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To everything there is a season

A celebration of Rabbi David Greenstein upon his retirement

David and Zelda Greenstein, their son, Yona, and Yona’s fiancée Housso were at the brunch on Sunday. (John Lassiter)
David and Zelda Greenstein, their son, Yona, and Yona’s fiancée Housso were at the brunch on Sunday. (John Lassiter)

For the past 13 years, Rabbi David Greenstein has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. He has led with humility, with compassion, and by example. Now that he is retiring, our community had the opportunity to express our gratitude officially for his extraordinary love and leadership.

Rabbi Greenstein began his tenure in August 2009. According to the synagogue newsletter at that time, he arrived “with a rich, broad and deep background as a rabbi, cantor, artist, scholar and teacher.” I confess I was a little suspicious. How could one person embody all those wonderful traits (and also have a great sense of humor)? And why would he want to leave a prestigious academic position at the Academy for Jewish Religion to come to a medium-sized Conservative synagogue in suburban New Jersey?

Only talmudic scholars could answer those questions.

Wouldn’t you know it, Rabbi Greenstein was one of those, too!

But I didn’t need a sage to find the answers. I saw with my own eyes as he began his tenure with the “mitzvah bakery.” From the youngest congregant to the oldest, we baked bread and distributed it to the hungry in town. I saw it when he added another dimension to the silent Amidah, asking everyone else to remain silent until the last person finished praying.

I saw how he led by example when he helped the kiddush committee every Friday morning. Even if only for a few minutes, he chopped and diced and then thanked all the volunteers. Rabbi Greenstein and his wife, Zelda, slept on cots when our congregation hosted homeless families twice a year. He was never a stranger when synagogue volunteers prepared healthy and bountiful meals for the homeless on a weekly basis.

As an academic before coming to Shomrei, Rabbi Greenstein found that he missed the Knesset – the gathering – as in Beit Knesset, the House of Gathering. In other words, he wanted a shul, a place where he could celebrate life cycles and mark the rhythm of the Jewish calendar in real time. He missed providing pastoral care, and teaching and learning both inside and outside the classroom and the sanctuary.

But why Shomrei Emunah? Because we were “Guardians of the Faith,” he sensed that we had the potential to change and grow. He was right, but we needed his guidance. In the past 13 years, we have become a synagogue that espouses open-door Judaism. With our Sustaining Share membership model, our welcoming of interfaith families, his re-interpretation of Leviticus Chapter 18 that previously had been read as banning homosexuality, and our gender-neutral call for an aliyah, we became a kehillah — a congregation — that reflects a changing world while simultaneously respecting tradition.

This past weekend was a time to reflect on those changes and celebrate Rabbi Greenstein’s legacy. Unfortunately, though, the festivities did not begin exactly as planned.

Rather than ignoring the elephant in the room, the rabbi began Kabbalat Shabbat by commenting on the devastating Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. “Use Shabbat to rest and recharge our batteries, because we will need all our strength for the work ahead,” he advised.

At the same time, he insisted that the news not interfere with the joy of Shabbat and the entire weekend. With his hechsher — his certificate of approval — the synagogue’s three-piece band, led by our singing spiritual leader, erupted in delight. This lively musical Shabbat reminded us that thanks to Rabbi Greenstein, we rely on our own musicians to make our shul echo with the sound of music on occasional Friday nights and holidays.

The celebration continued at Shabbat morning services. The excitement was tangible as we hung on the rabbi’s every word and melody. As masked congregants greeted each other, I noticed a few surprise visitors. For example, Len, a member of another synagogue but an ardent fan of the rabbi’s Zohar class, read Torah and came to honor his rebbe. Although Fred now lives in Florida, he returned to New Jersey to express his gratitude to his mentor and friend. Why wouldn’t he? Under Rabbi Greenstein’s tutelage, Fred had converted to Judaism. A baby-naming ceremony increased the joy at the rabbi’s final service. Singing “Siman Tov uMazel Tov” felt like a broken record, but in a good way.

The farewell brunch on Sunday was the culmination of a memorable weekend. Our parking lot disappeared, replaced by elegant tents. Here are just a few of the many takeaways from an array of speakers:

Craig spoke about how the rabbi’s kavannah — his intention — on the bimah uplifted every word of prayer. Silence and his magnificent voice were great bookends, he said. Bill described a teacher par excellence, who eventually could remove the obscurity of the Zohar and replace it with clarity. Carol remembered how she literally leaned on the rabbi’s shoulder when her husband was gravely ill. She represented many others with similar stories.

According to our educational director, Heather, the rabbi’s favorite Shabbat food was chocolate doughnuts, not challah. As least that’s what he told the pre-school at one weekly “Ask the Rabbi” session. Who knew our spiritual leader was a superstar at AJR? Student rabbi Lily told us that her colleagues and the school’s alumnae regularly quote him and send regards to their favorite teacher.

Adrienne described how her son compared Rabbi Greenstein to Rabbi Harvey, the protagonist in a series of graphic novels. With wisdom and humor, Rabbi Harvey solves the problems in an Old West town. Thanks to Adrienne, Rabbi Greenstein now is the proud owner of a sheriff’s badge.

Naz spoke about the rabbi’s impact on her son. When he wrapped Brian in his tallit and they chanted the Shema together, and when Brian was the first to sip the grape juice after kiddush, the rabbi was building a Jewish foundation as solid as bricks.

In honor of the rabbi’s Shabbat singing table, I distilled all those sentiments into an original song. Accompanied by Ken on the bass, the audience joined in on the refrain.

Miriam, the congregation’s president, discussed her personal and professional relationship with Rabbi Greenstein. During the pandemic they tried to navigate the complexities of synagogue life safely — and they succeeded.

Zelda thanked the congregation for welcoming them in 2009 and then introduced her husband of 50 years. (Their anniversary coincided with our gala.)

We knew we wanted to savor Rabbi Greenstein’s final words, and he did not disappoint. We understood this was a “Shehecheyanu” moment. He thanked God for bringing him, Zelda, and their son Yonah to “Hamakom” — “this place.”

In his inimitable style, he led us in the special kaddish recited at a siyyum — the celebration that marks the conclusion of study of a talmudic tractate. He reminded each of us to guard the integrity and heritage of our Torah, as we continue to question it and search for deeper meaning.

On behalf of the congregation, Nick gave the rabbi a photo album compiling 13 years of synagogue life (including a congregational trip to Israel). Dale’s eloquent introduction to that book set the tone.

As for me, reflecting on this special weekend, and on his years of service to Congregation Shomrei Emunah, I can easily summarize Rabbi Greenstein’s legacy in just a few words. It’s “Community, community, community” and the clarion call of “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — Justice, justice, shall you pursue, from Deuteronomy 16:20. But in my imagination, he is singing those words with his beautiful voice, filled with kavannah.

As he pursues his art, teaching, and writing in retirement, I know he also will pursue community and justice wherever he continues his journey.

Merrill Silver and her husband, Andy, live in Montclair. They’re longtime members of Shomrei Emunah.

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