year in the building,” she said. The two shuls already have bought a new property — both are leaving their buildings — “and we hope to make it a special year of celebration and memory, bringing people together.” She and Rabbi David Widzer are planning Friday night services that will celebrate the music of different decades “and give people a chance to reflect and remember.”

She said the two congregations will come together on the High Holy Days. “For Tashlikh we’ll go with Washington Township, and the second day of Rosh Hashanah, all four clergy will be at Closter.” The goal for this year, she said, is “unity and celebration.”

“I love singing with my congregation, and they enjoy worshipping with me,” Cantor Goldmann said. Her style is “very eclectic,” she added. “I love it all. I feel it’s my responsibility as an ordained cantor to bring the full experience of Jewish music to the congregation.”

Rabbi Lindsey Healey-Pollack
Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, Englewood

Rabbi Healey-Pollack, who grew up Catholic in a suburb of Houston, had her first real exposure to Judaism at Scripps College in Claremont, California.

“As a college student I learned more about Judaism and had a lot of Jewish friends,” she said. “It afforded me my first opportunity to learn about Jewish tradition. I was drawn to the culture. I’m really interested in a culture of learning, of openness to asking questions.” She was particularly attracted by the fact that “any question was able to be asked and get a serious answer. Also, Judaism places an emphasis on actions we take in our daily lives. It’s a way of life, encompassing all aspects.”

Now in her first rabbinic position, Rabbi Healey-Pollack — who started learning with a Hillel rabbi in California and entered the conversion process after moving to New York, working with both Rabbi Larry Sebert at Town and Village Synagogue and Rabbi Stephen Lerner of Teaneck — completed her conversion in 2009. She received ordination at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

When she was in rabbinical school, Rabbi Healey-Pollack was a rabbinic intern at Congregation Shaare Zedek in Manhattan and at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, where she taught the Rabbinical Assembly’s Introduction to Judaism program and created other learning opportunities for the community. She also spent two years as the High Holy Days rabbi for Anshei Chesed: The Conservative Synagogue of Cape Cod, and completed a chaplaincy internship at Dorot, working with older adults in Manhattan.

Rabbi Healey-Pollack will take up her position just in time for Sukkot, according to the congregation, which describes itself as “the only Conservative and egalitarian shul in the Englewood/Tenafly area.” She brings with her “an openness and passionate commitment to learning and sharing with others,” she said. “I have a commitment to supporting my community in its Jewish journey.” She thinks the congregation will be a good match for her, “as a community that shares this spirit of openness and curiosity — a special and participatory community that is welcoming to people at all levels of observance.”

While she is not expecting any surprises, “I’m sure there will be a learning curve,” she said, noting that she already has had several opportunities to meet members of the congregation. “My first goal is trying to get to know the people in the community and learn more about what they’re excited about, their hopes and dreams. I’m also passionate about adult education.” She hopes to expand learning opportunities, as well as youth and family programs, in the congregation, which embraces some 55 member households.

Now living in Englewood with her husband, David, and two children — a three-year-old son and a two-month-old daughter — Rabbi Healey-Pollack said she loves spending time outdoors, and “I’m excited to do that and to get to know areas for hiking. I’m also into yoga and love to expand my horizons by reading.”

Rabbi Paul Kerbel,
Interim Assistant Rabbi
Temple Emanu-el of Closter

Rabbi Paul Kerbel was no stranger to the organized Jewish community even before he became a rabbi.

“Service to the Jewish community is nothing new,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole life as a volunteer with federation.” He is now a member of the Global Jewish Community Committee of UJA Federation New York.

Rabbi Kerbel’s father, Robert Kerbel, was a federation director in Delaware. His son Sam married Aliza Romirowsky, the daughter of Dr. Reuben Romirowsky, of Teaneck, who has spent his entire professional career in Jewish communal service. And his wife, Melissa, is a past director of development for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. (In fact, Paul and Melissa have a dual residence. To accommodate Melissa’s commute to her last position, they got an apartment in Queens.)

In addition — to conclude a wrap-up of his non-pastoral Jewish credentials — Rabbi Kerbel has served on many committees and the executive council of the Rabbinical Assembly, chairs the Rabbinic Campaign for the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, and is a member of the board of governors of The New York Board of Rabbis.

