The Young Israel of East Brunswick (YIEB) held its annual dinner on May 7 in the Radisson Hotel in Freehold, honoring Rabbi and Rebbetzin Wasser for their many years of service to the community.
Dinner chairman and close friend of the Wassers, Jeff Perlman, shared that the dinner was the most successful in recent shul history, attracting almost 300 people to fill the catering hall of the hotel.
The shul’s rav, Rabbi Yehoshua Hess, opened the evening, followed by Roger Fine, a founding member of the shul. Fine formally introduced the evening’s main honorees, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Emeritus Yaakov and Aviva Wasser, and he held the attention of everyone present.
“When you are in the presence of Rabbi Wasser, you are in the presence of a genuinely happy person,” Fine stated, continuing that it was that happiness which enabled the rabbi and rebbetzin to be so successful in their service to the shul. As he looked into the matter of happiness, Fine said he found it is a state of mind that actually takes considerable effort to maintain. And this effort is tied to how someone approaches their work, those they love, and the situations that require courage.
Fine shared with the crowd the story of the shul’s founding in 1975 and its initial nomadic efforts to hold services in different places in East Brunswick. The shul hired Rabbi Wasser as their rav in 1979 and, at the time, there were 18 member families; when he retired 30 years later, the shul had 200 member families.
Fine asserted that much of what a rabbi does takes place “behind a curtain,” as most congregants only encounter him over Shabbat. Fine conducted some research and determined that in his tenure as rav of YIEB, Rabbi Wasser delivered hundreds of sermons, taught hundreds of classes, officiated at over 100 weddings and hundreds of bar mitzvahs, and led an average of one funeral a month, while also counseling families in grief. Rabbi Wasser raised over $1.5 million for the Rabbi’s Tzedaka Fund over the course of his term at YIEB. Fine also praised Rebbetzin Wasser for her countless efforts as a teacher in the shul and as a role model of a professional and a mother.
YIEB Shul President David Rabinowitz called up Rabbi and Rebbetzin Wasser to the podium to accept their Lifetime Achievement Award, and shared what they have meant to the growth of the shul. Perlman announced that a legacy gift allowed the shul to established the Rabbi and Rebbetzin Wasser Institute of Torah Learning at the Young Israel of East Brunswick “to further your ideals for Torah learning in East Brunswick forever” and the Institute’s mission is “to provide meaningful and engaging Torah learning” regularly, to touch all ages.
Accepting the award, Rabbi Wasser first asked all the members of his family present at the dinner to stand, stating, “My greatest legacy is my ability to raise such a family” with the rebbetzin. “I’ve always felt that the most important task as a rabbi and as a parent is to pass the torch of observant Yiddishkeit to the next generation,” he continued. “I must express our hakaras hatov to the community for letting us serve as your rabbi and rebbetzin all these years. Thank you for your love and appreciation. … It has been a privilege and an honor from day one. ”
Rebbetzin Wasser said that while she planned to let the rabbi speak for the two of them, she felt she had to speak, “because this is my opportunity to express my hakaras hatov. You created me, you gave me the opportunity to give and to learn with you. You let me become the person I am. I have a huge debt of hakaras hatov to you all.”
The evening was filled with many other heartfelt tributes to Rabbi and Rebbetzin Wasser, with Rabbi Hess noting their consistent love for all others in the synagogue and how they considered each shul member as part of their family, and a video with warm greetings from each of the congregational rabbis in frum shuls in Middlesex County. A second video featured greetings to the Wassers from former YIEB congregants who now serve as rabbis or yeshiva teachers across the country, with a third video filled with words of praise for their parents from the Wassers’ 12 children and their spouses.
The warm praise for the Wassers at the dinner was not limited to speakers on the podium or in videos.
“My family is very close to the Wassers,” said Dr. Alan Wolkoff. “Without Rabbi Wasser and Aviva, our family wouldn’t be where we are now. He inspired our family to really grow. They should share in the nachas we have for our children.”
Rabbi Baruch Wasser, a rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Kol Torah in Inwood, New York and the Wassers’ ninth child, stated: “I look up to my dad with a real sense of pride. I look around this room and see all the people whose lives he’s touched. It’s amazing what one person can do, one person at a time.”
Jewish radio personality Nachum Segal told The Jewish Link: “Rabbi Wasser has been a good friend of mine for close to 40 years now. I felt it was appropriate to join in this tribute to him and his wife.”
“We are delighted to honor the Wassers for their 40 years of exceptional service,” said Perlman. “They have been family to us all, Torah scholars, outgoing and gracious, with tremendous middos. And Rebbetzin Aviva raised the bar for us, by creating a strong Torah learning program for women.”
By Harry Glazer