After an exhaustive 18-month rabbinic search and interview process, punctuated by a global pandemic, Rabbi Elliot Schrier was named mara d’atra of Teaneck’s Congregation Bnai Yeshurun (CBY). The role became available when Rabbi Steven Pruzansky announced plans to make aliyah in 2019, after more than a quarter century serving at the helm of Teaneck’s 530-families-strong shul. Rabbi Schrier will join the rabbinic team of Rabbi Ari Zahtz and Assistant Rabbi Yosef Weinberger.
Rabbi Schrier, who grew up in Woodmere, will complete his move to CBY late this summer as he winds up his rabbinic duties at the Albert Einstein Synagogue at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, where he has served since 2016.
“Inviting Rabbi and Rena Schrier to assume the vital roles performed by Rabbi and Karen Pruzansky for 26 years is an enormous step in the right direction,” wrote CBY President Steven Becker in a letter to the community.
“Bnai Yeshurun is at a crossroads in its illustrious history, but with your involvement, and with the addition of Rabbi and Rena Schrier to the helm of a rabbinic team that so fortunately already has in its midst Rabbi Ari and Michal Zahtz and Rabbi Yosef and Aviva Weinberger, I am supremely confident that we will enjoy even greater success in our mikdash me’at, until the time of our ultimate geulah, where we can all gather together in Eretz Yisrael with the binyan Beis HaMikdash, b’mheira b’yameinu,” Becker added.
Per CBY’s policy that their mara d’atra serve the shul full time, Rabbi Schrier will also step away, after this academic year, from his teaching position as chair of the Talmud department at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck. There, he teaches primarily Gemara to high school students and serves as rosh beit midrash/director of the school’s advanced learning program. Rabbi Schrier is a musmach of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where he was part of the Wexner Semikhah Honors program, studying primarily under Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Michael Rosensweig. “I was privileged to have many amazing teachers and mentors who influenced and guided me, but Rabbi Rosensweig is the person who most shaped me personally, spiritually and intellectually,” he explained. In Israel, at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rabbi Schrier learned primarily with Rabbi Daniel Schreiber.
Passionate about pulpit rabbinics as a way to both teach Torah and care for others, Rabbi Schrier told The Jewish Link of some of his most powerful foundational influences from growing up in a vibrant Jewish community in the Five Towns, led by Rabbi Yisroel Kaminetsky and Rabbi Heshie Billet in Woodmere, New York. He specifically noted how much his entire family was influenced when his cousin, who also lived in the community, was diagnosed with childhood cancer and subsequently, baruch Hashem, recovered. “Rabbi Heshie Billet totally transformed the personal and spiritual lives of our entire family. He demonstrated the caring and compassion of Toras chaim and Toras chesed.”
“If I could begin to try to be there for others in the way that Rabbi Billet was there for us—being there for people in moments of need, celebrating with them in moments of joy and, most importantly, helping them connect to the Ribbono Shel Olam—there is nothing more I can ask for,” he said.
Rabbi Schrier explained that he was looking forward to his role in the CBY community, a shul he has long known as one of the strongest and most successful shul models in the region. “As someone who grew up with many friends who, in turn, ‘grew up’ at CBY, I have always seen it as a model of what our batei haknesset aspire to be, modeling so many of our most cherished values: commitment to Torah, to tefillah, to chesed, and to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. Becoming the rabbi of this special kehillah is truly humbling, and I look forward to my role in, B’ezras Hashem, bringing it to even greater heights,” he said.
Another exciting aspect of the CBY rabbinic role is the role Rabbi Schrier will take on as a member rabbi of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC). “I have immense admiration for the RCBC and its members. It’s an incredible organization that provides a rare opportunity for rabbis to truly cooperate and work together.” Rabbi Schrier added he has a strong affinity with and feels very connected to longtime RCBC member Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, who served as the founding rabbi of the Albert Einstein Synagogue in one of his first rabbinic posts, before he came to Bergenfield’s Congregation Beth Abraham in the early 1990s.
Rabbi Schrier shared that, at Einstein, he valued the vibrant, active and diverse community of members. He noted that the very nature of the community is more transient, as students match for residencies and leave the community each year, with new ones joining. On the upside, he said, “I am looking forward to reconnecting with many former Einstein students who are current—and hopefully future—members of the Bnai Yeshurun and Teaneck community.”
Conversely, “one of the really special features of Bnai Yeshurun is that it has a fuller demographic range than Einstein, one that represents the entirety of our Jewish community. While CBY, like Einstein, has young families, it also has a more senior population, whose wisdom and life experience are essential in transmitting our mesorah and helping to guide younger members in an ever increasingly complex modern world. I really look forward to engaging that demographic of the shul, to learning myself from their life experiences, building bridges with younger members of the community, and facilitating growth together.”
