Leaving The Strife Behind


The next head of the New York Board of Rabbis will have a new headquarters, but the same headaches, as the outgoing executive vice president. Running an interdenominational organization, to which members of the four major denominations of Judaism belong, gets harder each year, said Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, who retired last week after a decade in the position.

"Unequivocally, yes," Rabbi Rosenthal said on his last day on the job, sitting in the board’s temporary office, a plain conference room in the Bnai Zion building on East 39th Street.

"The extremes" on both sides of the ideological spectrum are increasingly opposed to membership in such an umbrella group, he said: prominent Orthodox leaders have ruled against an organization to which non-Orthodox colleagues belong, and many Reform rabbis have declined to join since the board barred membership in the 1970s to anyone performing intermarriages.

And those who do join frequently find themselves at odds over ongoing halachic and sociological issues, the rabbi said.

"Maintaining a semblance of harmony … is not an easy task," Rabbi Rosenthal said, sitting at a wooden table cum desk in a room stacked with cardboard boxes. He made his comments, listing examples of cooperative efforts in such areas as chaplaincy and Torah study during his tenure, in a week in which the latest instance of suspected internecine violence took place: arson at a Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem, which leaders of the congregation blamed on haredi Jews.

"We can come together. We can study together," the rabbi said of the board’s 750 New York-area rabbis, whose numbers have slightly increased in the last 10 years. "We can disagree with each other," he adds.

Rabbi Rosenthal, 66, a Bronx native, has served with the Board of Rabbis 43 years, as president, editor, TV host, concert organizer, and finally, its top professional staffer. He moved this week from Great Neck, L.I., to Brookline, Mass., with his wife Ann to be near the couple’s two married daughters.

The board has appointed a search committee to find his successor. Rabbi Paul Hait, Rabbi Rosenthal’s predecessor, is serving as interim executive vice president.

The 119-year-old group, founded as the New York Board of Jewish Ministers, is the nation’s largest such interdenominational Jewish group; the Synagogue Council of America, which included laity and rabbis, disbanded in 1995.

"It was a great tragedy," Rabbi Rosenthal said.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, immediate past president of the board, last year established the North American Boards of Rabbis, which includes rabbis (from all branches of Judaism) from 25 boards of rabbis around the country.

A good step, Rabbi Rosenthal said. "Anything that brings Jews together I’m in favor of."

The rabbi, who attended an Orthodox Talmud Torah as a child, studied at Yeshiva University and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. "I felt more comfortable theologically with the Conservative movement," he said.

A pulpit rabbi for 33 years, he served at Temple Beth El of Cedarhurst, L.I., before taking the board position. "I’m always interested in a new challenge. I had pretty much done everything I wanted to do in the pulpit."

He is leaving now, in good health, he said, because "it’s time to move on and do other things": writing, teaching, studying.

His departure followed by two weeks the move of the board from its longtime site in a brownstone on East 73rd Street: a new suite across the hall from the temporary headquarters in the Bnai Zion building will be ready in a few weeks.

"Leaving 73rd was more emotional," Rabbi Rosenthal said. He did "double packing," sifting through the board’s accumulated files and records, shipping his books and plaques to Massachusetts. "I gave away 500 books to students at JTS."

His last day at the office was as simple as his office.

The phone did not ring as the rabbi spoke. In past years, in his former office, there were constant interruptions, from other rabbis and Christian clergy and politicians.

"I’ll miss a lot of the colleagues here," he said. Then he returned to his final tasks, after a week of farewell celebrations. "Today is a regular day: last-minute cleaning out of files, correspondence, thank you notes."