And yes, he has had time to be a spiritual leader as well. A graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary — he received his master’s and doctor of divinity degrees and ordination from that institution — he recently finished three years as associate rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, N.Y. For 12 years before that, he was the associate rabbi at Etz Chaim in Marietta, Ga.

“Temple Emanu-El was looking for an interim associate rabbi and Rabbi [David-Seth] Kirshner knew that I was available,” Rabbi Kerbel said. “He asked me to come and help out for the year.” His duties include assisting Rabbi Kirshner in all pastoral functions, helping to lead Shabbat services “and being a presence in the religious school and high school — whatever they need help with.”

The congregation, with some 900 families, “is very active,” Rabbi Kerbel said. “Each synagogue has its own culture; each Jewish community is a little different. I’ve had a lot of experience, helping me recognize that what I did in Marietta is not necessarily what I’ll do here.”

“I’ll do my best to meet the needs of each congregant, so they have a meaningful Jewish experience,” he continued. His personal strength is “being a warm and friendly presence. I’ll go up to anyone and introduce myself. It makes them feel comfortable.”

He also is strong in programming and “connecting the synagogue to the larger community. Temple Emanu-el is already that way, but I can help the rabbi do this,” for example, suggesting speakers for various events.

“In Atlanta, I oversaw a large education program and all programming from Chanukah concerts to adult education, to holiday events.”

Has anything he’s seen in Closter surprised him so far? “Well, I saw two wild turkeys outside the office,” he said, “but I’m told they’re relatively common here.” As for hobbies, he said, “I like to read and write, but my main hobby is being a volunteer in the Jewish community.” Through his work with UJA-Federation of New York, “we look at how the New York area can provide assistance to Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union and Europe. I really enjoy that.”

Rabbi Kerbel and his wife, Melissa, have three children and two daughters-in-law: Sam Kerbel and Aliza Romirowsky; Judah and Eliana Kerbel; and Micha.

Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman
Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, Mahwah

After spending eight years as the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman, who became the leader of Mahwah’s Beth Haverim Shir Shalom on July 1, is keenly aware of the differences between the two congregations.

The Utah congregation is affiliated with both the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and according to the synagogue it serves 25 percent of the Jewish families in Utah. The Mahwah synagogue is similar in size and unequivocally Reform, and “its needs and concerns are very different,” Rabbi Schwartzman said. “In Utah, we were surrounded by the LDS [Latter Day Saints] community, here by an expansive and diverse community.

“It’s not exactly culture shock, but large families there look different from large families here.”

Rabbi Schwartzman, who lives in Ramsey with her husband, Art Kieres, and their daughter, Sabine, 15 months old, said her first year will be “a lot about relationship building, figuring out where the potential growth opportunities are in the congregation and making sure we’re responding appropriately.” She also wants her members to feel that “Judaism is relevant in their lives, not just for a bar or bat mitzvah but in everything we do. Torah is a touchstone in every moment. I want to make it accessible to people.”

With some 400 families, “the congregation is so active and so warm. I can’t get used to how nice everyone is. I’m overwhelmed by their kindness.”

She grew up as the daughter of a rabbi in the Air Force, so “we moved every two or three years,” she said, but the East Coast is a new experience for her.

Rabbi Schwartzman said that her strength is “a love of stories — about the people she’s serving, Jewish tradition, and sharing those stories.” With Jewish stories, “I’m excited about our narrative and expanding tradition.” Personal stories may take longer to elicit. “Some people get comfortable faster, but a lot of times, in a religious context, people want to be able to share their stories and find common ground…. I’d like to have an opportunity to hear what they have to say and to find an on-ramp to make Judaism more accessible to them.

“I love Judaism and I want to bring people in.”

Rabbi Schwartzman also is interested in working with other synagogues “to strengthen the larger Jewish community,” she said. “We’re not competing.” For example, her congregation will join with a few other synagogues in Wayne for Selichot.

To relax, “I sing and I read an incredible amount. I also enjoy exploring the area. Some wonderful women want to come and play with Sabine, and I know the congregation will make a place for her too. She came to Torah study with me on Saturday and she sat still. I’m looking forward to our being one large Jewish family.”

