Unorthodox Rabbis Growing Two L.I. Synagogues

Unorthodox Rabbis Growing Two L.I. Synagogues

Openness, outreach keys for AJR grads leading Conservative congregations.

One is a kind of rabbinic Dr. Phil, taking the unorthodox step of asking those saying Kaddish to rise from the pews — as if in a grief support group — and to talk about their deceased mother or aunt or lifelong friend.

The other, like a jazz player improvising a new ritual on the fly, will switch from Hebrew to English to chant particularly meaningful sections of the Torah and Haftorah — and then offer a “short overview” of the significance of that section.

Both rabbis are employing outside-the-box techniques — for Conservative synagogues, that is — and they are leading unlikely revivals of two such synagogues on Long Island, one in the North Shore town of Glen Cove, the other in the South Shore community of Freeport. The increasing membership of both their synagogues comes at a time when most non-Orthodox congregations on the Island are losing members or struggling to hold their own.

And neither rabbi, surprisingly, is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship institution in Morningside Heights.

Instead, Rabbi Irwin Huberman of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove and Rabbi Paul Hoffman of Congregation B’nai Israel in Freeport are taking the lessons in pluralism and outreach they learned at the non-denominational Academy of Jewish Religion in Riverdale and fitting them to their respective congregations.

The sense of openness and flexibility each brings seem to be working at the two shuls, which just a few years ago were flagging, one even considering a merger. It was the first time both synagogues had looked outside JTS for a rabbi.

Bill Friedlieb, who had chaired Congregation Tifereth Israel’s rabbinic search committee, said the committee looked beyond the seminary because none of the many candidates interviewed in 2006 were “dynamic.” The Academy — which draws teachers from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal branches of Judaism — was founded in 1956.

After the Academy suggested Rabbi Huberman, a Canadian who was then a second-year student, he was invited for a Shabbat, said Friedlieb, and “came across extremely well.” After being invited back several more times, according to Friedlieb, Rabbi Huberman was offered the job of part-time student rabbi with the understanding that his job would become full-time after he graduated, which he did three months ago.

Rabbi Huberman, who grew up in an Orthodox home and worked as a journalist and political adviser in Toronto before switching to the rabbinate, was in the same graduating class as Rabbi Hoffman.

Rabbi Hoffman, too, is the product of an Orthodox home, having attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush. After leaving the real estate business, he became a bar and bat mitzvah tutor and freelance Torah reader, once working as a Torah reader for Congregation B’nai Israel of Freeport. The congregation offered him the job of acting rabbi five years ago when it was without a rabbi and learned he was a rabbinical student; he became its full-time rabbi after graduating in May.

The fact that Rabbis Hoffman and Huberman, both 56, had earlier careers is not surprising to Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the AJR. She pointed out that about 90 percent of her students had earlier careers. Most AJR students — 161 have been ordained since it began — attend part-time over a number of years.

“These are two talented, charismatic rabbis who really understand what it means to reach people and the importance of reaching the individual and serving the community,” she said.

“We were thinking and doing pluralistic education when the Jewish world wasn’t thinking that way yet,” Prouser said. “We’re very excited that now there is such a recognition of the value of pluralism in the Jewish world – of the deep respect and appreciation of the many different approaches to authentic Jewish life.”

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said in a statement that “the JTS approach is pluralistic to the core — our students study the scholarship, liturgy and culture of diverse Jewish communities, and they bring this breadth of knowledge to their work. JTS graduates lead vibrant congregations around the country, but we are always pleased to hear that other rabbis are enjoying success.”

Both Rabbis Hoffman and Huberman came to their Long Island congregations at a time of decreasing membership.

“Four years ago we were going to merge or die,” said Marilyn Gates, co-president of Congregation B’nai Israel. “We had no Hebrew school students in 2006. Then I got the idea to compete with Chabad and we offered free Hebrew school for one child in a family. The next year we had 10 kids, the following year 39, then 66 in 2009 and 88 this year.”

In the last four years, the congregation has increased from 90 households to 160.

At Congregation Tifereth Israel, membership has increased from 150 family units three years ago to 215. At its peak in the early ’70s, the congregation had a little over 300, Rabbi Huberman said.

One of its new members, Fredda Klopfer, 67, of Glen Head said she and her husband had been members of another congregation for 30 years and began looking at other synagogues in a search of more adult education programs.

“It was love at first sight,” she said. “On Friday night there is learning, on Saturday morning there is learning — there is ongoing learning there.

“The rabbi and the cantor are the driving force in the congregation,” Klopfer said, referring to Cantor Gustavo Gitlin.

“The most important message is to be a mensch, and there is so much emphasis on visiting the sick, healing the world and giving to charity,” she said. “Everybody participates. It’s a very warm, welcoming place.”

Rabbi Huberman said the congregation is also reaching out to young families and its Hebrew school has increased from five students to 30 in three years.

“The AJR is a pluralistic seminary and with my background from Orthodox to Renewal I have been able to pull together different traditions when the situation is right,” he said.

During Friday night services, for instance, Rabbi Huberman said he looks down the list of those saying Kaddish for a yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) “and asks the people to talk about the relatives or friends they are saying Kaddish for.

“So a woman will get up and talk about her mother and how she had a candy store,” he said. “Usually three or four people will do this. It creates a sense of tradition for the younger families.”

On Saturday morning, the Haftorah is read in English by different congregants who will rise in the pews and read two or three sentences each. Rabbi Huberman said he walks among the pews and explains the passages as they are read, putting them into context.

“I use the Haftorah as a teaching tool,” he said. “It’s not contrary to Jewish law to do that. … We do things differently with halacha [Jewish law] to make it accessible.”

In addition, Rabbi Huberman said someone who is physically unable to walk to the bima for an aliyah is called upon to recite the blessings before and after the Torah from his seat.

“In the past, people might have felt distant from the service,” he said. “I take a lot of time explaining the history of the prayers and the Haftorah so that there is a learning process and people feel a part of what is going on.”

Steven Bayme, director of the William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee, said that although he had reservations about two of the rabbis’ innovative practices he applauds their intent.

“They create more of a sense of community and involve more people in a participatory way,” he said. “We are heirs to a unique and precious heritage that is often a closed book to many Jews. What defines them is a stronger sense of community and ownership over the Judaic body of teaching.”

But Bayme said allowing someone to receive an aliyah who doesn’t leave his seat “undermines the concept of being called to the Torah and reading from it.”

And he also took issue with discussing the Haftorah without chanting it first in the Hebrew. The discussion, however, he called “innovative without question.”

Rabbi Hoffman said he makes a special effort to reach out to those who have found that other synagogues were “not speaking to them.”

“If I turn these people away, then I am just turning against everything I had been taught,” he said.

Thus, when an intermarried couple meets with him and the “Jewish partner says, ‘My spouse is not sure but I would like to raise the children Jewish and would like to know if my spouse gets to participate at our children’s bar or bat mitzvah,’ I understand that you shouldn’t deprive a family member from partaking of a simcha,” Rabbi Hoffman said.

“Coming as I do from an Orthodox background, you would never let someone who is not Jewish come on the bima because the Torah is there. But to have a [non-Jewish spouse] read a prayer or psalm from the pews isolates him and is not a heimish thing to do. So I decided for myself that as long as the Torah is put away, the [non-Jewish] spouse could come on the bima and talk to the child, bless the child and read a prayer.”

Rabbi Hoffman said he has found that “people are appreciative [of this approach] and show it in the fact that they are joining [his congregation]. In their souls they are saying to themselves that he is bending for me and making me feel welcome.”

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