Following his retirement after 36 years as the senior rabbi of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, L.I., and then being called on to serve the past year as the interim senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Great Neck, Myron Fenster is clearly enjoying himself.
"I got compliments this year I never heard," he says with a broad grin.
And now, as he again contemplates retirement at the end of November, Rabbi Fenster plans to draw upon his 54-year rabbinical career during his High Holy Days sermons.
"After 50 years I cannot speak objectively," the rabbi says he plans to say. "I believe there is far more possibility in the American Jewish community today than when I began. Our people are now in the mainstream of American life."
Rabbi Fenster made clear two years ago when he retired from the Shelter Rock Jewish Center at the age of 75 that he still wanted to remain in the mainstream of Jewish life. In his farewell column to his former congregants he wrote: "But truth be told, instead of seeing darkening shadows on the horizon, I feel a sense of renewal and adventuresome opportunity."
Opportunity knocked two days before he and his wife, Ricky, were scheduled to fly to Israel to see family members and take an eight-week vacation, his longest in 36 years.
Steven Markowitz, then president of Temple Israel, like Shelter Rock a Conservative congregation, called to ask if Rabbi Fenster would consider an interim position as senior rabbi after their spiritual leader of 55 years, Mordecai Waxman, retired Aug. 30, 2002.
"We had not identified an appropriate candidate [to succeed Rabbi Waxman] and Rabbi Waxman’s health was failing," Markowitz says. "We knew we needed to bring someone in" on an interim basis until a successor could be found.
After a two-hour meeting with Rabbi Fenster, Markowitz says he knew he found the right man because of his "long experience, his maturity and his warmth."
The next day, Rabbi Fenster met with Rabbi Waxman.
"He said it was a good idea, but why would I want to come here after being in Shelter Rock for 36 years," Rabbi Fenster recalls. "He said it sounds like you’re meshuga. So I gave what became my standard answer: Even though it’s time for retirement, I still have the fire in my bones."
Rabbi Waxman wished him good luck and then quipped: "I’ll come every Shabbos I can and I’ll sit in the front row and make faces at you."
Rabbi Fenster and his wife then flew to Israel and while there accepted the interim position. But the day he returned to the United States (three days before he was supposed to take over at Temple Israel) Rabbi Fenster learned that Rabbi Waxman had died and the funeral would be the next day.
"Here was somebody who came into a place that was reeling from the loss of Rabbi Waxman," Markowitz says. "We were at a critical stage and people were worried about the future of the synagogue. We were getting criticism because we had not come up with a successor and people were beginning to despair, afraid that the place might fall apart. We needed someone who was very strong, comforting and sensitive to the feelings of the congregants."
Rabbi Fenster quickly filled that need. Markowitz says congregants immediately took to him.
"Everyone wished he would have been 20 years younger," Markowitz says. "We could not have asked anymore from him. The calming effect and the leadership he provided got us through a difficult transition."
Although he was only slated to serve for one year, the congregation soon asked Rabbi Fenster to remain until the end of November to ensure that a successor would be in place. He readily agreed.
"I came in when there was a sense of emergency," he says. "Most of what I had heard about Temple Israel was negative: that it was not my style, that it was large and impersonal."
None of it, Rabbi Fenster says, was true. "The people here are warm, embracing and friendly," he says.
Although Temple Israel has 1,300 families (twice the size of his former congregation) Rabbi Fenster says he never felt it was daunting or that he was imposed upon. And although his wife said she was not sure the congregants would "go for your supposed humor," Rabbi Fenster says he didn’t change a thing.
"I can’t change my personality or the things I speak about or believe in," he says.
The most challenging part of the job: its demanding schedule.
"Temple Israel has functioning, effective committees," Rabbi Fenster explains. "I had to get to know them all, and many times I was out of the house every night of the week. And I teach a class in modern Jewish thought one night a week. … I’ve been running hard just to keep up."
At Shelter Rock, Rabbi Fenster says he would find about three messages on his answering machine most mornings. At Temple Israel the average number was nine.
"Each represents a problem and someone who has to be called back," he says.
Rabbi Fenster also introduced some programs that he brought with him from Shelter Rock, such as a Purim seudah, or meal.
And the rabbi participated in a Great Neck tradition: a dialogue with rabbis from the neighboring Reform and Orthodox congregations. He says he was reluctant to participate but was glad he did because it proved a constructive experience "done in a very generous and humorous way."
Markowitz says Rabbi Fenster also helped the congregation select Rabbi Waxman’s permanent successor, Rabbi Howard Stecker of the 250-family Jewish Community Center of West Hempstead. Rabbi Stecker had served as Rabbi Fenster’s assistant for four years, and Rabbi Fenster was able to give him an unqualified endorsement.
"I know he could do it," Rabbi Fenster says flatly.
Asked about his retirement plans, Rabbi Fenster smiles again, as if to say he still has the fire in his bones.