Rabbi Rachel Steiner
Barnert Temple, Franklin Lakes

(Jo Rosen Photography/Johanna)

Rabbi Rachel Steiner was a major presence at Barnert Temple even before she became its “official” rabbi on July 1.

“I came here eight years ago after I was ordained by HUC in New York,” she said. First she was the assistant, then the associate, rabbi for Rabbi Elyse Frishman, who retired as the congregation’s senior rabbi after a 22-year-stint as its spiritual leader.

Rabbi Steiner, who lives in Fair Lawn with her husband, Daniel, “and two delicious little boys,” Ezra, 5 l/2, and Asher, 3 l/2, called her experience with Rabbi Frishman “terrific.” Unlike Rabbi Frishman, however, she does not have an assistant rabbi, so “I’m the only rabbi here now,” she said. “Everything goes through me. I get to be involved in everything, the full spectrum of synagogue work.”

Her favorite job, though, is “the engagement work I do with people of all ages. I’m doing more now, but I’m not doing less of what I love.”

Rabbi Steiner does a lot of work with the preschool and Hebrew school, “and I know the name of every child. And they know that. I also know something significant about each of them.” That kind of personalization is key to both her personality and her sense of mission.

She is particularly proud of her congregation — the first congregation established in the state of New Jersey, founded in 1847 — “which has always adapted to the evolving needs of the community. Part of the Barnert narrative is being responsive to what the community is needing.”

She told a story. “The members of the [original] synagogue in Paterson had a map, trying to figure out their next step,” as the Jews started to leave Paterson. “They put pushpins in the map to indicate where people were moving. That led them to this location.

“It’s a living congregation, always seeing where people are and what the needs are. It’s a great tradition, in the blood of the congregation, a sense of evolving.”

Her personal goal, she said, is to “continue to deepen relationships within the community — to really take relationships seriously. The heart of who I am is connection with people — the spirituality of details, according to Rabbi Larry Hoffman. There’s something sacred in small details. I see that as the underlying theology of my rabbinate and life.

“I want to see us engage more meaningfully within the local community, not to gain members but to be involved in the lives of people we live with,” both Jews and non-Jews. She also feels the congregation would benefit from bringing in more of what’s being done in the larger Reform movement.

“I have the blessing of beginning this journey with eight years of sacred partnership,” she said, adding that she has “really cultivated relationships with both the professional and lay members of the community. I think people know how much I care, that it’s not lip service. I want to know the details that matter in people’s lives.”

“The strength of Barnert is the ability to adapt. It gives us permission to try to experiment and use some of what we do as a lab. We’ve started a whole new school model, [based on] the idea of a Jewish journey. We’re meeting people and learning where they are on that journey.”

She describes the congregation, with nearly 500 families, “as fairly diverse for a suburban community. We’re regional — we pull from more than 10 towns and villages. That makes us less homogenous than if we all came from same town. People come for roots, grounding, and fun.

“I grew up on the Upper West Side and went to a high school surrounded by Jews,” she continued. “Here, though the perception is that most people are Jewish, almost every student feels they are a minority. It makes the synagogue more important for them and for the community. Despite their perception, there’s a great need for belonging. That surprised me most, and has reinforced the significance of what we do.” It’s about connections, she said, especially for teens, who come to the shul for youth groups to supplement what they have at their own school.

Does Rabbi Steiner have time for hobbies? “I love music, and I play guitar,” she said. “But most important, I love being a mom, spending time with my family, and catching up on missed Marvel movies. I’m happy when I’m with people I love.”

Rabbi Beni Wajnberg
Temple Beth Rishon, Wyckoff

Born and raised in Brazil, Rabbi Wajnberg (or Reb Beni, as he prefers to be called) learned English by watching “Seinfeld,” “mainly when I decided to be a rabbi,” he said. (His Seinfeld education taught him important things, like “the best mustard,” he added.

A graduate of Rio de Janeiro Federal University, Rabbi Wajnberg later studied at the Masorti movement’s Seminario Rabinico Marshall T. Meyer in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Moving further north, he received his master’s degree in Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles in 2013, and was ordained there in 2015.

