Standing By Suffolk, In Good Times And Bad


Rabbi Steven Moss marked his 40th year at B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, L.I., in August, thus making him the longest serving rabbi of one congregation in Suffolk County, L.I.

Over the years, Rabbi Moss, 64, has been an active member of the community, serving as chairman of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, co-chairing the county’s Anti-Bias Task Force, and founding STOPBIAS, an educational program for bias/hate crimes offenders. He is also president of the Suffolk Board of Rabbis, a chaplain to the Suffolk County Police Department and oversees hospital chaplaincy programs throughout the county for the New York Board of Rabbis. A celebration marking Rabbi Moss’ 40 years at the temple was held late last month. This is an edited transcript.

Q: What has been the biggest change in the Suffolk Jewish community over the years?

A: When I began I was hoping to see a community that was vibrant in terms of the number of people and in the quality of Jewish life. As the years went by I began to see this. Jewish funeral homes opened, we started to get kosher restaurants and bakeries, UJA-Federation [of New York] opened an office, as did [Jewish Association Serving the Aging], [Anti-Defamation League], Jewish Family Services and other Jewish groups.

Then the Suffolk YMHA opened with the county’s first mikveh, Gurwin Jewish Geriatric Center opened and the Jewish Community Planning Council was formed; a Jewish arts festival was held every year.

Unfortunately, during the last five to 10 years this vision and reality has been tarnished by a decrease in the Jewish population and the closing of Jewish communal offices and services that have either gone out of business, moved to Nassau County or back to Manhattan. [The education agency] SAJES, for instance, was later merged with BJE [now the Jewish Education Project] and moved to New York.

Now we are also seeing the merging and closing of synagogues, and instead of several Jewish day schools there is just one. Instead of several kosher restaurants, there are just two. It saddens me greatly.

How is your own synagogue doing?

Thank God B’nai Israel has remained strong. When I started we had 50 families and 25 children in the Hebrew school. We now have almost 450 families and 240 students.

How has the level of Jewish observance in Suffolk changed?

There are a large number of people who could afford all of the institutions that were here but there is a general lack of involvement and support for them. This is also true across the board in our society; younger people seem to be less involved in these activities than prior generations.

You were involved in a program begun about 10 years ago by FEGS called Partners in Dignity, designed to provide counseling to families facing end-of-life issues. What happened to that program?

Sadly the program has been decimated in terms of professional staff. It began with perhaps a half-dozen social workers, a director and two rabbis as the spiritual care coordinators. About four or five years ago, the two rabbis were eliminated and they are now down to one social worker and a director. I still do consulting for them, but how sad it is that a program that obviously FEGS thought was so important could be diminished in its effectiveness. It makes no sense to me. And how can you have a program like this without a true spiritual component?

Is the defunding of Partners in Dignity emblematic of what has been happening to Jewish programs in Suffolk County?

In the last few years, UJA-Federation defunded the Suffolk Jewish Communal Planning Council and instead funded the JCRC-LI and SYNERGY. While both are doing admirable jobs, I believe they are not really focused on the problems that face our declining community. … What needs to be done is to bring together all sectors of the Jewish community — lay, rabbinic, and all of the professionals from the various agencies and organizations — to address the fact that the ship of the Jewish community here is sinking.