People often use the word “journey” metaphorically; a person’s “Jewish journey” has become cliché.
Sometimes, though, it’s literally true. James Proops and his wife, Sarah Taylor Proops, have been back and forth between London, where they both were born and grew up, and Israel and then Los Angeles, where they began their careers, and those legs of their shared journey were unlikely enough. But it’s hard to imagine that either of them, the rabbi or the rebbitzen, had thought much about New Jersey.
Now, they’re the new rabbinic couple at the realistically if prosaically named Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston; they and their four children moved to town just a few weeks ago.
Both of their families have long, deep roots in Western Europe. Although much of the English Jewish community traces itself directly back to Eastern Europe, coming from the same places that most American Jews trace themselves to, Rabbi Proops’s family had been in England since the early 1800s. “They’re very English,” he said.
Although if you look far enough back you can find their roots in Germany, by the 1600s the Proops were established in Amsterdam, where they first were booksellers and then became “a very famous family of printers,” Rabbi Proops said. They bought one of the first printing presses and started producing Jewish books — “gemaras and chumashin,” and then a Talmud, books about Kabbalah, and other works of scholarship — until the nineteenth century. The family are kohanim, and the logo in each of the books their press publishes is two hands doing the classic kohain’s split-fingered salute.
Then “the family grows and splinters off, and at some point some of the family moves to England,” Rabbi Proops said. “I don’t have all the details, but all of my grandparents were born in England.” His maternal grandparents came from Russia, arriving well before the Holocaust; “my grandfather was an officer in the British army,” he said. “Captain Freddie Proops.”
(As illustrious as his family’s history in England might be, Rabbi Proops said, his wife’s family is even more notable; we will tell that story separately, in a later issue.)
James Proops, who was born in 1983, grew up in Stanmore, “which is a very large Jewish community but not a particularly observant one,” he said. His shul, Stanmore Synagogue, “was the largest synagogue by membership in Europe.” It’s Orthodox, a member of the government-affiliated United Synagogue (which is entirely unrelated to and different from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in North America), but the Orthodoxy practiced there, Rabbi Proops said, was more similar to American Orthodoxy of the mid-20th century than today’s version.
“My parents were very involved in the synagogue, and so was I, from a very young age,” he said. “I was a madrich” — a counselor — “and a teacher, and I was running services, working in the community either as a volunteer or in a paid position. It was a very big part of my growing up.
“I did not go to Jewish schools,” he continued. “It was a bit different in those days, and very different from how it is here. The choice of Jewish day schools was very small. You only went to a Jewish school if you lived in certain neighborhoods.” Not his neighborhood. “But the population in my elementary school was over 50 percent Jewish. That was a very normal thing.”
Rabbi Proops’s high school was not Jewish either, but it was private. “I went to the City of London School for Boys,” he said. “It had a huge Jewish presence. It had an optional mincha opportunity every day. And we Jewish boys had a special dispensation. We didn’t have to wear the school’s crest, which had a St. George’s cross on it.
“It was a very rich Jewish environment.”
The school, which sits on the bank of the River Thames, was founded in 1442; its website describes how, “uniquely for the time,” it accepted Jewish boys starting in the mid-19th century. “It was the first private school that allowed Jews to attend,” Rabbi Proops said. “It has a long rich history of Jewish boys attending.”
After high school, Rabbi Proops went to Israel, spending his gap year at Yeshivat Hakotel; then it was back to England, to study international history and politics at the University of Leeds. “It’s a very popular place for Jewish students to go,” he said. “It’s a hub of Jewish activity.”
His plan was to “pursue a career in law, and as I was coming up to my final exams, I was applying for various positions in City law firms,” he said; in the British system, new college graduates try to be accepted by a law firm that then sponsors them in law school. Or, as he put it, “you try to get a job so they can pay for the education.”
He was in the middle of the application process “when I had a call from the assistant rabbi of the shul where I grew up,” he said. “He was successful as an assistant rabbi, and the youth and young family programming he worked on was booming. They needed a full-time youth director, and he wanted me to come and work with him in that capacity.
“I discussed it with him, and with my parents. I thought it was a great idea to take some time out before committing my life to law, so I deferred my place in law school.
“And I never looked back.”
