Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, who served our Jewish Center for thirty-one years, described himself as a ‚modern Chassidic? rabbi. His rabbinic training was in pre-World War II Hungary; he emigrated from there to the US, settling in New York around 1939. He had intended to bring over his wife and daughter, but they were caught up in the tragedy that was the Holocaust. He chose to shut out the sorrow he couldn’t control and live his life with joy.
A student of mysticism and teacher of Kabala, Rabbi Gelberman often delivered sermons that reflected this knowledge--for example, his references to numerology, deciphering a Hebrew word into its numerical components to reveal a deeper meaning of the word. He gave each bar or bat mitzvah student a special Hebrew word to remember and to recall as their password to God.
On alternate Fridays Rabbi Gelberman would travel to Washington from Manhattan and be a guest at a member’s home for Shabbat dinner. He was often at Matty and Faye Schneider’s and at Henry and Helen Steinhardt’s. He was also a welcomed guest of other members who lived outside of Washington.
If Rabbi Gelberman thought the Jewish Center was acting more like a Reform congregation but calling itself Conservative, those with Orthodox leanings would argue the point. It was more like what some members referred to as "country" Conservative, loosely Conservative and not affiliated.
Rabbi Gelberman really was the one who introduced components of Reform Judaism into our services without the congregants realizing what to call it. One practice was reading Torah on Friday nights. The congregation had seen the Torahs read only on the High Holidays and at b’nai mitzvah. On Friday nights, we traditionally would open the Ark doors for chanting the Shema and see the Torahs standing there. After a while, Rabbi Gelberman suggested we take out one Torah on Friday nights and read it so that the congregation could enjoy the experience. It made a lot of sense because the b’nai mitzvah students were practicing reading from the Torah but rarely saw the Rabbi reading from it.
Another Reform practice that Rabbi Gelberman suggested was that the whole congregation recite the kaddish instead of only the mourners reciting it, reminding the congregants that there were many people for whom there was no one to say kaddish and that it was a mitzvah to do so. This was a classic example of Rabbi Gelberman’s mantra: "never ‘instead of’ but always ‘in addition to’."
What seemed on the surface to be radical innovations were actually practices already incorporated into Shabbat services at Reform synagogues. This was a compelling reason for the Jewish Center congregants to become affiliated with the Reform movement. The Jewish Center was halfway there. How lucky we’ve been!
The Jewish Center was always the best-kept secret in New Jersey. Even Rabbi Gelberman didn’t share this secret with many. Perhaps he thought it would spoil our little shtetl in Warren County if it leaked out that we were such a very special place. Rabbi Gelberman did have another synagogue in New York called the Little Synagogue, a storefront shul, where he would hold Shabbat services on alternating weeks when he wasn’t in Washington. The story he liked to tell was that if someone asked him where he was going to be for Shabbat when he wasn’t in New York, he would answer: "I am going to Washington to have dinner with the president." It gave the impression that he was going to Washington, D.C., to have dinner at the White House with the U.S. president. What a sense of humor!
Rabbi Gelberman was a scholar of Torah and Kabala. He sought the exchange of ideas with other religious leaders: rabbis, priests, ministers, imams, and swamis. He himself was an interfaith spiritual leader. And, he created a school of interfaith ministers who he could train to perform ceremonies of all faiths and could serve the unaffiliated, interfaith Jews.
Rabbi Gelberman was a proponent of living one’s life with joy. He affected and influenced and touched those who knew him. He created a world in which he was as close to the center of that universe as he could be and yet be part of everything around him. He lived the life he asked of God, a long one, nearly a century of loving, learning, teaching. Now a man of blessed memory.
Copyright © 2010 Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey
Last updated: November 8, 2010
Last updated: November 8, 2010