Building and anchoring a community

Building and anchoring a community

As Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Agudath Israel in Caldwell retires, he looks back — and ahead

Rabbi Alan Silverstein
Rabbi Alan Silverstein

There are very few synagogues that don’t advertise themselves as a place where just about anybody can feel at home right away.

No matter how cold a shoulder or fish-like an eye its regulars might turn on newcomers, just about any shul is likely to self-report as, to use the by-now-entirely-meaning-free term of art, “warm and welcoming.”

Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell does not follow that general rule. It genuinely is warm and welcoming, and that truth is not something left to chance or goodwill. It’s a result of the philosophy that its senior rabbi, the about-to-retire Alan Silverstein, has followed in the 42 years he’s held its pulpit.

As his community prepares to celebrate his tenure, Rabbi Silverstein looks back at the life he’s led in the Caldwell shul, the people he’s influenced, the differences he’s made, and the hope he maintains. As a committed Conservative Jew, whose deep belief in the movement has guided many of his decisions, he finds that the tension between tradition and change, the past and the future, continues to pull, and he continues to be exhilarated by the high-wire act, even as he is about to leave it to his successors.

Unlike many other shuls, particularly in the progressive world, Agudath Israel is not losing members. To the contrary, it’s growing. The pandemic has brought it slightly down from its peak — “normally we’re at about 900 families, but now we have about 850,” Rabbi Silverstein said. “We didn’t have the normal intake during the pandemic, but we will bounce back. We see that in terms of the very substantial influx of families with 2-year-olds into the community; we normally have more than 100 children in our preschool.”

When he got to Agudath Israel in 1979, “we had about 325 households,” Rabbi Silverstein said. “So, in an era where so many synagogues unfortunately have decreased in size, to have tripled is unusual. We now have the largest membership of any Conservative synagogue in the state.”

So how did that happen? How did he do it?

Carefully and quite consciously, Rabbi Silverstein said, and in the end, underlying every point he made, it’s all about relationships. Connections between people. All of it.

“I worked hard, by becoming a leader in many organizations in the movement, in the community beyond the shul, and outside,” he said. “And I set the tone for our laypeople to become leaders in so many institutions beyond the shul. We became not a local shul, but an area one. We attracted members from many towns who were looking for a synagogue that was engaged with issues beyond its four walls.”

In 1988, shul leaders broke ground on an expansion. Rabbi Silverstein is second from the right in this group.

Some of that growth was made possible by a Conservative movement teshuvah — the answer to a question about driving on Shabbat, posed to the movement’s Committee on Law and Standards, that allowed observant Conservative Jews to drive to their synagogues on Shabbat, although no farther. (That ruling, in 1950, both grew out of historic changes — the Jewish suburban diaspora that often deposited shul-goers in big houses outside walking distance to their synagogues made the movement leaders decide that driving was necessary — and was the cause of changes, as Conservative Jews no longer felt the need to live near each other, in observant communities. The part of the teshuvah that said that the only acceptable ride was to the nearest shul wasn’t the part to which many people paid much attention.)

That meant that by the time Rabbi Silverstein got to Agudath Israel, potential members were not put off by having to drive, and they were attracted by what they’d find once they’d parked and walked in. It also meant that the shul could grow from being a convenient but unchallenging neighborhood accommodation to a destination, a place well worth the ride.

“The second thing that has accounted for our growth is that over the years we’ve gained the reputation of being a synagogue that is open to innovation and change,” Rabbi Silverstein continued. “As a result, we were approached and became part of national cohorts — of Synagogue 2000, of the Star Initiative Synaplex, of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Hebrew immersion track for our preschool, of Chancellor Eisen’s mitzvah curriculum — and because of my presidencies, a lot of cutting-edge involvement with Masorti Olami, with Jews in Latin America and Europe, with Masorti Israel.” Rabbi Silverstein was talking about the various Conservative movement bodies around the world that he’s led; the movement is called Masorti outside North America. “We’ve had a lot of engagement with Masorti Jews from Israel and around the world,” he said. Today, Rabbi Silverstein is president of Mercaz Olami, a worldwide Conservative movement body, and he’s on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The third part, though, might be the most basic. Rabbi Silverstein paid attention to the people who made up the community — professionals, lay leaders, rank-and-file members. He saw their talents and potentials and helped them both develop those characteristics and also make friends.