Stanmore Synagogue was thriving. When he worked there, “We had 1,200 kids under the age of 18,” Rabbi Proops said. “We were running different programs every night of the week for different age groups. We put on plays and musicals. We ran trips to Israel, and also to Spain and Prague. It was an amazing place to be, and we took it to new levels.”
The community’s observance level was “widely varying,” he said. “You would have 2,000 families on Kol Nidre night, but on a regular Sunday morning you might have 30 people for Shacharit.” Because of his deep knowledge of the community, despite his own level of punctilious observance, “I feel very comfortable in a mixed environment,” he said.
Rabbi Proops was Stanmore’s youth director for two years. “Halfway through my first year, I was leading a trip to Israel for 15-year-olds,” he said. “There were about 20 of them, the rabbi and me. And there were a couple of other madrichim.” Those counselors were English, but they’d been spending their gap years in Israel, as he had just a few years earlier. “One of them was a madricha who took a week off from seminary to staff the trip.”
Yes, reader, you guessed it. That was Sarah Taylor, soon to become Sarah Proops. “She grew up in the same shul I did, but she was five years younger, so we really hadn’t crossed paths. But in the years when I had been away, she had become a very influential teenage leader for the girls.”
There were two other madrichim on the trip, he added. “One was my wife’s brother Sam, and the other was named Emma. They also married.
“It was a successful trip.”
Once Ms. Taylor’s gap year was over, she went back to London. “We started dating, our relationship developed, and it was then that I made the decision that I was enjoying and being fulfilled by working for the community. So I decided that I wanted to pursue smicha” — ordination — “and to work as a rabbi.”
The couple married and moved to Israel. “We made aliyah, and lived in Yerushalayim for five years,” Rabbi Proops said. “I was learning in a couple of different places in Israel, and Sarah finished college in Israel and worked in Midreshet Moriah. I got smicha at the Nativ Aryeh kollel.
“And then we faced a big decision. Do we stay in Israel and work in chinuch” — education — “in yeshivas, or do we look for a position outside Israel?”
They’d made aliyah. Their goal was to live in Israel. But…
“I spoke to my rabbis and mentors, and despite some of them having very strong Zionistic feelings, they all said that we needed to leave Israel, because they felt that what we had to offer was more needed and better suited to the diaspora community.
“Community rabbis don’t really exist in Israel in the same way that they do in the diaspora, and our passions, and humbly, our expertise would serve the Jewish people much better outside Israel,” he said.
“I wasn’t expecting this, but everyone I spoke to was pointing in the same direction.
“So we left.”
This was in 2013.
Where did they go? “Everything is a story,” Rabbi Proops said. “We had to look at shuls. Our instinct was to go to England. We had very little interest in going anywhere else. But there wasn’t really an attractive opportunity there. Just because you’re ready to go somewhere, that doesn’t mean that there is a place for you to go to.
“But we got a phone call from a rabbi in London who ran Aish U.K.” Aish is a worldwide outreach organization that teaches and engages young Jews with their people, history, and faith.
First, a word about the pronoun Rabbi Proops almost always uses when he talks about his work in the Jewish world. It’s rarely “I.” It’s almost always “we.” Sarah and James Proops. “We work together,” he said. “We are 100 percent a team. Sarah is the closest you can get to a professional rebbitzen. If a job like that existed, she would take it.” She’s been a mashgicha ruchanit — a spiritual adviser — and graduated from the Ma’ayan program run by the British chief rabbi’s office; she specializes in teaching women and girls.
Back to the offer from Aish.
“I didn’t know much about Aish, but the rabbi knew about us. He recruited us to work on campuses in the U.K. He had planned to send us to Nottingham, but when he talked to us, he mentioned that they were looking for a couple to go to Leeds,” Rabbi Proops’s alma mater. “It’s got more Jewish infrastructure than Nottingham, and we decided that it would be an amazing experience to work with students. So we did.
“We left Israel and went to Leeds, where we were the Aish couple on campus. It was an amazing experience, living on campus, working with a range of people from different backgrounds. It was hugely rewarding and impactful, and I’m still in touch with many of those students. Some of these relationships will last for a lifetime.”
