Rabbi Stanley Asekoff smiled as he finished clearing out the top drawer of his desk, carefully placing odds and ends — a hammer, some White-Out — into a small cardboard box. Later, he would move all his books to a smaller office and remove the knickknacks from the shelves.
After 39 years leading B’nai Shalom in West Orange, Asekoff is retiring and will become rabbi emeritus July 31. Rabbi Robert Tobin, currently serving a pulpit in Kansas City, will succeed him as senior rabbi beginning July 1.
“The experience of leaving this position has been very powerful for me. I feel like I am closing the door on a way of life that’s defined who I have been for 39 years,” said Asekoff last month. “It’s a big loss, giving this up. I walk through the building, I look at the people as I go into my study, and I realize my relationship with all of this will be very different. It’s almost like mourning.
“On the other hand, there’s a time for everything, and it really is time,” he said. “I brought the congregation to a certain point. But I’m a product of the ’70s and early ’80s. It’s time for someone else to step in.”
The rabbi and his wife, Cecille, will be honored at the synagogue’s annual gala on Sunday, June 12. (Cecille Asekoff — who, among other leadership positions, serves as director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committees of MetroWest, Central, and Monmouth Counties and executive vice president of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, declined to be interviewed for this article; she wanted the spotlight aimed firmly at her husband. “I am not retiring,” she said.)
Born and raised in Boston, Stanley Asekoff arrived at the congregation in the summer of 1972, fresh from ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. B’nai Shalom, then led by Rabbi Harold Moseson, was the only Conservative synagogue in West Orange, and still is.
“I was drawn to the congregation because it was a community with potential — there was a base of people committed to Yiddishkeit, people who could attract others and build a community of people who lived an observant Jewish way of life,” he said. “It was a community where Cecille and I would be comfortable living in — even if I weren’t the rabbi.”
One of the big changes Asekoff brought to the synagogue was a more relaxed environment. Many congregants point to Asekoff’s natural ability with children. To preschoolers and young children, “he was like a rock star coming down the aisle,” said Rachel Esrig, a mother of three.
Compassion, warmth, accessibility, and his desire to know every congregant and meet their needs defined his rabbinate. A champion of pastoral care, he is described by congregants as a 24/7 rabbi.
“He became very close with each family,” said David Millstein, a 50-year member who sat on the committee that hired Asekoff.
Harriet Rosenstein, another 50-year member, described what happened the day she moved into an apartment from the house where she had raised her children.
“The day I moved, I heard the front door open. I was sweeping the kitchen. In walked Rabbi Asekoff. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked. ‘I knew today would be traumatic for you,’ he said. ‘How did you even know I was moving?’ ‘I have my spies,’ he said. He gave me a hug and I burst into tears.”
Tradition and change
Steve Colten, a member since 1982 and a former congregation president, remembers his first meeting with the rabbi. Just after joining in time for the High Holy Days, he was recruited to help set up chairs for the services.
Rabbi Asekoff “came in just to say hi and give us a pep talk and do rounds,” Colten said. “There was never a time I can remember that he wasn’t at the synagogue. He was always there, making sure everyone felt appreciated.”
If there was a funeral, even while he was on vacation, he always made it his business to be there. He once offered a eulogy through audio hookup from Israel — frustrated that he was too far away to be there in person.
“There are certain things I could never do,” said Asekoff. “I could not say I will be away and I won’t be here for your family.”
That meant his wife had to shoulder more than her share of the burden at home. “Many times she kept the home fires burning while I was out taking care of a congregant,” said Asekoff. “I really could not have done it without her.”
Cecille has always been a force in her own right at the synagogue. In addition to hosting her share of Shavuot ice cream parties and Sukkot gatherings, she puts her education degree to work, teaching Judaic studies at the synagogue. She helped many adult women achieve the milestone of becoming banot mitzva and serves as a sounding board, often behind the scenes, for her husband.
Colten pointed out that the pair “operated as a team.”
“She really understood people and was always a source of good advice,” he said.
Asekoff presided over the congregation during the Conservative movement’s embrace of egalitarianism, which he calls the only major challenge during his rabbinate. He said he has always been pleased that the congregation emerged from the process without dismantling its identity as a traditional Conservative synagogue.
Asekoff has not limited his leadership to B’nai Shalom. He is a past president of the Essex County Board of Rabbis and the NJ Region of the Rabbinical Assembly. A chaplain for the West Orange Police Department, he played a significant role, working through the Anti-Defamation League, in training the police to recognize and deal with bias crimes. He has served on the executive board of the national Rabbinical Assembly and on the board of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. He was recently appointed to the State of New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education.
After retiring, Asekoff said, he won’t be sitting around talking about old times or wishing he were still running the show. He’s already begun taking chaplaincy classes and said he looks forward to new opportunities and challenges.
“I have some ideas I want to explore, and I hope some doors will open that I’m not even considering right now. I’m interested in chaplaincy, and I’ll see where that takes me.”
He’s also looking forward to having more time to spend with his children, Sara Gila and her husband, John Schapiro, of West Orange and members of B’nai Shalom, and Shira Leah and her husband, Ariel Meyer, of Toms River, and with his grandchildren, Grace Schapiro, a third-grader at the Golda Och Academy, and three-year-old Shoshana Meyer.
Esrig, a B’nai Shalom member for 15 years, is particularly disappointed that Rabbi Asekoff will not preside over her son Ari’s bar mitzva this fall.
“I’m bummed. I’m really bummed,” she said. “I understand, but he has extra large shoes for the next rabbi to fill.”