He described how he came to that understanding of his job through a story. “One of my cousins is a guy named Arn Tellem, who is America’s most successful sports agent,” Rabbi Silverstein said. (His cousin also is the vice chairman of the Detroit Pistols.) “When Arn reached age 13, given that his dad was five foot eight, he realized that he would never be a player in the NBA, so he began to strategize a way to be involved by building connections in other ways.

“I realized that I could never be the general manager of an NBA team, although I am a passionate basketball fan, but I have assembled an unusually talented and cohesive professional team, and that has been crucial to our success.

“You don’t have many synagogues like this — Kaplan, Silverstein, and Werk have been together for over 30 years, and each of us, in our own real way, have been national leaders.” (That’s Cantor Joel Kaplan and Susan Werk, the synagogue’s educational director.)

“My strategy always has been to recruit people who are thinking out of the box — and then to give them the opportunity to spread their wings and fly,” he said. He recruited Cantor Kaplan when he still was in cantorial school, in 1983, and “Susan Werk had never been a synagogue educator when I saw her, but I saw that she was who we needed, so we recruited her in 1990.

Agudath Israel’s professional team — from left, Cantor Joel Caplan, Rabbi Ari Lucas, Education Director Susan Werk, and Rabbi Alan Silverstein.

“And then we created other positions. We created a membership concierge, because it’s daunting at times for members, particularly new members, to figure out where they best fit. So we recruited a human resource pro from our synagogue, a recruiter, Debbie Lurie, and she has been extraordinary for 13 years.

“Because we were open to this kind of innovative staff culture, when the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, along with the JCC, gave grants to establish a synagogue version of the parish nurse, who has the capacity to engage people’s intertwined spiritual and health needs — because of that, we, along with a few other synagogues, accepted the grant. And when it expired after three years, we made it a priority, and now we have a part-time synagogue nurse on our staff.” And no, that’s not instead of a social worker. It’s as well as a social worker.”

The idea of interwoven relationships, of people knowing each other and working with each other instead of as lantern-jawed free agents, is so deeply part of the synagogue’s DNA that Rabbi Silverstein and its lay leaders figured out a way to replace him that is counterintuitive to much of the movement but is working spectacularly.

The Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbis’ group, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents its shuls, recommend that once a long-serving rabbi leaves, the congregation should hire an interim rabbi, someone with no interest in staying beyond a year or two. (Oh, and the RA is another organization that Rabbi Silverstein once served as president; during his term, he reformed the way that rabbis’ job searches worked.) That limbo would give the community enough time to shake off the spell of the old rabbi and prepare a blank slate for the new one. Instead, “I told our lay leadership five years ago that I was going to retire now, in our 100th year,” Rabbi Silverstein said. “I wanted us to hire my successor several years before I would retire, so we could work together, and the moment I retire that wonderful person, who the lay people will choose, will be regarded as an integral part of the shul.

“We were told by the RA that nobody does that. That it won’t work. That the senior rabbi” — Rabbi Silverstein — “would not cooperate.

“But we recruited Rabbi Ari Lucas, and we hired him, and he is wonderful. Now, as I am on a final six-month sabbatical before I retire, he is part of the shul, and it will be a seamless transition. And generally, after 42 years a transition would not be seamless.”

As he begins his move out of the pulpit, Rabbi Silverstein talked about how he got there. He was born in Philadelphia in 1948, the son of Sol and Doris. Sol Silverstein was a lay leader in their then-thriving Conservative shul, the now-shuttered Beth Tefillah of Overbrook Park. His father came from a long line of rabbis, including the founder of the fabled Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania, but he didn’t know that until after his father died. “When I was bar mitzvah, the shul probably had about 150 of them that year. It was a baby-boom neighborhood,” Rabbi Silverstein said. He went to Central High, Philadelphia’s Stuyvesant equivalent, and then went on to Cornell, where his inherent leadership skills started surfacing. “I was president of my fraternity, and of Hillel, where I led the battle for establishing Jewish studies at Cornell,” he said. “They didn’t exist then. By the time I left, Cornell had the beginnings of a robust Jewish studies program.”

