Next month, Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg will begin a one-year term as interim rabbi at The Jewish Center (TJC) in Princeton. For the past three decades, he’s been senior vice president and global director of rabbinic career advancement of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the international professional association of Conservative rabbis. In that position he led the career development of rabbis in the movement and oversaw their job placements.
He has a varied educational background, including rabbinic ordination and a master’s degree in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary; he studied philosophy and chasidism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and is a N.Y.-state-trained disaster chaplain.
In addition, he’s a fair-trade coffee aficionado who, before the Covid-19 pandemic, led coffee tours in New York City. He recently returned from an RA trip to Uganda, where he met with the Abuyadaya Jewish community and toured their many coffee farms.
Schoenberg is married to Rabbi Cathy Felix, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne. They have three grown sons.
NJJN: What made you want to return to the pulpit after nearly 30 years away?
Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg: I began my career as a pulpit rabbi, spending a dozen fulfilling years in two pulpits in the Boston area (Temple Aliyah in Needham and Temple Emanuel in Newton, Mass.). I actually was not looking to work for the RA, they approached me because they were seeking a “happy” pulpit rabbi. I loved my work for the RA, and now it feels like I am moving full circle, to end my career in the position I love best: the pulpit rabbinate.
The themes of my rabbinate have been teaching, counseling, and building relationships. I look forward to bringing those strengths to TJC.
NJJN: How will you preserve the legacy of TJC Rabbi Adam Feldman, who passed away in December, and what innovations do you plan to bring to the congregation?
ES: The role of the interim rabbi is not the same as that of the permanent rabbi. I am not here to bring my agenda and my innovations. I am here to respect, appreciate, and articulate the strengths of the congregation. I think about the interim rabbis via a metaphor — rabbi as mirror. I reflect back to the congregational leadership what they say and do with greater clarity and perspective. I am a tool so they can see themselves better. The mark of my success is that they will find a successor to Rabbi Feldman who matches their strengths.
I knew Rabbi Feldman, and respected him. We often golfed together. Mine was the better short game and he was an excellent long-ball hitter. Together, we made a very good golfer. The loss of Rabbi Feldman is a great tragedy. Nothing can replace his warmth and caring for each individual member of the community. My role will be to listen to my congregants as they tell me their stories. Through storytelling and deep listening comes healing.
NJJN: How will you unite a congregation while programming and prayer remain virtual?
ES: In the middle of this pandemic, I will bring all of my experience, creativity, and energy to help the congregation chart a new path. This task will be a partnership with the staff and the talented lay leaders. We will experiment and see what works. This is a good time to take risks. We will learn together what works best.
NJJN: What is your favorite Jewish ritual?
ES: We are now in the Omer season, in which we count each day between the holiday of Pesach and the holiday of Shavuot. I like counting the Omer because: There is a blessing, it’s brief, and it reminds me to focus on the joys of this day and this moment, to try not to worry about the larger issues just for this moment. Every day the Omer inspires me to think of something I give thanks for.
NJJN: What’s Jewish about a good cup of joe?
ES: Quality coffee and ethical questions around the production of coffee are my passions. Over the last four months, I created a walking tour in Greenwich Village that traces the history and ethical concerns around coffee. Greenwich Village is the birthplace of espresso in America, and still contains many ethnic and high-quality coffee stores (plus it’s a fun neighborhood for a walking tour.)
The history of coffee is a lens to examine our own ethical values. Coffee touches on slavery, feminist expression, political freedom, workers’ rights, climate change, and so much more. When the pandemic ends, I look forward to sharing this adventure with my new community in Princeton. I love teaching in an informal setting, especially outdoors while drinking good coffee. I am anticipating exploring good coffee places in Mercer County.
Edited by NJJN Managing Editor Shira Vickar-Fox