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Who’s retired now?

Rabbi Richard Hammerman takes on interim pulpit in Montebello

Rabbi Richard Hammerman at the Montebello Jewish Center.
Rabbi Richard Hammerman at the Montebello Jewish Center.

Some people just can’t stay retired.

They may think they’re getting tired. They may think that they’re getting out at the top of their game. They have some ideas about puttering around, doing some charitable work, reading or writing or thinking.

And then, well, someone asks a favor, and the favor turns into a commitment, and there they are. Back at work.

That’s certainly Rabbi Richard Hammerman’s story.

Rabbi Hammerman is the new interim rabbi at the Montebello Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Suffern, but to say that he’s new as a rabbi in any way is a bit of a stretch. About to turn 70, he is in a sense coming full circle, taking over the bimah at a shul that reached out to him through connections he made when he was just out of rabbinical school, a lifetime ago.

Here’s his story.

Richard Hammerman grew up in Washington Heights, on Manhattan’s northern tip, in a very Jewish neighborhood, and he grew up deeply connected to the Jewish community. His shul, like most in the neighborhood, was Orthodox. “It was called a Mizrachi shul,” he said. Although now that term is used to refer to Jews from the Arab world, “at that time it meant modern Orthodox,” he said. Many of the Jews in Washington Heights were Holocaust survivors or refugees, and many of the shuls were heavily influenced, perhaps ironically, by the German Jewish tradition, but his was not. “It was very Zionist,” he said. Not only did the bimah hold American and Israeli flags, “we also had the flag of the Zionist movement, with the menorah that appears in the Knesset, on it.”

Every year, he remembers, Senator Jacob Javitz, the Jewish Republican who represented New York in Washington for more than 30 years, would show up at shul on Yom Kippur to make a speech for Israel Bonds.

The lines between the Jewish streams were not as sharply drawn as they are now. “Had there been a Conservative synagogue nearby, my parents would have joined it,” Rabbi Hammerman said. “When we’d go to Florida for vacation, we’d often go to a Conservative synagogue.

“My first Hebrew school experience was at the Hebrew Tabernacle, which was Reform,” he continued. “It also hosted Orthodox services, for free, at night, as a community service. I went there because I lived on Riverside Drive, and I was too young to cross Broadway by myself to get to the Orthodox shul.

“Everything really was more fluid in those days.”

Rabbi Hammerman went to Hebrew high school at the Jewish Center, the prominent Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side. Its rabbi, Leo Jung, a highly respected German refugee, told him about the undergraduate joint program that the Jewish Theological Seminary, then as now the leading institution in the Conservative movement, ran with Columbia University.

“The rest was history,” Rabbi Hammerman said.

Rabbi Hammerman graduated from the joint program with degrees from JTS and Columbia, and then went to rabbinical school at JTS. He and his wife, Sharon, lived in Riverdale, in the north Bronx, and belonged to the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel there; in fact, his rabbinical internship was there, at his own home shul.

After he was ordained, Rabbi Hammerman became the director of collegiate activities at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, running Atid — the short-lived program for college students that later was replaced by the longer-running-but-still-ultimately-abandoned Koach.

When Adath Israel’s Rabbi Chaim Pearl went on a yearlong sabbatical in Israel, he asked his most recent intern, Richard Hammerman, then still in his 20s, his smicha certificate barely dry, to cover for him. “I was a kid,” Rabbi Hammerman said. “I had no compunctions about doing it.”

It was a formidable synagogue. “The congregants included JTS’s chancellor, Gerson Cohen, its vice chancellor, Stanley Schachter, many JTS faculty members, and very many rabbinical students,” he said. “Sharon loves telling about how she was at a Rabbinical Assembly convention, and Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi Schachter each stood on either side of her, and introduced her as their rebbitzin.

“She was 26 years old then.”

Last Pesach, Rabbi Hammerman was Moses at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J.
Last Pesach, Rabbi Hammerman was Moses at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J.

When Rabbi Pearl came back to Riverdale, Rabbi Hammerman took a job leading Congregation B’nai Israel in Toms River, N.J. That pulpit had been a revolving door, he’d been warned.

The door must have gotten stuck. He stayed there for 31 years, becoming the beating heart of a vibrant community. Eventually, though, he and Sharon decided together that it was time to leave. “I learned from Las Vegas comedians that it’s better to get offstage while the audience still wants more,” he said. Beyond that, “we wanted to be in a more Shabbat-observant community.”