Rabbi Wajnberg, who met his wife, Miriam, in rabbinical school — she now is the director of adult Jewish learning at the JCC in Manhattan — comes to Wyckoff after a stint as assistant rabbi of Shaarey Tefila in New York. The couple, who live in Waldwick, have two children, Shai, 3 years old, and Rafi, 6 months. “They’re both sweet boys,” he said.

Rabbi Wajnberg has a clear philosophy about the role of the synagogue and of the rabbi. “One thing is most important,” he said. “If one person feels not cared for, nothing else we do matters. Yesterday, before officiating [at services], I visited a congregant at the hospital in the early morning…. We need to rethink and revamp how we view spirituality.”

Among his goals is to be “more inclusive to families of different backgrounds,” for example, where one partner is not Jewish. Rather than call that partner “not Jewish,” he said, “positive ID is paramount. I call that partner a kindred soul.”

Connection, he said, is a priority, whether connection to family, to the synagogue, or to the Jewish community. “So many young families moving into the area don’t feel a connection to other people,” he said. “We should be a catalyst for these relationships.”

Rabbi Wajnberg has three main goals. First, “I want to establish a relationship with every family by the end of the first year. Second, the synagogue should become more than a synagogue. It should have partners rather than members, financial investments rather than dues. We’re not a club — we’re a family.”

He wants everyone to feel that they are a vibrant part of the community, “to know people and have deep relationships.”

Third, he wants to “help people navigate life and questions in their search for meaning. Every person should be able to struggle with that question. I’m always asked this question: What do I get from being a member? We have to reframe” the question, he said, based on the concept of relationship.

“That’s not the way it is anywhere,” he said, suggesting that Judaism has gone through different stages. “Judaism 1.0 was about the Bible; 2.0, the rabbis; 3.0, Jewish law; 4.0, institutions, and 5.0, I can’t tell you what that is, but relationships need to be at the center. We’re still in 4.0, but in a moment of transition.”

“As a foreigner — my grandparents survived the Shoah, went to Brazil, and came here as immigrants — I’ve experienced how challenging yet powerful it is to become an insider,” he continued. And he also has learned “how important it is to make this a sacred process. It’s all about people and how they support you on your journey.”

He pointed out that he did not grow up as part of any movement, “so I can be supercreative, using a Conservative prayer book, having a kosher kitchen, accepting patrilineal descent and marriage between kindred souls.” Beth Rishon, he said, is “a perfect match. I interviewed all over the country. This was the place.”

Acknowledging the recent death of Beth Rishon’s Cantor Ilan Mamber, and the toll it has taken on the 400-member congregation, he said, “People are so incredibly vulnerable, and that’s a good thing.

“Crying is a strength, not a weakness. We must be ourselves. The next two years will be hard,” but in a sacred way.

Rabbi Wajnberg noted the warmth of the congregation, which is “just as concerned about my well-being as I am about theirs. They’ve been welcoming to our whole family.” Some of this may be attributable to the business card he hands out when he meets someone new. When you flip it over, “it’s a coupon that says, ‘Redeem this for a free cup of coffee,’” he said. (The card also, notably, does not include his last name, ensuring that new acquaintances call him only “Reb Beni.”) “A card is not enough. I have an espresso machine in my office,” he said. “I had to get new capsules already. People are waiting to come and cry with me. I say, ‘Let’s do it together.’”

When he is not connecting with congregants, Rabbi Wajnberg plays guitar, loves cooking, and meditates. (There’s a meditation cushion in his office.) And then, of course, there are his children. “Running around with Shai in the backyard is the best thing ever,” he said. He noted as well that since his house is vegetarian, “we grow a lot of corn and vegetables.”

“I want the community to be a safe place to have doubt,” he said. Quoting from Gandalf (the one from the Lord of the Rings), he said, “Not all who wander are lost.” Equally comfortable with the philosophy of Reb Nachman of Breslov, he said “The definition of God is not reward and punishment, a bearded man in the sky, but a core of energy that sustains everything the world is composed of.

“Our job is to reveal this concealed energy.”

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