New rabbi hopes to take ‘congregation with me on a journey’

New rabbi hopes to take ‘congregation with me on a journey’

Michael Satz plans to teach ‘mussar’ to Temple B’nai Or in Morristown

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Michael Satz said he plans to introduce the study of mussar — a 19th-century road map to ethical living — to his new congregation, Temple B’nai Or in Morristown. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Rabbi Michael Satz said he plans to introduce the study of mussar — a 19th-century road map to ethical living — to his new congregation, Temple B’nai Or in Morristown. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

His favorite food is lox, his favorite place to vacation is Israel, among the shows he most recently binge-watched is “Shtisel,” and he met his wife in Jerusalem during his first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

It’s not a surprise that the person so described is a rabbi, and Michael Satz is indeed the religious leader who started his tenure at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown on July 1.

Some of those favorite things have found their way onto his lapel at the Reform congregation over the last few weeks. Wearing name tags at services “breaks down barriers,” he said in an interview in his new office. “Congregants who might not know each other start talking to each other.” Adding an ice breaker, like favorite foods, jump-starts the conversation.

Satz, 39, a native of St. Louis, dressed formally and fashionably in a checkered blazer and black pants, with purple accents in his tie and matching knitted kipa, comes to New Jersey from The Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, where he was associate rabbi for five years. During that time he developed an interest in joining efforts to alleviate poverty and help refugees resettle, bringing mussar practice (developed in the 19th century in Lithuania to guide people to leading an ethical life) to Reform Jews, and staying engaged with Israel (he wrote his thesis on religious pluralism in the Jewish state) — all things he hopes to weave into his rabbinate in New Jersey.

But first he wants to get to know the community.

“I want to bring the congregation with me on a journey of caring for each other: learning together, experimenting with spirituality together…, and finding issues that galvanize the whole congregation,” he told NJJN on a recent Monday morning. He was drawn to B’nai Or, he said, because “it’s a caring community rooted in Morristown and involved in the life of the town.”

Satz lives in Morris Township with his wife, Rabbi Janice Elster, and their sons, Eitan, 9, and Ami, 6.

Temple president Stacey Schlosser said the congregation was impressed with Satz’s “deep wisdom and humility.” She added, “We thought he’d be the best candidate to create and collaborate with our team to move the synagogue forward.”

The congregation, with about 420 member families, has had two different rabbis since the retirement of Donald Rossoff — now rabbi emeritus — in 2015. He was followed by Rabbi Ellie Miller, who stayed three years. Last year the congregation had an interim rabbi, David Katz, while they searched for a permanent religious leader.

“I think I have a calming personality and am able to bring people together,” said Satz. “I hope I’ll be able to bring the congregation together.”

He’s been on track to become a rabbi since at least high school, when he got his first taste of Israel and serious Jewish study at the Alexander Muss High School. He has a colorful woven hamsa hanging above his desk, which he purchased during that stay in Israel. (Another pop of color comes from a clock featuring images of Theodor Herzl in color blocks in the style of Andy Warhol’s soup cans that sits on a shelf behind his desk.) During his senior year, his rabbi, Elizabeth Hersh, who is still the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in St. Louis, signed him up for a teen Shabbaton at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati.

Satz was sold, sort of. “That’s where I really realized what it means to be a rabbi,” he said, but added, “I kind of put it in my back pocket for a while in college.” He went off to Tulane University in New Orleans, where he started studying international relations, and eventually took enough Jewish studies classes for a double major. The junior year in Israel clinched the deal. “I decided when I get back, I’m applying to rabbinical school.”

Satz earned his BA in 2002 and received ordination from HUC-JIR in 2007. Before arriving at Holy Blossom, he served congregations in Cherry Hill; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and San Diego.

He’s maintained his interest in politics, which he proves by sharing the books on his metaphoric nightstand (his Kindle). He’s currently reading “Why Liberalism Failed” by Patrick J. Deneen; “A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism” by Adam Gopnick is next. There’s also an official United States Senate pen displayed on his desk, presented to him by students he took to Washington, D.C., on a Reform movement trip.

Of course, there’s no shortage of Jewish reading material. Aside from the titles filling the bookcases, he is also currently reading “The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law” by Leon Wiener Dow, this one a hard back that sits atop “Reform Jewish Quarterly” on his desk.

When he was in Canada, where groups of people can sponsor refugees and help resettle them, the congregation brought Syrian refugees, Yazidis, and African refugees in Israel to Canada. Because there are so few refugees entering the United States, he said, American congregations sometimes sent money to Holy Blossom to assist with those efforts.

He became interested in mussar after reading about it in “Reform Judaism” magazine. He picked up “Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar” by Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, undertook studies there, and brought the practice to his congregation. One of the first classes he will teach at B’nai Or this fall will be on mussar.

Satz also loves playing guitar, and there are two of them in his office. He’ll be accompanying the congregation in services for the next three weeks while Cantor Galit Dadoun Cohen is away.

At the start of his new position, Satz said, he is focusing on meeting and greeting and learning about the synagogue and its members. “I want to spend a year just listening to the congregation,” he said.

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