Alan Silverstein went straight to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he worked toward both smicha and a doctoral degree; he was ordained in 1975, began work on his dissertation the next year, and finally completed it 12 years later. He published that work, done with Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis, as a book called “Alternatives to Assimilation”; it was an analysis of how the Reform movement in America, from 1840 to 1930, “developed the unique institutions of the American synagogue that then were borrowed by the Conservative movement and by modern Orthodoxy,” he said.

Rabbi Silverstein with Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

Rabbi Silverstein married Rita Neufeld; she was born in Antwerp, the daughter of survivors. “She only spent her first six months there, but she cries in Flemish,” Rabbi Silverstein said. Rita Neufeld Silverstein, who grew up in an Orthodox community in Brooklyn, is fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish. She’s a retired executive recruiter; she and Rabbi Silverstein are the parents of two children, and they have four grandchildren.

At around the time that he got married, Rabbi Silverstein went from JTS to a small shul in suburban Philadelphia, where he was the founding rabbi. But although he didn’t mind his congregants riding to shul, he wanted to walk, so he had to find a synagogue that was not planning to expand on the other side of the highway from his house. That’s how he found Agudath Israel.

As he settled into his new community, that experience, his academic research, and the observations he’d made as he grew up in the American Jewish community, convinced Rabbi Silverstein that “megatrends in American society are what drive synagogue innovation, and that became a guiding light in the way I operated our synagogue,” he said.

“Most historians think that Mordecai Kaplan invented the synagogue center — the shul with the pool — but I show that all of that stuff already happened in shuls in the 1880s, and that’s because they were imitating what the churches already were doing. Men’s clubs and sisterhoods and institutionalized social work — all this predated Kaplan. Kaplan deserves a great deal of credit — he made mainstream in eastern European Conservative and modern Orthodox synagogues what was going on in German-American synagogues, but at base it was not Kaplan. It was America.”

Transformation is a huge American megatrend, Rabbi Silverstein said. And he’s always been aware of that truth.

Bill Lipsey is a member of Agudath Israel, and he’s the founder of the Honey Foundation for Israel. Rabbi Silverstein quotes him frequently. “Bill is a very strategic thinker, and he always says that institutions do not stay the same; they either decline or they continue to rise,” he said. “If you think you are staying the same, you are not. You are in decline. You always have to be on your toes as needs emerge.”

In the last 10 years, he’s shifted his focus from young families — not that he’s no longer interested in them, far from it, but he thinks that the most pressing need right now is elsewhere — to empty nesters and their elders. “Suburban synagogues that premise their vitality on serving families with children at home — and that is very important, and we have to put tremendous energy and money into that — but if that is your only focus, you are in trouble. The baby boomers are such a big driver of so many things. And if you don’t engage the empty nesters, you’re making a huge mistake.

“So when we doubled the size of our building in 2009, we built the new sanctuary, the early childhood center, and the Lipsey engagement wing, and today we have 200 adults engaged in adult learning every week.

With King Hussein of Jordan

“People are looking for a shul. You don’t have the 92nd Street Y in the suburbs, but if you are looking for a suburban place, here it is. We are meeting adults’ needs.

“This is a megatrend,” Rabbi Silverstein added. “A global megatrend. Keeping adults engaged.”

After he retires, Alan and Rita Silverman plan to spend about four months a year in Israel — that’s where their son and his family live — and they will travel a good deal, but West Caldwell is their home, and he will be the shul’s senior rabbi emeritus. He will begin his second five-year term as president of Mercaz Olami, he is writing a centennial history of Agudath Israel, he will continue to teach at the shul, and he plans to keep writing. As retirements go, it’s semi at most, and it seems well-tailored for Rabbi Silverstein.

