Rabbi Yaakov Luban, esteemed rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison since 1982, has shared his plans to retire by the beginning of September 2023. He discussed with The Jewish Link his thoughts and observations about his congregation and the Highland Park-Edison Jewish community at large throughout his tenure.
Rabbi Luban was encouraged to become a rabbi by his father, Rabbi Marvin Luban, zt’’l, who served as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Forest Hills for many years. “I grew up in a rabbinic home, and my father was my model for becoming a rabbinic leader,” Rabbi Luban said. He learned in various yeshivot throughout the United States and Israel, including Philadelphia, Lakewood, a kollel in Pittsburgh, and the Mir Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. Relying on a recommendation from Rav Hershel Schacter zt’’l, who did placement for Yeshiva University, Rabbi Luban accepted the rabbinic leadership at Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, a growing yet small congregation of about 35 to 40 families.
In discussing the history of Congregation Ohr Torah and the Highland Park-Edison community, Rabbi Luban stressed the positive attributes of both the early and present-day community, though of course the congregation has grown and many more resources are now available. He reflected that when he became the rabbi at Ohr Torah, “I was younger than most congregants, while today I am a senior citizen. Yet, the character of the shul has remained the same, with a commitment to Torah values, an emphasis on spiritual growth and the importance of midot, chesed and Torah study.”
Members of Congregation Ohr and the Highland Park-Edison Jewish community are diverse in their connection to Judaism. Families educate their children in many different schools, including Shaarei Tzion, RPRY, Neitvot, Hatikvah and various public schools. Rabbi Luban noted that despite the diversity, the community as a whole is unified because of the mutual respect people have for each other. “Many members of the community support Jewish education in schools that they do not send their children to,” he said. “Similarly, many families hold dual memberships to numerous synagogues in the Highland Park-Edison community. The rabbinic leadership and their congregants are unified in their efforts to create shalom, and do not compete with one another.”
Rabbi Luban and the other rabbinic leaders were instrumental in establishing the VAAD of Raritan Valley, which contributes to communal unity. The VAAD provides one standard of kashrut for the entire community and oversees an eruv for those who wish to carry on Shabbat. As a result of the standardization of kashrut in the community, Rabbi Luban noted that there is no worry that people will not eat at the house of another because they shop at a certain store.
Rabbi Luban discussed the challenges that had to be overcome during the COVID pandemic. “Many congregants had different perspectives and opinions on how the community should respond. The shul tried to stay the course by complying with legal requirements, while at the same time being sensitive to individual needs. Although people were concerned that shuls would not recover, Congregation Ohr Torah has returned to its previous state of operations.”
In discussing the role of a rabbi in the community, Rabbi Luban feels that the core element is to create and maintain close relationships with people. “One of the most important things that I do as a rabbi, and what rabbis do in general, is to provide support to people in need,” he said. “Life is complicated, and everyone faces their own unique challenges, and people need emotional and religious support. My father taught me that 95 percent of being a good counselor is to be a good listener. It makes an enormous difference to people to know that someone cares and wants to help them.”
As for the challenges facing the Jewish community at large, Rabbi Luban said: “Although the world of Torah does not change, its message is different to every generation according to its needs. We always need to find ways to make Torah relevant to new life situations.”
Rabbi Luban underscored that a lack of respect and concern for others is a major issue in contemporary society. “In Jewish law if you embarrass someone in public, it is on the same level as killing them. Yet in today’s society, public embarrassments are the norm on public platforms. The challenge of our generation is to not be influenced by these values. Instead, as Jews we need to promote the importance of not speaking lashon hara and teach the value of treating others with dignity and respect.”
Regarding his next steps, Rabbi Luban said he will be staying in the Highland Park-Edison community. “I do not plan on moving. I want to still be here for people in the shul and community, and I hope to maintain the relationships I have formed over the past 40 years.
“I am very fortunate that Rabbi Sariel Malitzky has been selected by the congregation to be my successor,” he continued. “Rabbi Malitzky is an outstanding talmid chacham. He has an enormous amount of energy and much creative talent. I know that Congregation Ohr Torah will be in good hands when Rabbi Malitzky assumes the mantle of leadership.”
Members of Congregation Ohr Torah are appreciative of everything Rabbi Luban has accomplished for the Highland Park-Edison community.
Rabbi Malitzky, assistant rabbi at Ohr Torah for the past six years, said: “Rabbi Luban is the glue that keeps the community together, revered and respected by all segments of our diverse community. Rabbi Luban is a talmid chacham and posek whose Torah scholarship is matched by his care and sensitivity for every single member of the community. It has been an absolute privilege to learn from him and work under him for the last six years. Words cannot describe how much he has meant for me both personally and professionally.”
Moshe Schneider, former president and longtime member of Congregation Ohr Torah, learned many lessons working beside the rabbi. “Rabbi Luban’s incredible ability to understand people’s needs and emotions taught me how to interact with people on a more meaningful level and to try to understand the motivations of each individual.”
Robert Kreitman, current president of Ohr Torah, noted: “Rabbi Luban has devoted himself for the past 40 years to pursuing shalom and unity within our shul and the entire Edison-Highland Park community. He works tirelessly to inspire us to grow religiously and to perfect our character. Rabbi Luban is simply unbelievable. He is a brilliant talmid chacham but uniquely humble. He has outstanding midos but constantly seeks to improve. Most significantly, he does his very best to be available to and to serve each and every member of our congregation and community.
“We are sorry to see him retire but wish him and his family well. We also look forward to the transition and the beginning of the tenure of Rabbi Sariel Malitzky.”
Moshe Hecht of Edison is a summer intern at The Jewish Link. He is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University with a bachelor’s degree in history. Moshe plans to further pursue his academic studies in the master’s program in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.