Saturday, May 15, 2021

In a year like none other, Rabbi Andrew Markowitz was officially installed on Sunday, August 30, as rabbinic leader at Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn. He became only the second rabbi in over a half century to take on that role, following 50 years of service by Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, who now holds the title of rabbi emeritus.

Unlike most new rabbis who likely would have to endure a learning curve, slowly getting to know and understand their membership on both an individual and communal level, Rabbi Markowitz was afforded a bit of a head start—10 years to be exact. He served as assistant rabbi for four years, beginning in the summer of 2010, then went on to become the shul’s first associate rabbi in August 2014. In September 2019, Rabbi Markowitz and his wife, Dr. Sara Markowitz, officially took over following Rabbi Yudin’s retirement. An installation dinner planned for March ran against the front end of the pandemic, and ultimately led to this past Sunday’s installation via Zoom.

Rabbi and Shevi Yudin opened the event, with Rabbi and Sara Markowitz closing, creating a symbolic passing of the baton. A moving video tribute to Rabbi Andrew and Dr. Sara was also featured. Michael Zimbalist, chairman of the installation committee, explained that the event went on much as it would have in person. “We were just trying to keep normal in an abnormal environment,” he said.

There were actually some advantages to a virtual installation over a physical event. First and foremost was the ability of older relatives and friends to participate, who might otherwise have had difficulty traveling. Then there were those who simply lived too far away under almost any circumstances, yet were able to enjoy the entire program. The steady stream of video tributes came from across the country, Canada and Israel. They included rabbinic friends, colleagues and mentors of Rabbi Markowitz too numerous to mention, as well as former teachers of both Dr. Sara and Rabbi Andrew from various stages of their lives.

The terms used to describe both of them were remarkably similar and consistent—caring, dedicated and energetic. Also quite similar were the words of love and admiration that both of them showered on each other later in the program, with each calling the other “my best friend.”

The master of ceremonies for the proceedings was Danny Pickett, Shomrei Torah’s newly installed president, who had the unique challenge of assuming office during the era of COVID-19. He introduced Rabbi Yudin, who spoke of a rabbi’s need to inspire his congregants through his demeanor, midot and Divrei Torah, with the congregants in turn inspiring him. He praised Rabbi Markowitz for “the manner in which he held steadfast to the values of a rav as he led the congregation during these most difficult of times, even bringing them to greater heights.” His bracha to Rabbi Markowitz was that he continue to enjoy a reciprocal relationship with the congregation, inspiring them as they inspire him.

Rebbetzin Shevi then spoke about Sara, saying, “You have a tremendous amount of energy, a heart of gold, and an open home.” She went on to compare the Markowitzes to Avraham and Sarah, offering a bracha that they elevate Shomrei Torah to greater heights in the many, many years to come, and that they use their gifts to bring Jewish souls closer to Judaism.

The only live portion of the evening occurred as both Rabbi Andrew and Dr. Sara delivered their thoughts and visions at the lectern in front of an empty shul. Rabbi Markowitz has a trademark style that is often put to good use in making a dvar Torah stick. Back in the day, when rabbis would deliver Shabbat morning divrei Torah indoors in front of a full congregation, they might experiment with a unique approach, and Rabbi Markowitz is no different. Seeking to draw in his audience, in a loud voice he’d begin by announcing an obscure year, tying it to an often unfamiliar name, and then proceed to relate a compelling story about a different place and time. He would then segue into a Dvar Torah on the week’s parsha, neatly tying it all together to provide a memorable message.

Rabbi Markowitz and Sara met when they both attended Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn. Rabbi Markowitz went on to attend Yeshiva University, later receiving his semicha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. While in Israel, he received an additional semicha from Machon Puah, a halachic fertility institute. His passion is to learn and engage with teens to make Torah relevant in their lives. He is known to regularly make use of social media to broaden the shul’s audience.

Dr. Sara is a licensed clinical psychologist and director of an intensive outpatient program (IOP) at Achieve Behavioral Health in Monsey. She is also, as Danny Pickett noted during his introduction of her, “a role model to so many girls in our community as a rebbetzin, as a mother, and as a professional. “And,” he added, “she is the spark, adding energy to everything our shul does, and taking it to the next level.”

The Markowitzes have five daughters, Avigayil, Mimi, Ella, Nili and Noa. As Rabbi Markowitz likes to joke, he is a card-carrying member of the Bnos Tzelafchad club—the five sisters who petitioned Moshe for their share of land in Eretz Yisrael—even naming their youngest daughter, Noa, after one of them.

Dr. Sara delivered what can only be described as a powerfully emotional and energetic speech, saying, among other things “There is nothing more important to our family than being immersed in a Torah life of meaning with individuals and families growing together and supporting each other through the vicissitudes of life.” She spent much time singing the praises of Shomrei Torah, emphatically stating, “It is a community in every sense of the word.” Summing up how they both felt when they initially set foot in Fair Lawn to now, Sara said, “We thought this was an incredible two-year opportunity, and 10 years later we found a home.”

In his address, Rabbi Markowitz noted, “In a regular year your shul would be your sanctuary, a refuge and a place to connect with others, but like shuls around the world, we don’t have that.” But, he went on to say, “we are so much more than a building.”

Robert Isler is a marketing researcher and freelance writer living in Fair Lawn. He can be reached at [email protected]