Greg Litcofsky, who started his tenure at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston on July 1, has a clear sense of his role as rabbi.
“My job is to build good relationships, teach good Torah, create Jewish leaders, and provide pastoral care,” he told a visitor to his office on a recent Friday afternoon.
After just a few days on the job, his bookcases were remarkably full and organized, even decorated with Phillies banners (he’s a lifelong fan) and framed photos, mostly of his family, but also of him with Elie Wiesel.
He succeeds Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, who served the Reform synagogue for eight years and is now leading a Los Angeles congregation as interim rabbi.
Prior to coming to Emanu-El, Litcofsky, 35, was assistant and then associate rabbi at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, Mass.
Litcofsky said he was drawn to Emanu-El by the “warm embrace” he felt from the congregation, its proximity to the greater New York metropolitan area, and the large number of rabbinic colleagues he has here.
He said he also values the strong relationship between the synagogue and the town of Livingston, and the active local interfaith clergy association.
For him, the synagogue community extends beyond the walls of the synagogue into the larger community.
“At the end of the day, synagogue life is about people and relationships,” said Litcofsky. “The synagogue is not about bricks and mortar, but about people.”
He declined to offer his vision for the congregation, saying that kind of top-down planning violates his sense of community.
“I’m going to spend a lot of time listening to the congregation. Where are we now? Where do we want to go? What do we want to build together? A the end of the day, the synagogue will go where we go together and we’ll have fun doing it.”
Litcofsky grew up in Philadelphia, the son of Jewish educators. He thought he would become an academic, and after graduating from Penn State University, he earned a master’s degree in Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
He found his calling, he said, in part through the students he worked with at Hunter Hillel while at JTS.
Ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2007, he said he was fortunate enough to have two mentors who went on to key positions in the Reform Movement: He worked with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, now president of the Union for Reform Judaism, while interning at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, where Jacobs was then senior rabbi. Jacobs shaped his views on the role of the rabbi, which includes, Litcofsky said, the need “to try new things, to take risks, and to learn from mistakes.”
He also worked with Rabbi Jonah Pesner, now senior vice president at URJ, during a fellowship with the URJ Just Congregations project. Pesner was the founding director of the group, which focuses on social action and community organizing within synagogues. Pesner’s model had a deep influence on Litcofsky’ s approach to social action. Pesner taught that “first you build relationships, then, together you work to change the root causes of whatever injustice you find,” said Litcofsky.
Litcofsky and his wife, Rachel, have two children, Noa, five, and Ami, two. They will attend the synagogue preschool in the fall.