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Rabbi leaves Temple B’nai Abraham for California
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Rabbi leaves Temple B’nai Abraham for California

Activist, teacher, chaplain reflects on decades of ‘sacred’ work in NJ

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

A fixture in the local Jewish community for decades, Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz bade farewell to the Garden State and moved to California last month.
A fixture in the local Jewish community for decades, Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz bade farewell to the Garden State and moved to California last month.

Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz’s last sermon at Temple B’nai Abraham (TBA) on June 19 focused, fittingly, on gay pride and Juneteenth, a celebration of June 19, 1865, the date slaves were emancipated.

Dantowitz, 55, has been a consummate advocate and public voice in the community for issues such as gay marriage, assisted suicide, gun violence prevention, ending genocide in Darfur, immigrants’ rights, and other causes of which she cares deeply, even when it’s controversial or gets her into trouble. To wit, she was among a group of six clergy members and activists arrested in 2018 while protesting on behalf of the children of illegal immigrants.

“As a rabbi you are a leader,” she told NJJN in a telephone interview. “Part of what that means is showing people what moral courage is.”

More quietly, she embraced her role in providing pastoral care to congregants and creating opportunities for life-long Jewish learning. For the past 10 years she was TBA’s associate rabbi, first with the now-retired Rabbi Cliff Kulwin and more recently with Rabbi David Vaisberg.

Dantowitz has been a fixture in the suburbs of Essex County, especially Millburn, Short Hills, and Livingston, for, well, her entire life. She grew up in Livingston, attended Temple B’nai Jeshurun (TBJ) in Short Hills (where she had her first pulpit job), graduated from Livingston High School, and raised four sons with husband David. She could be seen at school board meetings in Millburn or walking her dog, Lily Rose, on Wyoming Avenue or in the South Mountain Reservation.

On June 30, after a lifetime in Essex County, the rabbi left to join David in California, where she will lead Congregation Emeth, a small Reform synagogue in Morgan Hill, half an hour from Gilroy, California’s garlic capital. Her exit would not go unnoticed, and the mayor of Livingston declared June 20, 2020, Faith Joy Dantowitz Day, the same day that TBA honored her with its first virtual gala. 

“Wow, this is making me sad just talking to you,” she told NJJN the day before her departure.

The pandemic made leaving more difficult because, though she was grateful for the formal TBA sendoff, there were no goodbye dinners or farewell parties with friends and family, and she has no idea when she will see them again.

She traces her passion for social justice straight to the example set by her parents, Fred and Sara Smith, along with her growing up at TBJ, and serving as a rabbi there from 1993 until 2004.

When TBJ welcomed Soviet refugees in the 1980s, her family hosted a Russian family in their own home. “I remember the family coming to our house and getting to know them.”

The pull to speak out seems to come from some essential place deep within her, but she’s matter of fact about it. “It’s just a desire to keep moving the needle, to push forward to justice,” she said.

Her involvement in social activism began almost as soon as she left home. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1980s, Dantowitz chaired the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry group on campus and then worked in Boston with Action for Soviet Jewry. She attended marches for Women’s Rights in Washington, D.C., testified at the Trenton State House for marriage equality, was the sole  rabbi to speak at Governor Phil Murphy’s press conference on gun violence prevention in March 2019 when the state launched the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign, and more recently, she has stood up for racial justice in sermons, videos, and at rallies.

She served on the board of Faith in New Jersey, part of the national organization Faith in Action, formerly known as PICO, and she organized meetings for Do Not Stand Idly By. And she took her interests globally as an American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellow, traveling with a rabbinic cohort to Guatemala in 2015. Dantowitz was also selected as a JOIN (Jewish Organizing Institute & Network) for Justice Clergy Fellow from 2017-2019.

Often, the issues she chooses are personal. Her sister was the first person she knew who came out as gay, she said, and later, a colleague’s father was murdered in the course of a robbery, stirring a passion in her to fight for gun violence prevention.

It’s telling that she was assigned Parashat Shoftim for her senior sermon in rabbinical school, which contains the famous passage, “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” justice, justice you shall pursue. And a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a former rabbi of TBA, hung outside her office. It was, she said, “my daily dose of inspiration.”

Serving as a rabbi, of course, is more than providing leadership in social justice. In fact, she refers to pastoral work as a “sacred encounter.”

“In one day, I can be teaching, doing social justice work, leading prayers, and visiting someone in a hospital,” she said. “And I love that I can be part of people’s Jewish journeys in so many ways.”

Dantowitz earned a degree in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania before deciding to pursue the rabbinate at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), where she was ordained in 1993. After serving at Temple B’nai Jeshurun, she was regional director of admissions and recruitment at HUC and spent nine summers, from 2003-2011, on the faculty of URJ Camp Harlam in the Poconos.

She chaired what was then known as the Millburn Short Hills Clergy Association in the 1990s, and more recently was active with the Livingston Clergy Association. She served two stints on the board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network of the Reform movement, was chair of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Committee on Women in the Rabbinate, and served as a board member of the Interfaith Hospitality Network. She was also part of the fourth rabbinic cohort of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and continues to participate in its alumni program, Hevraya.

She acknowledged that she never envisioned leaving New Jersey, but, her husband, a software designer, found an “amazing” job in California that he started about a year ago. She stayed so their youngest son, 18, could finish high school in Millburn. (They have three other sons, ages 27, 24, and 22.)

Although there are plenty of challenges ahead, particularly starting at a new congregation where she won’t be able to meet or lead the congregation in person, and where High Holiday services are likely to be held remotely, Dantowitz is grateful and excited for the opportunity.

“I’m in for the ride.”

jginsberg@njjewishnews.com

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