Back in 2018, well before the onset of COVID-19, Rabbi Sam Klibanoff and his committee planned to revamp Etz Chaim’s leadership. Given the burgeoning youth population, a new youth director had proven necessary, and it was also decided that an assistant rabbi would be hired.
This motivated a lengthy search into possible candidates, and when Rabbi Klibanoff found Rabbi Isaac Bernstein and his wife, Yael, he recognized their enthusiasm and talents at once. “What makes it even more amazing is that these were evident before he finished rabbinical school,” Rabbi Klibanoff noted.
Originally from Illinois, Rabbi Bernstein was taught by Rav Elchanan Adler at Yeshiva University for three years, and is currently under the tutelage of Rav Aryeh Lebowitz in RIETS’s semicha program. He and his family moved to Livingston in early August and were struck by the kindness and warmth of the community. Specifically, he was heartened by Etz Chaim’s “family feel,” observing the great loyalty members have for one another and for the synagogue itself. For example, instead of hiring a maintenance team, Bernstein saw that members volunteered themselves for responsibilities, whether the job entailed scheduling the lights or arranging the chairs.
“Every member feels like the shul is their home,” Bernstein remarked, “and they take care of it as if it was.”
As he has done through involvement with institutions like NCSY, Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS) and local Orthodox summer camps, he hopes to form connections with shul members and their families. Rabbi Bernstein has already begun delivering shiurim, which has helped him create meaningful relationships in the short time he’s spent at the shul. Since large-scale programming may prove problematic in the coming months, he also hopes to start one-on-one chavrutas.
Yael is a social worker who is likewise incredibly passionate about the role she and her family can play in Jewish communities. Yael, her husband and their daughter, Leba, are excited and honored to be part of Etz Chaim’s warm community.
Rabbi Klibanoff is delighted to welcome them, explaining that his new assistant rabbi “is mature and wise beyond his years and extremely personable. Together, this power couple will help us shape the future of our shul.”
Following another comprehensive search—this time, for a new youth director—the shul hired Jacob and Miriam Schwartz, upon the recommendation of Rabbi Bernstein. The Schwartzes will be the first couple to fill the youth directing position in over a decade.
Miriam Schwartz, 22, recently graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology from Stern college, and is excited to bring her experience to the table—both from her upbringing as the daughter of a rabbi, and from her personal travels across the globe. She found inspiration in her parents’ willingness to “welcome members of all different kinds of communities into their home.” Instilled with this sense of communal responsibility, she always looks forward to providing inclusive environments for everyone, no matter their age or background.
“I know how important youth is when it comes to the growth and future of the community,” she explained, “and I am so excited for the opportunity to make fun and meaningful experiences for the youth of this community.”
Jacob Schwartz is a local West Orange resident who recently graduated from Harvard with a degree in comparative religion. “I’ve always been very passionate about establishing a strong future for the Jewish people,” he said, positing that “one of the best ways to do that is by engaging and cultivating our youth.”
Jacob and Miriam hope to engage children on their terms, planning programs and events at which everyone can enjoy themselves and participate in something meaningful. They seek to find ways to integrate both learning and fun into youth programming, explaining, “When we plan educational or learning programs, we’ve found that one of the best things to do is to ask people, ‘What are you interested in? What’s going to make you want to come to this?’” The last thing they want is for someone to feel disengaged from learning due to a lack of interest or relevance. Asserting that the most important planning factor is “open communication,” when they can strike a balance—aligning interests with programs—the activities will be something children can genuinely be excited about. When it comes to blending learning with fun, they believe that “there’s a lot more overlap than people may think.”
Whether it be decorating caramel apples or making sukkot out of crazy foods, Etz Chaim’s new youth directors have been working hard to provide safe and entertaining activities for the High Holidays. Although these are outdoor programs, available due to the sunny summer weather, they will transition into some virtual programs as the weather changes. While some in-person activities will remain, all measures will be taken to ensure the safety of every child.
“We knew what we were getting into when we moved in,” they explained, “so we are ready to plan lots of fun virtual and socially distanced programs!” Masks are required at all events whether indoor or outdoor, and all activities will be set up with individual, clean materials for each child. Despite the uncertainty of policy during the pandemic, they are still planning the future layout of the youth program.
“Once we can get back to full-fledged in-person programming,” they said, “expect some big ‘back to shul’ events!”
“The Schwartz team brings a youthful exuberance and passion to inspire our children and help us build our already thriving community,” said Rabbi Klibanoff, who is deeply excited for the new hires to implement new and unique programming for the youth.
In preparation for the upcoming holidays, Rabbi Klibanoff and his committee spent many hours to ensure that they can provide the best possible services under the current circumstances. Lower density indoor numbers will enable socially distanced davening and shiurim indoors, as well as safely spaced services outside. Everything will be planned with adherence to the CDC guidelines and local government directives.
Rabbi Klibanoff acknowledged that “while the chagim may not be what we are used to, they will be memorable and meaningful without question.