B’nai Jeshurun’s chief ‘people person’ retires

B’nai Jeshurun’s chief ‘people person’ retires

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Alice Lutwak and Marc Rothstein, her successor as executive director of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Alice Lutwak and Marc Rothstein, her successor as executive director of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

Alice Lutwak is a bit of an iconoclast, a mass of contradictions, and a very appealing personality. She’s been executive director of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (TBJ), where she is also a member, for the last 13 years.

“I feel great,” she told NJJN on Friday, June 22, her last day of work. “The question is, Monday morning when I wake up and realize I’ll have to clean the house and go shopping, how will I feel?”

Few executive directors remain in one place as long as she has. Her secret? “It’s all about relationships,” she said.

It helps that she’s known the senior rabbi, Matthew Gewirtz, since the 1990s when he was a rabbinical student and she was director of administration in Manhattan at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC). And she points out that Cantor Howard Stahl and she are the same generation, “so we see things similarly.” As for “the young ones,” as she refers to the associate rabbi, Karen Perolman, and assistant cantor, Lucy Fishbein, “I basically adopted them.”

But her time at TBJ was more focused on congregants than clergy as she handled dues payments and the like. That’s where her philosophy guided her: “I’m interested in families,” she said. “It’s not about the money, it’s not about the job, it’s never about members and paying dues.” Rather, she said, “if you develop relationships, then people feel comfortable disclosing uncomfortable truths about their lives that affect their ability to pay.”

Her open-mindedness is apparent everywhere, especially in her attitude toward the people of her Reform congregation, often assumed to be uniformly affluent because of the synagogue’s prestigious address on South Orange Avenue in Short Hills, the building’s soaring architecture, and a membership roster that includes prominent philanthropists and at least one billionaire.

“I deal with congregants whose lives appear to be absolutely wonderful and perfect,” said Lutwak. But getting to know them better changed her. “It made me more cautious about jumping to assumptions,” she said. “You can live in Short Hills in a big house with three children in private school and everything looks peachy. But you learn that one of the children has huge problems; or a husband just lost a job at an age where he is not sure he will ever find another.”

And Alice Lutwak knows from her own family history that appearances can be deceiving. She was raised in Prague by her parents, both Holocaust survivors. Alice’s mother came from a well-to-do family in the town of Sighet in northern Romania, and her parents initially lived there when they married. Most people in the town were quite religious — it’s the birthplace of the Satmar rebbe, whose sister appears in photos from Lutwak’s parents’ wedding.

Even though Lutwak’s father and grandfather were both rabbis, they were not religious in the traditional sense: They had been ordained Neolog rabbis in Budapest, Hungary, akin to Conservative Judaism today, and were not permitted to pray in the Orthodox synagogues in Sighet. Her parents had two children who died in the Holocaust, and Alice and another sibling were born after the war.

Alice moved to Germany before coming to the United States and earning a bachelor’s degree at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University at a time “when a B.A. meant something,” she said. Although not a native English speaker, she majored in English literature, and when she went to look for a job, she ended up on Wall Street.

She became a stay-at-home mom to raise her two children, got divorced, and when she returned to the job market, she saw an ad for a job at HUC, the flagship seminary of the Reform movement. “I might not have been a perfect candidate, but I had the Jewish background and they needed someone smart who could be trained,” she said.

While it was her deep Jewish background that enabled her to excel at the job, it wasn’t exactly what cinched the interview process. Rather, she credits her hire to, well, relationships. Her first date ever was with the brother of David Saperstein who, at the time of her interview, was director and chief legal counsel at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, a position he held for more than 30 years. When the interviewers asked what she knew about HUC, rather than offering soaring rhetoric about the importance of Reform Judaism, she mentioned that she knew David Saperstein. He happened to be sitting in an office in the building, and he came down to greet her.

After leaving HUC she worked in her first executive director job at the Reform Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, N.Y., a congregation of some 625 families, and when she moved to TBJ, her diverse religious background enabled her to put prospective members at ease, regardless of their religious affiliations.

Engaging and likeable, Lutwak also has a no-nonsense quality about her. She’s curious, smart, and interested in the world. Maybe that explains why she has so many fascinating contacts and they may be at the heart of something she’d like to pursue in retirement: bringing the interesting people she knows to speak at area synagogues. And by “interesting” she means scholars, authors, and artists; she said she doesn’t know why, but they seem to be drawn into her orbit. Meeting them, she said, “simply happened by accident.”

“I am not an intellectual, and I am not a professor. My husband,” Aron Lutwak, the longtime owner of Ideal Bookstore near Columbia University, “reads philosophy, I read the Enquirer,” she said, although it seems unlikely that the National Enquirer is the most brain-nourishing material she consumes.

After 28 years — half of her professional life — working in the Jewish community, she said, “The job is more than a job. It’s a way of life.… You’re working for a sacred institution.” She has spent more time at work than at home, and her cell phone is listed in the temple directory. “And people use it,” she said. But she embraced the work, and like other aspects of her life, she remained committed, efficient, and unapologetic.

She is succeeded by Marc Rothstein, who had been executive director of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, a 700-family synagogue, since 2014. He and his wife, Shari, the associate religious school director at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, recently moved to Florham Park from South Brunswick. He has already begun at TBJ, and overlapped briefly with

Rothstein won’t try to fill her shoes. “I can’t be the next Alice,” he said. “I’m going to be myself.”

Lutwak is planning to give him the space to do exactly that. She’ll be away for Rosh HaShanah, “so Marc can have the undivided attention of the congregants,” she said.

Her advice to him? “Relationships, relationships, relationships.”

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