“The word to describe Rabbi Silverstein is visionary,” Susan Werk, the shul’s education director, said. What’s his vision? “To bring people closer to God, from wherever they are. To bring them closer to their Judaism, in a non-judgmental way. To really become a link in the chain of our tradition.”

One of the ways he attracts people to the shul is by inviting them personally, not just to shul but to town, she said. “He would recruit people to come to live in the Caldwells. He’d pick up the phone and call them and say ‘why don’t you move here?’ Any professional leader who he heard about, he’d call and try to recruit them. He was always calling people and telling them about the Caldwells.”

He wasn’t necessarily recruiting people for jobs in Agudath Israel, she explained. He wooed people who had jobs and stayed in them, but whose presence as shul members would add to the congregation’s depth of knowledge, commitment, and conviction.

“Rabbi Silverstein is the role model of Conservative Judaism,” Ms. Werk continued. “He conserves Judaism while changing it. He is the beacon of the movement. He loves it. He is passionate about it. He believes in it. And 100 percent he believes that it is has a future.

“And the thing about him is that he is almost always right. He is correct almost all the time.”

With Pope John Paul II

Ms. Werk is a prime example of the ways in which Rabbi Silverstein spots talent. He first ran into her when she worked at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, as his son’s rosh edah, the head of his division. “He saw potential in me and in Cantor Kaplan when we both were still at the seminary,” she said. “He wooed us, so Kenny Kaplan and I both have worked in only one institution.” In 2008, Ms. Werk won the Covenant Award, which goes to three outstanding Jewish educators every year. It is a highly prestigious honor.

When she started at Agudath Israel, Ms. Werk was the principal of the Hebrew school; now she oversees all its educational programs, from early childhood to what it would be rude if accurate to call old age. She also works on specific projects. She, Rabbi Silverstein, and the rest of the staff worked for many years to bring the magic of Shabbat to the shul; once they’d gotten that love affair well rooted, they took on adult education. And although they couldn’t have planned it this way, “during the pandemic, that was our savior,” Ms. Werk said. The synagogue’s leaders knew how to reach their lonely, uneasy members, and to keep them engaged. “During the pandemic, we have classes online on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays in the mornings,” she said. The educational program is wide-ranging — in Agudath Israel style, she credits a congregant, Phil Kruger, with the breadth of its mission and with its success. And it also includes Zoom trips, thanks to another congregant, Laurie Fuchs Meyer, who has brought congregants around the world, at least in their minds’ eyes.

Gayle Wieseneck is Agudath Israel’s president; she’s also one of the 75 or so members who is second-generation there, “and I have a third generation,” she said.

“My parents moved to Caldwell in the late 1950s, and they joined the synagogue right away, so I grew up there,” she continued. “My mom, Toby, who has passed away, was president of the sisterhood, and my dad, Roy, who still comes to synagogue with us, was president of the men’s club. My mom was on the search committee for Rabbi Silverstein, and I was on the search committee for Rabbi Lucas. So I had the vantage point to see Agudath grow from a really much smaller synagogue, but always warm and welcoming and active, to the community that it is today.”

What did her mother see in Rabbi Silverstein? “I think she saw a young, dynamic, innovative rabbi who could take our community to the next level,” she said. “He arrived in 1979, and my bat mitzvah was in 1980. I was part of the first bar and bat mitzvah class. He made an impact on the community by connecting people to each other and forming social networks. He made you feel welcomed and engaged. He transformed the community.”

Agudath Israel is now a destination synagogue, she said; when she was growing up West Caldwell was not a particularly Jewish town. It is now because Agudath Israel is such a draw. And it also attracts families like hers; she now lives in West Orange, “but we went back to Agudath because of the community it had become and what it has to offer.” It draws families from Livingston, Montville, and Pine Brook, she added.

“It’s remarkable to see the transformation,” she said. “When I look at the people who are younger than me, and I see how involved and engaged in the synagogue they are, it is amazing. I feel vested in it because I grew up there, and I probably would get involved in any synagogue I joined, but the depth and the breadth and the commitment of these future leaders of the synagogue is amazing.”

