Several months ago, Herb Rozansky came across the following Talmudic passage: “The days of our lives are three score and 10, or even by reason of strength four score years” (Psalms 90:10).
At 85, Rozansky has passed these milestones, but has no intention of slowing down. He has developed a new connection to Jewish life as a volunteer on behalf of the Jewish community and as a “Shabbat regular” at Congregation B’nai Shalom in West Orange, where he and his wife, Muriel, have been members for 47 years.
After officially retiring in 2007 after a 55-year-long career in the IT world, Rozansky, an Air Force veteran who emigrated from Germany in 1939, found himself with time on his hands.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he learned that the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ had formed a partnership with the hard-hit town of Union Beach. Volunteers were being sought to help clean up the massive piles of debris that littered the town and its beach.
Rozansky initially volunteered because, as he said, “I need things to do. I can’t sit still.” He was in touch with Stacey Brown, who was then the Federation’s director of the Center for Volunteerism. (She now has a new role with the organization.) It was his first-ever association with Federation, but would not be his last.
Rozanksy volunteered five times during the winter of 2013. He also started to go to shul regularly on Shabbat, finding Rabbi Robert Tobin’s sermons enlightening and meaningful. Always looking for new challenges, he decided he would have a second bar mitzvah. After studying with Rena Casser, B’nai Shalom’s educational director, for six months, he was called to the bima in May 2013 to read from the Torah and chant the Haftorah. He wore a new tallit bought by his wife and the kippah she had made herself. This past June, he and his wife celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at B’nai Shalom, where Rozansky once again read the Torah and the Haftorah.
Later that year he was invited to a meeting at Federation. There, he learned about a new Federation-Union Beach initiative, this time with volunteers from Greater MetroWest and Israelis from Federation’s partner communities in Israel. The group would live and work together for a week at the Holiday Inn in Keyport while restoring the interior of an uninhabitable home.
Here was work his hands really knew how to do. Comfortable with hand tools, paint brushes and spacklers, and intrigued by the concept, he signed on. It was a life-changing decision.
“Union Beach was a turning point for me in many ways,” said Rozansky. He credits Rabbi Joel Soffin, rabbi emeritus of Temple Shalom in Succasunna and the project’s rabbinic advisor, with opening his eyes and heart. He was particularly moved by the evening discussions on ethical issues and witnessing, for the first time, a Torah scroll unspooled from end to end. “It touched my Jewish soul,” said Rozansky.
Over the course of the week, he developed deep bonds with all the volunteers, especially the Israelis. There was an “absolute sense of camaraderie. We were always helping each other out,” he said.
So much so that in October 2013, he and his wife made their first trip to Israel since 1984. The highlight of their two-week trip? The reunion with Rozansky’s newfound Israeli friends.
As part of his travel planning, Rozansky had emailed fellow volunteers Gali and Rami Shahar and Ely Cerrechi to arrange a get-together. The Shahars picked up the Rozanskys in Tel Aviv and drove them to their home in Nir Akiva. When they arrived, seated around a long table laden with food, were many of the Israelis who had worked with Rozansky in Union Beach. (All of the Israeli volunteers were invited; unfortunately some couldn’t make it.) He is still in touch every week through Facebook.
Eager to get back to Israel and looking for a new adventure, this past February, Rozansky participated in Sar-El, a “service to Israel” program. He had to pass a physical and have a personal interview, at which he asked, “Do you take old people.” His interviewer said “No problem, we have someone who’s 91.”
In Israel, he volunteered on an army base for two weeks. When he had leave, he went to the Shahar’s home, where he was treated to picnics and rides in all-terrain vehicles. “It was absolutely wonderful,” he said.
“My experiences in Israel have been transformative,” said Rozansky. He is “in awe” of how Israelis live their lives with the specter of violence always present. He follows the news in Israel on a daily basis. “I want to know what’s going on,” he said.
Through his association with Federation, Rozansky has volunteered at the Jewish Family Service in Elizabeth, working in its garden that helps to feed the needy. In Newark, he and his wife helped to catalog hundreds of donated books being stored at Ahavat Sholom, and he also helped to clean up a cemetery prior to the High Holidays. Non-Federation-related volunteer activities include reading to children in grades 1-6 in Newark and supporting the MS Foundation (for the past four years he and his granddaughter have walked up 66 flights of stairs at Radio Center Music Hall to raise funds for the organization).
What’s next? Among other possibilities, Rozansky would like to go back to the army base in Israel. But no matter what happens, “I will find another mountain to climb,” he said.
By Sherry S. Kirschenbaum