Watching the camaraderie between Rabbi Andrew Sklarz and the staff at Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, it’s easy to see why the search committee chose him as their new rabbi. In early August, barely one month after starting, he joked around with them in a way that suggested he’d been working there for years rather than weeks. And when the cochair of the search committee dropped by, her interaction with the rabbi appeared relaxed and informal, like they were old friends.
Sklarz calls himself a “people person.” Maybe his easygoing manner is part of that. But he also exudes a frenetic energy that his congregants seem to drink in.
Walk into his office and it’s as if all the different interests that excite Sklarz have jumped out of his head and landed on his desk and office walls, like the splashes of paint in a Jackson Pollock painting. His work space is a riot of color and objects of disparate subjects. Trolls (yes, the cartoon characters with blue hair), rocks with inspirational sayings, ceramic rabbis, tzedakah boxes, a pile of stuffed bears, and popular children’s books — some in Hebrew — are spread across the tables. Covering most of the walls are posters and plaques, including a copy of the Holocaust poem “The Last Butterfly,” a bicycle print, Operation Exodus posters, a newspaper commentary on the problem of not saying “you’re welcome,” certificates, awards, diplomas, and two flags, an Israeli and a rainbow LGBTQ one.
“The walls present who I am,” he said. “I want people to find a warm, friendly environment where people feel safe. That’s why I have the trolls, and the bears, and all the color.”
There’s also a keyboard — because in addition to serving as the rabbi, he is also Beth Am’s cantorial soloist. He’s played piano for years, he said, dabbled in guitar, and has plenty of experience as a song leader.
And there, in a quiet corner, are two meditation flags, an area of calm that contrasts with the noise of the rest of his office.
“I’ve been practicing yoga for years,” he said, perhaps a surprising interest for someone in constant movement. “I strive to quiet myself.”
He loves to chant as well, but he acknowledged, “Sitting still is very difficult.” Still, there’s something about it that he said resonates with him. “I love ‘ohming’ and I love ‘Shalohming,’ when it happens.”
On a recent morning, he managed to sit long enough with NJJN to share what brought him to Parsippany, why he became a rabbi after first pursuing the field of psychology, and his vision for Temple Beth Am.
“I was drawn here by the warm, heimishe community,” he said. “It’s not a pretentious place. It’s a musical community, the people are very open, and there’s a very strong social action
He replaces Rabbi Steven Mills, who died suddenly July 2, 2017, at 57, three years into his tenure. Mills’ wife, Rabbi Estelle Mills, filled in for him in the intervening year during which time the congregation shared clergy with Temple Shalom of Succasunna; each institution now has its own rabbi.
Joyce Marlin, who cochaired Beth Am’s search committee, said of their choice, “You can see it. He’s, what can I say? Upbeat, compassionate, flexible, knowledgeable.” She added, “He has a beautiful voice and he is easy and fun to interact with. And he has a vision for Beth Am.”
That vision is to make it a “thrilling” Jewish community, he said. He wants it to be a place where we “contribute to the world while making ourselves joyous and making Judaism as meaningful as possible.”
He believes this is best accomplished through building relationships, creating strong programming, and working outside the walls of the synagogue. He calls the efforts “people work,” as it is dependent on building personal ties.
Sklarz grew up in New Haven, Conn., at the historic Congregation Mishkan Israel, which was founded in 1840. A small replica sits on a table in his office, nestled in with the bears.
He holds a bachelor’s degree from Clark University, a master’s degree in psychology from Fairfield University, and a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University. He was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1991. He came to Beth Am from Connecticut, where he served as the rabbi of Greenwich Reform Congregation beginning in 2008.
Originally heading for a career as a psychologist, he realized that he was seeing everything through a Jewish lens. “If I was writing a paper, I would gear it toward something Jewish,” he said. “So, I thought it made sense to go to rabbinical school.”
The social work training comes in handy. “I’m accustomed to dealing with the issues people have,” he said. While he won’t offer individual therapy, he said, “I can help people in the vicissitudes of life beyond the rabbinic domain.” He plans to run groups for people in times of need, such as a bereavement support group.
The congregation itself has had its share of issues, with the death of Rabbi Mills and the previous rabbi, Ronald Kaplan, departing under a dark cloud (he was censured by the Union for Reform Judaism for violaing various ethical codes).
“They are ready for a rebirth,” said Sklarz about Beth Am. “I have a lot of energy. It’s a good combination.”
Sklarz and his wife Susan, a freelance writer and editor, live in Mountain Lakes. They have two children; his son is a rising freshman at Clark University, and his daughter is a television associate producer.