With 25 years in the rabbinate and a background in education and outreach, Rabbi Joel Mishkin is being charged to bring a new spirit and new members to Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge.
Mishkin took over July 8, succeeding Rabbi Eugene Wernick.
Mishkin served for almost 19 years at Temple Beth Sholom in Sarasota, Fla., where he helped establish adult and youth education programming and a day school open to students of all faiths.
While that congregation grew to about 700 families during Mishkin’s tenure — the economic crisis that hit Sarasota hard, beginning in about 2007, forced families to leave the area “in droves” or drop their synagogue memberships. Temple membership dropped to 250, and staff members, including Mishkin, were laid off.
That presented a challenge to Mishkin, who found that most congregations were reluctant to hire a rabbi more than 50 years old.
“A lot of congregations wanted a 35-year-old rabbi with 40 years’ experience,” said Mishkin.
He was pleasantly surprised, then, to find his age was irrelevant to Beth Ohr, where the rabbinic search committee instead focused on his many accomplishments, voting unanimously to offer him the job from among 12 candidates.
“Our search committee was quite impressed with Rabbi Mishkin, his 25 years in the rabbinate, his strong background in adult and youth education, his community outreach, his pastoral skills, and most of all, his heimische personality,” said chair Phil Rabinowitz. “We are looking to Rabbi Mishkin to broaden Beth Ohr’s footprint in Middlesex and Monmouth counties.”
Rabinowitz said he hoped Mishkin could expand membership in the 140-family Conservative synagogue through new educational programming and “energizing” religious services, as well as increase interaction with other congregations, rabbis, and organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
“We are very excited about our new leader,” Rabinowitz said.
Attracting new members through innovative programming is nothing new to Mishkin, who before the Sarasota pulpit, served for seven years at Beth El Congregation in Baltimore.
One of his accomplishments was establishing the Goldie Feldman Academy and the Justin Lee Weisner Preschool on the synagogue’s campus, both of which emphasize “global citizenship” and “compassionate action” and where almost half the student body is not Jewish.
All students participate in a world religions program, which focuses on understanding and respect for all religions and study of Jewish history and civilization core curriculum. Jewish students also take a more intensive Jewish tract.
“I was very proud of the school because it epitomized my philosophy of Conservative Judaism being a really open umbrella,” explained Mishkin, who said the Sarasota area could not have sustained an all-Jewish day school. “It really reflected my own philosophy of big-tent Judaism and became a force for good in the community in that it provided the non-Jewish community with a highly favorable opinion of Jewish people. Its secular education is outstanding.”
The shul’s confirmation program, Lattes and Learning, was conducted at a local Starbucks. Mishkin said he believes this out-of-the-box approach can be used to find ways of bringing back former members and attracting unaffiliated Jews in the area.
Already planned for Beth Ohr are adult education courses and new subjects for the already established lunch and learn program on Shabbat afternoon after services.
Originally from Hartford, Conn., Mishkin attended the Yeshiva of Hartford and graduated from Connecticut College in New London, where he majored in modern Western European history and education. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he has served on the chancellor’s cabinet and, with which he would like to strengthen ties.
His wife, Beverly, a clinical social worker, is still in Sarasota, where she is finishing a research protocol for caregivers whose spouses have Alzheimer’s disease at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service before joining her husband. The couple has twin 23-year-old sons, Alec and Evan, who will be going to graduate school.