Rabbi Schrier added that it has always been his viewpoint that he is the rabbi and teacher for the children and teens in his shul, not only for their parents. “The most successful rabbis are the ones who serve as the rabbi for everyone in the shul, especially the kids. Kids cannot just be treated as children-of-members; from my standpoint, they are critical members of the shul in their own right. They are the ones who will carry us into the future, and failure to engage them now is a tragic, wasted opportunity.”
Explaining that he has been teaching Gemara at the high school level for many years, Rabbi Schrier noted that teaching for teens does not simply involve taking a shiur prepared for adults and adapting it for a younger audience. “In my experience, we are most effective when we first understand adolescents and where they are coming from; what are their hopes, fears, joys, anxieties? When we understand their unique vantagepoint, we can then craft the Torah’s timeless messages in ways that resonate with them.”
In terms of the full range of CBY’s educational programming, Rabbi Schrier said that shuls nowadays have to have a wide and diverse range of shiurim and offer multiple ways to deliver education, so that as many people as possible can access it. “It’s imperative for us to have different avenues for people to engage in learning. There are so many different access points to Torah, and the Torah speaks to different people in different ways. Whether it is Gemara, Tanach, Chassidus, Mussar, practical Halacha, Machshava (philosophy), we have to offer the full range, depth and richness of Jewish learning to Jews of any and all levels.”
Rabbi Schrier hopes to immediately launch an educational initiative focusing on tefillah. “Often, we teach the basics of how to navigate the siddur in kindergarten and the early grades and then we sort of assume it’s taught and done, without ever exploring what it is we’re saying, why we’re saying it, and why is it meaningful? Why don’t we delve deeper into the prayer experience? Tefillah is so central to who we are as Torah Jews, and yet, so many people are never given the opportunity to fully explore it and really connect with the prayer experience and all it has to offer,” he explained.
Rabbi Schrier added that he is equally passionate about removing barriers to entry and bringing high-level Torah to all members of the community. He noted that his father lost his own father at a young age and thus did not have the benefit of a full formal Torah education, but benefited from Woodmere’s community with many types of learning offered at many different levels. His father was able to raise his three sons, two of whom are now rabbis, to a higher education level. Rabbi Schrier’s brother is Rabbi Robbie Schrier, who is a resident scholar at Congregation Darchei Noam in Fair Lawn, and his youngest brother, Jake, is pursuing a degree in psychology at Kean University near Elizabeth, New Jersey.
“There is no reason why anyone should be barred from deep, advanced Torah and the power of that experience. Lots of people have not had the robust education infrastructure that our kids, baruch Hashem, have, so I am very passionate about delivering that rich Torah encounter to everyone.”
He also emphasized the importance of general, non-educational shul programming. “Obviously, teaching Torah is central to who we are and what we do. But, sometimes, there are other, simpler things that can be just as important. Having cholent together at a kiddush, singing together at a tisch, or running social programs that just bring people together—all with medical board approval, of course—are, in my mind, absolutely critical in building community and bringing people close to Hashem.”
Rabbi Schrier added that, to him, this will be particularly important coming out of the pandemic. “We need to bring people back to shul. And the convenience of a backyard or basement minyan is a powerful impediment. If we just educate people’s minds without nourishing body and soul as well, there’s no way we’ll succeed in bringing people back. When we bring people an exciting range of new programs and fresh opportunities—when we inject some new energy into the shul— people will be excited about coming back.”
Rabbi Schrier very much looks forward to beginning his new role and has already begun having conversations with colleagues and making plans. He expressed his immense respect and admiration for his new rabbinic colleagues at CBY. He remembers Rabbi Zahtz as one of the senior members of the beit midrash when he started at YU, and is old friends and former classmates, in Rabbi Rosensweig’s shiur, with Rabbi Weinberger.
Rabbi Schrier and his wife, the former Rena Goldstein, have three children, all boys: aged 5, 3 and 1. Rena, an RN and an MBA, works in an administrative role as associate director at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. She relishes her role as a community rebbetzin, being involved in her congregants’ lives, and being there for people at all times. “I think the part of the rebbetzin role that Rena enjoys the most is being there for people in their moments of need, and offering help and support in life’s difficult moments,” said Rabbi Schrier.
“The warmth, passion and dedication to yiddishkeit, Torah and the Jewish people that Rabbi and Rena Schrier conveyed throughout the search process and during their probah Shabbat are exactly the characteristics needed to lead CBY to even greater heights,” added CBY’s Becker.
By Elizabeth Kratz