Rabbi Peter Rubinstein was in his office at the 92nd Street Y one recent morning, planning some upcoming educational programs he leads as director of the institution’s Jewish Community and Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.
It was a typical day for the rabbi — except that he was among a few Y employees at work there that day, as the institution was closed because of coronavirus, and most staffers were working at home.
And the rabbi is retired, a word he dislikes.
“I graduated” — to another challenging job — says Rabbi Rubinstein, who stepped down from his senior pulpit post at Midtown’s prestigious Central Synagogue in 2014, at 71, after nearly 25 years there. After just a few months off, he took the position at the Y in part to beef up the institution’s Jewish offerings.
Though he still serves in an emeritus position at Central Synagogue, delivering an occasional sermon and officiating at life cycle events for congregants with whom he established a close relationship, he now works a full schedule at the Y, teaching and designing new classes and using the skills and contacts he developed in his earlier jobs.
At Central Synagogue, he was in essence “the chief of staff. Here I’m not — which is fine.” Now he’s not responsible for handling every emergency that happens among other staff members or congregants. Now, he says, he can devote his time to education, not administrative duties.
Rabbi Rubinstein is among a handful of leaders of prominent Jewish organizations who, as they reached traditional retirement age, transitioned to equally prominent and equally rigorous jobs.
In that elite group are Michael Schneider, the South African-born former executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee who became secretary general of the World Jewish Congress; Abraham Foxman, who, after retiring in 2015 as the long-time national director of the Anti-Defamation League at 75, became head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust; Rabbi David Saperstein, 72, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, who served as U.S. ambassador for International Religious Freedom during the Obama administration after stepping down as long-time director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center; and John Ruskay, who served as a commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom after 15 years as executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York.
All are men, because until recent decades, few women held such long-time, senior leadership positions in major national or local Jewish organizations.
These not-quite-retired men offer an alternative vision of post-career life, opting for full-time work instead of traveling, studying or doing volunteer work. Unlike many men and women of retirement age, they find that their previous high-profile jobs led to more offers for desirable working opportunities when they decide to leave those earlier jobs.
For these retirees who are still in good health, there won’t be any golden years spent relaxing in Florida, the standard path for many golden agers. “I don’t play golf,” Rabbi Rubinstein says in a telephone interview, dismissing any notion of a sedate life of ease.
He wanted to keep working, he says, because he wanted to keep “serving the Jewish people. I love teaching.”
Like Rabbi Rubinstein, other retirees who take on new jobs when they leave their long-time positions in the Jewish community typically enjoy the opportunity to keep doing what they love (like teaching) and to stop doing what they don’t necessarily enjoy (like balancing budgets). The author of a few books, Rabbi Rubinstein didn’t want to write another one, as many retired rabbis do.
The desire of some renowned leaders who wish to keep contributing to the Jewish community offers Jewish organizations the chance to combine the young blood of men and women entering the field with “a different type of wisdom … a perspective” of decades on the job, says Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, editor of “More Than Managing: The Relentless Pursuit of Effective Jewish Leadership” (Jewish Lights, 2016). The older leaders, he says, “are the memories of society.”
“Jewish culture makes room for its elders,” says Rabbi Hoffman, professor emeritus of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College. “Just because you are old does not mean that you have to retire from everything … you reach a different stage of knowledge,” he says.
“Sometimes people want to exercise their greater wisdom” in a different setting, says Rabbi Hoffman, who retired last year at 76. “It is good” for the Jewish community,” Rabbi Hoffman says. “It is good” for the Jewish community. “You don’t waste the wisdom of the older generation. The more wisdom you have in the Jewish community, the better,”
Rabbi Rubinstein says he stepped down from the pulpit six years ago because the “physical” demands, especially of participating in High Holiday services at multiple locations was becoming “exhausting,” and because his memory, especially for people’s names, wasn’t what it once had been.
“I wanted to leave at the top of my game,” he says. “I wasn’t as sharp as I had been. I didn’t want to be on the downward slope.”
After he announced his intention to leave the full-time rabbinate, Rabbi Rubinstein says he went to lunch with an old friend in his age group. The friend advised the rabbi, “Don’t take the first position” offered.
How many offers would “a used rabbi” get, Rabbi Rubinstein wondered. Several, it turned out.
He was a known quantity in the Jewish community, having strengthened Central Synagogue’s membership rolls, financial situation and reputation and shepherding the congregation through a disastrous 1998 fire that heavily damaged the building.
Several organizations expressed an interest in hiring him, Rabbi Rubinstein says. The Y seemed the best fit. There he heads a small rabbinic staff, serves as “a rabbinic voice” and is available for counseling and working with local rabbis — with whom he is “not in competition” as a pulpit rabbi — on educational projects.
Although he has lived for decades in the Y’s neighborhood, “I had only been in the building twice.”
At the Y, Rabbi Rubinstein has no fundraising responsibility, and does not deliver sermons, which is fine with him.
What does he miss from his pulpit rabbi’s job?
“I miss the people I knew. I miss the face-to-face, in-the-trenches work,” he says. In other words, the relationships with hundreds of congregants he saw on a regular basis.
At the Y, he says, he is able to reach the type of people he didn’t reach before, and wouldn’t meet as a congregational rabbi: the unaffiliated, the Jews not interested in joining or stepping inside a synagogue.
His “congregation” has expanded, he says.
“I didn’t expect to be here six years. I thought it would be two, three years, and then I would do something else.” But he has kept enjoying the work. “My day is full.”
Rabbi Rubinstein says he has no immediate plans to retire or “graduate” to another job.
“I will stay here,” he says, “as long as I can serve the Jewish community.”