Paula Mack Drill is a senior rabbi at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, New York, right over the state line in Rockland County. She lives in Caldwell with her husband, and until they grew up and moved away, so did their children. But every weekend she and Jonathan go up to Orangetown. (Or at least they did, until covid struck, and they will again, once the threat is gone.)

With President Bill Clinton

The story of why she does that is deeply entwined with the story of Agudath Israel, and of Rabbi Alan Silverstein.

“We joined Agudath before we were married, and we had our aufruf there,” Rabbi Drill said. “We were looking for a shul, and my first big lesson in what a rabbinate could be was from this rabbi, who not only radically welcomed us but followed up with calls about real estate in the neighborhood, and who introduced us to people our age, and who made sure we did not get away.

“Radically welcomed us means that the very first time we showed up, before he knew who we were, he sent people over to make sure that someone talked to us. The second time we showed up, he remembered our names. And then soon after that there was a Tu B’Shevat lunch, and he came to us and said, ‘Please stay for lunch.’
“We felt like we were treasured.

“I’ve seen him do that with other people since then,” she continued. “Jon and I became those people,” the people sent to do the welcoming. “Jon is a lawyer, and in the middle of the service Rabbi Silverstein might sidle over to Jon and ask him to talk to the people four rows behind us, because he knows one of them is a lawyer.”

“Jon is from Essex County, and I was studying Jewish studies and social work at the Seminary then. And Rabbi Silverstein had the vision — which really influenced his rabbinate — that the way to build a community is by being a community builder. To bring people in, and to anchor them.

“So part of the gift of Alan Silverstein’s rabbinate is about the empowerment of the entire community. That’s what held us in place. He had a vision about the community, so we all built it together.”

That was in 1984. “We used to be one of the cute young couples, and now we’re the alte kakers,” she said. “And the next generation, the children of a lot of the people we raised our children with, are still here.”

Rabbi Drill went to rabbinical school at least in part because Rabbi Silverstein recognized her innate talent for leadership, her spirituality, her warmth, her intellect, and her interest in Jewish text and thought. (And no, it is not Rabbi Drill who said that about herself.) “He saw that I could teach, and when you start teaching you start learning so much,” she said. Rabbi Silverstein encouraged her teaching.

With prominent Israeli politician and coalition builder Yair Lapid

“So much of my being a rabbi is wrapped up in the models I learned from Rabbi Silverstein,” Rabbi Drill said. “I’m coming up on 20 years in the rabbinate now, and I now know what it feels like to be able to marry the children I named. He now gets to marry the children whose parents he named.

“So we didn’t move to Rockland because these are the people we raised our children with. This is our original chevre. When I retire, I will really look forward to being here.

“And I’m a big Rabbi Lucas fan. I am so pleased that Agudath Israel is going to continue to grow and to change, and also to be the same anchor for the community.”

This weekend, the community will fete Alan and Rita Silverstein; they won’t be saying goodbye, but they will be saying thank you. Because there’s still a pandemic going on, even though it’s waning, the celebrations won’t be traditional, but they will be full of spirit and love.

During the late afternoon on Friday, a car parade of well-wishers will display their creativity through signs, decorations, songs, and whatever else might occur to them as they drive through the parking lot.

On Shabbat morning, congregants who signed up in advance will be able to go to in-person services that will pay homage to Rita Silverstein, and both Rita and Alan will schmooze with congregants in a tent. Because of covid, the discussions will be scheduled.

On Sunday morning, the Rabbi Alan Silverstein Center for Prayer, Jewish Life and Learning will be opened online, from 10 to 11:30.

It will be a time of great and mixed emotion — nostalgia, some sadness, some rue, along with hope, gratitude, and pure in-the-moment joy. It’ll provide a fitting transition from one part of the Silversteins’ story to the next, and equally from one chapter of Agudath Israel’s story to its next. Those two stories are inextricably woven together.

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