The Globetrotting Rabbi


As Jewish welcoming ceremonies go, the blue-and-white garb, the yarmulkes and Star of David accessories, the singing of “Hatikvah” at the airport were not beyond the pale.

But the canoe races, with 40 men in grass skirts chanting and paddling long dugout logs?

That was a little off the beaten path.

Expected or arcane, all of these snapshot moments make for fond memories of the recent eight-day trip Rabbi Gerald Sussman made to New Guinea tribe members claiming Jewish ancestry.

Rabbi Sussman, spiritual leader of Staten Island’s Temple Emanu-El, is also the point man for Kulanu, an organization that since l993 has celebrated Jews from odd corners of the planet as full-fledged members of the worldwide Jewish community.

Of course there are prominent globetrotting New York rabbis who garner more headlines, but they largely confine their sorties to world capitals and recognized Jewish communities. For this latter-day Henry Stanley, the more rewarding path is to those points in the Third World where people claiming to be Jews, or otherwise engaging in a strong semblance of Jewish practice — he calls them “returning” or “emerging Jews” or “Israelites” — should not be but stubbornly, often amazingly are. In seven years, Rabbi Sussman and his wife Bonita have made five journeys to Africa, India and the South Pacific, arriving, when not as the very first Western Jews their hosts have ever seen, then certainly the first to have paid any sort of extended visit.

“My wife jokes that other rabbis stay in four-star hotels,” says Rabbi Sussman. “We stay in places with the one outhouse.”

The Sussmans dominate a small cadre of Kulanu members who make a mission of dropping in on emerging Jewish enclaves around the world, in pursuit of a passion that Rabbi Sussman claims is “beginning to catch on.”

In the case of New Guinea, portions of the isolated Pacific island had been variously staked out by the British, Dutch, Germans, Australians and Indonesians. Absent is any record of an immigrant Jewish presence. Yet, says Rabbi Sussman, at least 12,000 members of the Gogodala tribe from the Papua region’s western provinces claim a distinct Jewish ancestry stemming, according to internal lore, from long-ago migration in ocean-spanning longboats.

A more history-grounded but still intriguing interpretation may be the likelier explanation, according to Rabbi Sussman.

“We know that Protestant missionaries came to the area in the 1930s and profoundly changed life for the Gogodalas,” he says. “What happened next wasn’t entirely clear. But it appears that many Gogodalas read deeper into the Bible and decided that Judaism was the more authentic expression of God’s true will.”

Over the years participating Gogodalas have been practicing ritual circumcision, observing Jewish holidays and refraining from the local main course of wild boar.

A film crew and Tudor Parfitt, a Florida International University professor who is a leading expert on emerging Jews, joined the Sussmans in their expedition, via military plane over rugged terrain. The Sussmans imparted some Hebrew lessons, left Bibles and prayer books and introduced the New Guineans to Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith.

Celebrants hoisting Bonita Sussman by chair was a highlight of the marathon.

“It demonstrated their basic kindness,” says Rabbi Sussman.

Says Bonita Sussman, who serves on Kulanu’s board, “We helped them with the basic alef bet. The very next day they showed off what they learned, every letter, down to the vowel notations. They were very proud of their achievement. They were amazing.”

“My wife was the one who persuaded me to take this trip,” comments Rabbi Sussman. “She’s the inspiration for everything we do.”

Earlier travels took the Sussmans to the off-grid Bnei Ephraim community of India, where their hosts festooned them with garlands of orchids and learned how to bake matzah with the help of the Sussmans and You Tube, as well as the Bnei Yeshouren enclave in Cameroon, whose members prepared the Shabbat feast in a flaming outdoor roast. .

By Western standards, physical conditions in the various communities range from adequate to advanced, with many outback settlements lacking electricity and running water.

“Many people,” qualifies Rabbi Sussman, “have cellphones.” Certain communities reach out via Facebook.

When it comes to total Kulanu miles logged, says Harriet Bograd, the organization’s president, “the Sussmans are far and away at the top. They connect their hosts with resources that had been completely unavailable to them. The two of them have built a global network that is astonishing. They are our best ambassadors.”

A snug neoclassical structure topped with a big wrought-steel Star of David, Temple Emanu-El nestles on a residential street in the Port Richmond neighborhood, around the corner from the Sussmans’ own well-worn house. A sign near the outer door solicits donations to the shul’s food pantry, while inside on sunny days the light streaming through stained-glass windows shimmers through the sanctuary. The temple’s member families hold steady at 130. Built in 1907, it is Staten Island’s oldest synagogue, among 20 serving the borough’s 20,000 Jews.

The building also houses the Council of Jewish Organizations of Staten Island.

Rabbi Sussman, 63, a graduate of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, has managed the temple for the last 30 years. He usually leads the prayer service in a tempered, melodious high tenor.

Much as he enjoys roving topographically, Rabbi Sussman also likes to expand boundaries at home. Under his guidance, the synagogue has held a messiah seder on the last night of Passover, modeled on a Lubavaticher chasidic practice, and has also introduced the traditional all-night Torah study marathon for the Shavuot holiday.

A founder of the Staten Island Jewish Historical Society and the interfaith group Building Bridges, Rabbi Sussman helped introduce the borough’s first interfaith seder and is a key organizer of the annual spring march of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus across the island’s north shore. He is also the board president of Project Hospitality, a social services network on Staten Island.

Staten Islanders in general have long felt slighted by New York’s other four boroughs, and many of its Jews believe they are similarly neglected by their brethren elsewhere in the city. Rabbi Sussman shares much of that sentiment.

“When the big organizations run their population studies,” he cites by way of example, “they rarely ask Staten Island Jews.”

But among New York Jews, he insists, the Staten Island ones are not only very real, but utterly distinctive.

“They’re not as [geographically] concentrated as they are elsewhere in the city,” he says. “That can make individual social relationships stronger.

“Staten Island Jews are Staten Islanders. And Staten Islanders in the aggregate are their own ethnic group.”

Though few congregants were badly battered by Hurricane Sandy, with most living well inland from the storm’s worst effects, the synagogue rounded up a cadre of volunteers to help out some of the island’s harder hit victims.

A rash of swastika paintings briefly struck the city’s most geographically isolated borough a few years ago, and Rabbi Sussman cautions: “Anti-Semitism exists, though it’s subtle and underground.”

Rabbi Sussman is also busy fulfilling the traditional pastoral function of assisting members of his flock in need. One recent example is Tom Weiss, dealing with a knotty negligence case that involves New York University’s dental clinic, the New York State Health Department and the office of Assemblyman Matthew Tutone. Rabbi Sussman interceded with a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, which has so far gone unanswered.

Undeterred, Rabbi Sussman assured, “If it doesn’t work, we’ll find another way.”

Says Weiss, a longtime political activist, “I’m gratified by the rabbi’s help. It’s another example of his leadership in the cause of civil rights, whether on behalf of congregants like me or people in general.”

Temple congregants take the Sussmans’ near-annual departures to exotic Kulanu-designated locales in stride. “We have guys who can leyn [conduct Torah readings] thanks to their yeshiva training,” says recording secretary Dennis Kass. “I can lead the Musaf prayer.

“When the rabbi returns, he devotes his Friday evening sermon to his recent trip. There are always a few more people than usual in the seats.”