They moved to Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J., in 2005. “We found the community we were looking for there,” Rabbi Hammerman said. “We are proud to be members there.”

They’re also proud of their three children, whose life choices mirror their parents’ with unusual faithfulness.

Their oldest child, Eytan, a JTS graduate, is the rabbi of the Jewish Community Center in Harrison, N.Y., and his wife, Rebecca, is the principal of the Carmel Academy, a Jewish day school in Greenwich, Conn. Their three daughters, 8-year-old twins and a 7-year-old, all are students at the Schechter Academy in Westchester.

Their middle child, Leah, teaches elementary school at the Joseph Kushner Academy in Livingston, N.J.

Their youngest child, Rabbi Yael, another JTS graduate, is the director of congregational learning at Ansche Chesed on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and Yael’s husband, Rabbi Joshua Rabin, is United Synagogue’s director of kehilla enrichment. They have a 4-year-old daughter, Hannah, and another child is due in the next few weeks.

When he left the bimah, Rabbi Hammerman meant to retire, even though he was not quite old enough. He was tired. A bit burnt out. But the retirement thing just didn’t stick. He became the vice president for North America at Masorti Olami, the Conservative movement’s worldwide organization. That was fund raising; he stayed for a bit, until the entire place was restructured. Next, he did some substitute teaching at the local Schechter school. His plan was to teach full time. “I realized that I was too young to be retired, but I didn’t want overarching responsibilities,” he said.

That didn’t stick either. Rabbi Hammerman had worked with the rabbi of Agudath Israel, Dr. Alan Silverstein, at Masorti Olami; Rabbi Silverstein had been that body’s president. The shul’s building was being renovated; the project was huge, ongoing, and had forced the congregation to move out and find different alternative spaces for three years. “The executive director decided to retire,” Rabbi Hammerman said. “He didn’t want to have the burden of finishing the building. So the president asked me to become executive director, on a temporary basis.” Why? “Because Rabbi Silverstein knew about my executive abilities, and he recruited me,” Rabbi Hammerman said.

So there he was, pledged to spend six months helping his own community move into its old-new building, working as a rabbi/executive director hybrid, mainly running the synagogue but taking over pastoral duties from time to time, when necessary.

“Those six months lasted for five years,” Rabbi Hammerman said. Finally, though, he said that it really had to end.

“I enjoyed it — but I didn’t like it as much as being the rabbi because it wasn’t really mine. And I was wedded to the office daily, which a rabbi generally isn’t. It’s not a good job if you have shpilkes — which I have.”

After that, the not-really-retired rabbi worked for Israel Tour Connection, selling rabbis on the importance of taking their congregants to Israel, developing a real, physical, visceral relationship to the land; he’d led 15 trips himself, so he knew what he was talking about.

He also led High Holy Day services in Temple Beth Sholom of Pascack Valley in Park Ridge, N.J.

What next?

The job at Montebello came to him serendipitously, Rabbi Hammerman said. The shul’s rabbi, Adam Baldachin, who was much loved, moved on to a bigger synagogue in Scarsdale, and Montebello’s search for a permanent rabbi stalled. The rabbinic search committee started thinking about looking for an interim rabbi instead. Shari Brunner, the shul’s office administrator, is a member of Beth Sholom in Park Ridge, and she mentioned Rabbi Hammerman. She’d loved the services he’d led.

And equally serendipitously, the search committee chair, Harriet Spevack, remembered Richie Hammerman from back in Riverdale, decades ago, when she, her husband, Harold, and the Hammermans all were members of the young couples club. “So Harriet called me out of the blue — we hadn’t spoken in over 40 years — and asked me if I would consider it.

“That was erev Shavuot,” Rabbi Hammerman said. June 10. “I started here at the beginning of this month.” That was July.

Rabbi Hammerman likes what he sees at Montebello. “I’m very impressed with the level of participation,” he said. “People here are very passionate. Maybe because it’s small, they have a sense of ownership and pride.

“I see my mission as keeping the ship afloat, and piloting it in a direction similar to the one Rabbi Baldachin set it on,” he continued. “I will support the search committee as it looks for a permanent rabbi, and I will work to keep the sense of joy and learning alive in Montebello.”

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