Everyone knew I was going to be a rabbi growing up,” said Matthew S. Nover. “I’d be the kid always trying to stump the rabbi, the kid who was excited to go to religious school.”
It seems everybody was right; in July, the newly ordained Rabbi Nover joined Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor as assistant rabbi and education director.
Although Fort Worth, Tex., where Nover grew up, did not have many observant Jews, he said it was a community “that cared more about people being involved in Judaism than ‘This is the one true way to be Jewish.’” His family belonged to a Conservative synagogue, but he interacted with people at the Reform synagogue and the local Chabad and was a member of BBYO, United Synagogue Youth (USY), and Young Judaea.
His nuclear family, he said, was “not very observant, but they cared about Judaism and being Jewish.” They were serious about celebrating the holidays and always had Passover seders, he said. His grandfather, who lived 15 minutes away and was a regular shul-goer, exerted influence on his grandson’s life choices.
Nover was ordained in 2019 at the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), then joined Beth El, where his responsibilities are twofold. As assistant rabbi, he helps with all clergy functions and lifecycle events, leads parts of Shabbat and holiday services, coordinates volunteers to lead services, and reads Torah. As education director, he runs the pre-K-to-10th-grade education program and some adult education courses, coordinates with committees, and runs independent programs, like a weekly Coffee and Chat with Rabbi Matt at a local Dunkin’ Donuts.
His wife, Heather, is director of USY’s New York and New Jersey regions. They have a 3-year-old daughter.
To guide the selection committee that chose Nover, Beth El used focus groups to ascertain what the congregation was looking for in an assistant rabbi. What rose to the top, said Jay Kornsgold, senior rabbi, was “a good educator for our kids.” Although Nover had just been ordained, he already had extensive experience as a director of congregational learning and of a youth education program, a religious school principal, and a Hebrew high school interim director.
Moreover, Kornsgold told NJJN, Nover is “very personable, great with the kids, very enthusiastic, and his enthusiasm comes through in every thing he does.”
For example, Nover set up a system whereby students in the religious school earn points for asking challenging questions, attending services beyond those required, and sending him pictures of Chanukah menorah lightings. The points are being accumulated toward an end-of-year prize. “The idea behind it is to build excitement,” Kornsgold said.
He added that Nover “is always coming up with new ideas, trying new things educationally, and trying to make sure everyone is as comfortable as possible at synagogue.” As prayer leader, for example, he said Nover is planning an “alternate tunes Shabbat,” for Friday evening, Jan. 17 (with the understanding that if congregants don’t like the departure from their traditional melodies, he won’t repeat it).
Even though many people who knew him expected Nover to become a rabbi, he said he didn’t make the decision until he was exposed to several alternatives post-high school, including an internship in biomedical research, a year at the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel as part of the Nativ program, and a stint teaching gifted but underprivileged students through the international Breakthrough Collaborative.
Those experiences left him realizing he wanted to do “something Jewish and something in education.” So he looked for a university with a Jewish studies program that “focused on studying texts rather than sociology or anthropology.” Rutgers University had that — and good programs in science, which he had loved as a kid.
In fact, Nover did a double major at Rutgers: Jewish studies and physics. “The way I understand the world is, science is how the world works and religion is why, and it gives you a whole different level of appreciation for everything when you can see both of those at the same time,” he said.
Clearly drawn to teaching, he enrolled in the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS, where he earned a master’s degree in education, with specialties in Hebrew language and day school education. He also earned a master’s certificate through the iCenter for Israel Education. He graduated in 2014, then took a year to see the world and earn some money before entering JTS’s Rabbinical School.
During his rabbinical training, Nover said, he appreciated learning both academics and the more practical skills that religious leaders need in the field. In addition to clinical pastoral education, students take a first-year seminar on theology, where they explore a range of Jewish thinking about God.
Nover also cited a class with Prof. Benjamin Sommer in which students examine the Bible from an academic perspective, but also discuss the imperative of discovering “how to live in the world, what is the right thing to do.”
“We can learn all these interesting things about the Bible and biblical Hebrew,” Nover said, “but as rabbis we need to be able to take that a step further and share that in a way that matters to modern Judaism.”