A standing-room-only crowd of community members, congregational rabbis and elected officials gathered in the large catering hall at Congregation Ohr Torah of Edison on July 25 for a gala breakfast to pay tribute to Rabbi Israel (Izzy) Rivkin and his wife, Rebecca, as they prepare to make aliyah. Ohr Torah’s Assistant Rabbi Sariel Malitzky served as master of ceremonies and opened the program with a dvar Torah.
Ohr Torah’s senior rav, Rabbi Yaakov Luban, noted that he had wanted to honor the couple earlier for all the work they have done for the community. Between the COVID lockdown restrictions, the Rivkins’ initial demurral (and final acquiescence) to receiving the honor, and their upcoming aliyah, this was no small feat. After 50 years of service and countless achievements, Ohr Torah needed to “honor the crown jewels of the community,” said the synagogue president, Payon Hanian, in his remarks.
The Rivkins arrived in the area in 1968 and raised four children in what has become a thriving Orthodox community. While there has been a Jewish presence in Highland Park for over 100 years, Rabbi Rivkin had the foresight to see that the community needed an Eruv in order for it to grow. At a time when Eruvim were uncommon, he embarked on the task of meeting with politicians and railroad management (whose property would be needed for the Eruv). Any mere mortal dealing with the ensuing bureaucracy might have given up, yet Rabbi Rivkin persevered and it helped lead to today’s thriving community with eight Orthodox synagogues, kosher restaurants, yeshivas, mikvahs and more.
Middlesex County Commissioner Charles Tomaro noted in his remarks that he first met Rabbi Rivkin in 1996 when he was on the Edison Council. Their relationship and loyal friendship grew roots when the town established small community parks. Working to increase the number of parks to include one that would be in walking distance to the neighborhood Jewish children on Shabbat and holiday afternoons led to the establishment of the “Shabbos Park” on North Eighth Avenue.
Rabbi Josh Pruzansky, founder, president and CEO of The ROC of NJ (the Raritan Valley Orthodox Jewish Community Association), told The Jewish Link that Rabbi Rivkin was “the foremost representative of the (Highland Park/Edison) community with local and state elected officials.” In addition to the Eruv, he was responsible for the pre-Pesach garbage pick-up for chametz removal; provided advice to elected officials on Jewish matters; and was always available to help community members who were in need of assistance. He galvanized the community and encouraged them to vote in each election, leading to tremendous voter turnout.
Rabbi Pruzansky also shared that Rabbi Rivkin founded and chaired the Kehilla of Raritan Valley, a political advocacy organization, to increase the voice of the community. Rabbi Pruzansky said that the establishment of “The ROC” was a way to continue the great work that Rabbi Rivkin initiated.
Dr. Jonas Waizer spoke about his longtime relationship with the Rivkins. As a personal friend, colleague and partner in many community initiatives, he described the time, effort, commitment and personal sacrifice that Rabbi Rivkin devoted to the community. He noted Rabbi Rivkin’s particular assistance to families of children with special needs, who required help with bus service or other needs. Waizer noted how Rabbi Rivkin “drew him into the web with love of community, shul and people” and served as a mentor to teach him more than any other individual in his career.
Drora Waltuch shared her first encounter with Rebecca Rivkin. While seeking a community to move to, she stopped at Jerusalem Pizza and asked if there was anyone who could tell her about the town. She was referred to Rebecca, who came right over and gave her a tour of the community. As a local realtor, Rebecca not only knew the houses, she knew the people. She reached out to the new faces in the community and helped them acclimate and feel at home.
Suzie Wolf, a “second generation” friend of Rebecca’s, noted her devotion to building the community one family at a time and always being there to welcome newcomers. Rebecca even had a hand in making a “real estate shidduch,” when she had a man with children looking for a house, and another client, a woman with children, looking for a home. Seemed like a match made in (realtor) heaven.
New Jersey State Senator Patrick Diegnan Jr. and New Jersey Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak presented the Rivkins with a framed New Jersey State proclamation honoring the couple for their service, leadership and commitment, and extended their best wishes.
Unable to attend due to a prior commitment, Highland Park’s Mayor Gayle Brill-Mittler sent a prepared message, noting: “One person I’ve counted on, for well over a decade, for a keen understanding of public opinion in the Orthodox Jewish community of Highland Park and Edison has been Rabbi Rivkin. His counsel to me has always been level headed, well informed, constructive, and reliable. … He thinks both short-term and long-term. Rabbi Rivkin has been a treasure of insight to me and I value his advice greatly.”
Rabbi Luban noted in his presentation to the Rivkins that they have been strong supporters since he arrived to lead the congregation and that he would have been saddened if they left to go anywhere other than Israel. Noting that with technology it will be easier to keep in touch, he said he hoped that Rabbi Rivkin would continue to publish his weekly Torah thoughts. The Rivkins were also presented with a work of art highlighting the Yud Gimmel Middot.
Rabbi Rivkin concluded the event with a few words thanking those in attendance and noting the friendships he had forged with local politicians. He had warm words for Waizer, who was praised for his shared love of community. Rabbi Rivkin concluded that once we accept the true friendship of Hashem, we need to accept the challenge and reach out to help others, get involved, and be part of the community to ensure its continuation.