The Proopses, who had left Israel with two sons, had a third, who was born in Leeds. “It’s a slightly less exotic place to be born, but he’s proud of it,” his father said. “And then, shortly after he was born, we were offered a position back in London, at a shul called Mill Hill.” It was a synagogue with a membership similar to Stanmore’s, large but on the whole not terribly observant. Rabbi Proops was charged with overseeing and growing the youth and young family programs, and he did. “It was all going very well, we were there for just over two years, and we had no interest in going anywhere else, and then I had a phone call, on motzei Shabbat, from one of my wife’s brothers.
“He was on vacation in Los Angeles, and he called and said, ‘I’ve got you a new job. You’re moving to L.A.’
“That’s what he’s like. And I wasn’t particularly taken by what he was saying, but nonetheless I always want to look. So he sent me a job description and put me in touch with the senior rabbi at Young Israel of Century City. I did some research, and he was right.”
“Neither Sarah nor I had spent time in America, and the opportunity to see for ourselves the vibrancy of American Orthodoxy had become very attractive,” Rabbi Proops said. “We decided that while our children were young enough, this was our chance to go and do one more crazy thing.”
So the family moved to Los Angeles, and Rabbi Proops worked with Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who became a major mentor and good friend; he learned from a master both how to run a shul efficiently and how to give pastoral care compassionately.
“We spent four amazing years in L.A., starting in 2017,” he said. “We moved to L.A. never having spent any time in America at all. It was only my wife’s second time there. It was a big move, leaving everyone behind – we didn’t know anyone – but it is an amazing community.
“The Pico-Robertson neighborhood is a different world. It is not like Jewish London. It is a very different demographic, with a very strong modern Orthodox component. It was fascinating to work there, and thank God, we were blessed with a number of successes.” As he had in earlier positions, Rabbi Proops worked primarily, though not exclusively, with young families.
Their fourth and youngest child, “a girl, our princess Rina,” was born in L.A. “My wife reminds us that she is the only one who can be president,” he said.
And then, “I wasn’t looking to leave, although obviously it’s always at the back of your mind when you’re an associate, but I wasn’t looking. But once again the phone rang.”
It was a call from Suburban Torah Center; the shul’s rabbi, Elie Mischel, and his family had planned to make aliyah for more than a year and left this summer. “They had been looking for a rabbi for some time,” Rabbi Proops said. “I am told that my name came up a number of times from various places, and they called me.
“I’d never heard of Livingston.
“But I spoke to them, I asked them to tell me about the shul, and they described a community which struck me I don’t want to say that it sounds unique, but it had a flavor that really spoke to me.
“Livingston is a relatively small town, but you’re also not far from Teaneck or Englewood, let alone from the city. And there are only two Orthodox shuls in Livingston, Suburban Torah and Etz Chaim, and they’re not in competition with each other because they’re quite far from each other. That means that anybody who lives in the neighborhood and wants an affiliation with Orthodoxy is coming here.
“You will find someone who comes twice a day and learns every day, someone else who comes every Shabbat, and someone else who might drive here. That’s what we grew up with, and we feel comfortable with it.
“I would never want to live in a neighborhood where everyone looks and acts the same way. I like diversity. I love the small-town vibe and also being close enough to the big city. All of this spoke to us.
“So we embarked on the process, and we met the community, and they did a great job of selling themselves, and we decided to throw our hat in the ring and go for it.”
Sarah and James Proops love what they’ve found at Suburban Torah. “Rabbi Mischel had tremendous success with the shul in terms of growth,” Rabbi Proops said. “He brought in a strong cohort of young families. I want to nurture them, and to build on it.
“Livingston is a viable option for young modern Orthodox families. But when a shul grows, its culture can change. One of the beautiful things here is the small-town feeling. Everyone knows each other. Everyone is involved in everyone’s smachot. When it gets bigger, that can be hard to maintain. So my long-term goal is to keep that balance.
“In my interviews, I always asked people how long they’d been in Livingston, and why they’d moved here. It was amazing. It was almost as if everyone had been programmed to say the same thing. ‘It was time for us to leave the city,’ they’d say. ‘So we looked around at different neighborhoods, and when we came to Livingston we were blown away.’
“They’d say that when they walked into the shul they felt no pretenses. Just a warm, welcoming atmosphere. We have to maintain that beautiful culture, which is lacking in so many shuls.
“It never was our plan to come to the United States, and when we did it never was our plan to be on the East Coast, but here we are,” Rabbi Proops concluded. “We see a lot of divine providence in our lives.”