Rabbi Nathan Langer said becoming the new religious leader at Freehold Jewish Center Congregation Agudath Achim is a “win-win for everybody.”
He feels this way because, for the last year he has been the director of pastoral care at the Jewish Home for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Freehold, a position in which he will continue. Being able to split his time between the synagogue and nearby home, he said, “will help both communities” and “is like a gift for me.”
Langer became rabbi in Freehold Sept. 16, taking over for Rabbi Ira Grussgott, who moved to Israel after three years at the congregation. After serving in both the U.S. Army and Navy, Langer received ordination from the Orthodox Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel in Brooklyn, which no longer exists, and he became a pulpit rabbi and later a hospice chaplain.
He made an impression in his first interview, synagogue president Steven Weisman said, noting, “he was very engaging had a lot of energy and his love of children was very apparent.” (Weisman is an account executive at NJJN.)
“He told us if a child cried during services, he never asked the parents to take the child out of the room,” said Weisman. “He was just happy they were there. He also has a strong work ethic, and as a former pulpit rabbi he had experience with lifecycle events.”
Langer’s religious background also meshes with the congregation’s commitment to Traditional Judaism, which follows Orthodox practice and liturgy but allows mixed seating and driving to and from the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays. Weisman said the rabbi is “very Orthodox, but he can be flexible to a point without compromising his religious principles.”
The 120-family congregation was looking for a religious leader who could address those needs by developing programming to attract new members. Langer said he hopes to increase the number of young families in the area to grow the synagogue’s Hebrew school, which currently has eight students. Toward that goal, he is considering starting a Jewish movie night (though he has yet to meet with the synagogue’s programming committee.)
“I want to bring some educational programs and hopefully to increase attendance and have more involvement of the Jewish community,” Langer told NJJN in a phone interview. “I have some pretty lofty goals. Specifically, I’d like to address the needs of an aging Jewish community in both places. At the synagogue we are an older population, but I’d also like to grow the youth — but it will be a challenge because of the demographics.”
It’s a reality not lost on the synagogue leadership.
“Our congregation has not grown in a long time. If anything, we’ve gone backward,” acknowledged Weisman. “In order to maintain ourselves and grow in the future we felt we really needed a rabbi with strong interpersonal traits. We were looking for someone who could really interact on a one-to-one basis and really engage with the congregation.”
Weisman said Langer was asked to develop a monthly adult education program. And much to congregational leaders’ delight, the rabbi has begun calling individual members to find out more about them and their personal interests to come up with topics.
An East Brunswick resident who stays in a congregation-owned townhouse on Shabbat and holidays, Langer is originally from Babylon, N.Y. He holds a bachelor’s degree in allied health services from the University of North Florida. Langer was in the Navy from 1975-81 as a hospital corpsman, and then in the Army between 1983 and 1987 as a medical service corpsman, rising to the rank of first lieutenant. He is a member Covered Bridge Post 536 of the Jewish War Veterans in Manalapan. He served as a hospice chaplain in southern New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Englewood, and last served with the Visiting Nurse Association before coming to Freehold.
He served in pulpits in Zanesville, Ohio, and Dallas, as well as Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Kitchener, Ontario. His last pulpit was at Congregation Anshe Emeth in South River, which merged with the Highland Park Conservative Temple in 2007.
Langer and his wife, Marcia, have been married for 42 years, and they have two sons, Joseph, 30, and Philip, 27.
“So far the people have been lovely,” said Langer of his new congregation. “I have been around this community for 20 years so I knew some of the people, which is a good thing. Everyone has been very welcoming.”
Describing Langer as “a renaissance man,” Weisman and others appreciate that the rabbi has a love of music, from country to rock, has a good singing voice — which can be put to use for leading services — and that he is “a car guy.”
Laughed Weisman, “I saw him the other day driving around in a convertible sports car and it was like 35 degrees out.”