Fair Lawn—On April 13, Congregation Ahavat Achim named Ely Shestack its new Rabbi. He will replace Rabbi Uri Goldstein, who announced he was stepping down after 10 years to make aliyah this summer.
Rabbi Shestack is familiar with Bergen County, as he grew up in Bergenfield and attended TABC High School. In addition, Rabbi Shestack—along with his wife, Chana, and their daughter, Adira—have resided in Fair Lawn since last September, when he joined the Fair Lawn Beit Midrash. The Rabbi is currently attending Yeshiva University and will be completing the smicha program next spring. Regarding YU, he said, “I’ve gained tremendously from being at YU. It’s changed the way I think about the secular world and the way I learn and practice Torah.”
However, it was way back in middle school that Rabbi Shestack recognized his calling. His family lived in Moscow as his mother worked for the State Department. He said that he was one of approximately 15–20 students who was Jewish, and the only one who was visibly Jewish. So, he decided that the other Jews should come over for an authentic Passover seder. “My mom and I ran the seder, and it was such a meaningful experience. I knew then that I wanted to facilitate religious experiences for people.” This is one of the many interesting experiences (he also toured the country as a member of the Maccabeats) that Rabbi Shestack has on his resume that enabled him to meet different segments of the Jewish population.
Shul President Stephen Agress was intrigued by Rabbi Shestack’s interesting experiences. “The fact that he spent time in communities where there were few Jews fits into our identity of a shul with an out-of-town feel that is welcoming to all.” Debbie Lang—one of the 13 members of the rabbi search committee that was co-chaired by David Garfunkel and Aryeh Brenenson—was also fascinated by Rabbi Shestack’s background. “His life experiences were far different than any other candidate. The search committee unanimously agreed to meet this young man and learn more about him.”
David Garfunkel said the search committee developed a job description and contacted YU’s Center for the Jewish Future rabbinic placement services. The committee received several dozen resumes. “I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of the candidate pool,” said Garfunkel. After viewing the resumes, the committee brought in six candidates for an interview. After discussing each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, candidates were ranked. The top three were invited back for a probeh on Shabbos. Garfunkel was impressed with Rabbi Shestack’s understanding of the Fair Lawn community, his relationship with a number of the area rabbis, and his insights into what would be needed for growing the shul. Brenenson was also impressed with Rabbi Shestack’s understanding of Fair Lawn “and what makes our shul technique. It was clear he had been there beforehand to daven and interacted with others.”
Rabbi Shestack was the last of the three perspective rabbi’s to have a probeh, yet the buzz that he and his wife created was palpable. Garfunkel gushed about the couple’s exuberance and dynamic nature. The positive feelings were mutual. Rabbi Shestack said the probeh helped him recognize how much he wanted the position. “When we came for Shabbos and saw the way that the congregants were involved with each other’s lives, and how close knit they seemed, we knew that Ahavat was where I wanted to start my rabbanos.”
For Lang, it was the Saturday evening Q&A session that sealed the deal. She said, “At the conclusion of the Q&A session, I recognized that Rabbi Shestack is charismatic, humorous and very well educated. I also appreciated Chana Shestack. Her outspoken nature, wittiness and support for her husband were the icing on the cake.”
Rabbi Shestack has a few goals for the shul. These include building up a well-rounded intergenerational community, engaging all the congregants in Talmud Torah in some shape or form, and putting Ahavat Achim on the map in terms of the shuls that people know about and talk positively about. He believes that looking at things from a fresh perspective, hosting events and bringing a positive energy will go a long way towards fulfilling the last two goals. Agress agrees, “He and Chana bring a youthful enthusiasm and a vision that will add to our shul.” Brenenson added, “I’m confident that Rabbi Shestack will reinvigorate our current membership, because when you sit with him, he makes you feel like you are the only person in the world.”
“We’re honored to have the opportunity to join Ahavat Achim, and we look forward to becoming part of the shul and the greater Bergen County community,” said Chana Shestack. The Rabbi will assume the pulpit later this year before the high holidays.
By Larry Bernstein