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Suburban N.Y. Community Grieves for Rabbi and Wife Killed in Fire


Still reeling from the shocking deaths of their rabbi and his wife in a fierce house fire, the congregants of a suburban New York congregation this week were gathering photos and videos of the couple from their own family albums — taken at simchas and other gatherings — to share with the four Rubenstein children.

As Shira Rubenstein, the eldest, noted on Sunday in eulogizing her parents, Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, the spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Scarsdale for nearly a quarter century, and his wife, Deborah, “the house is not there to remind us, so we will remind each other of our memories.”

But memories were everywhere at the synagogue on Sunday as more than 2,000 congregants and community members overflowed the facility to pay tribute to the Rubensteins. Several hundred people stood silently in the parking lot during the two-hour service listening to the eulogies over a public address system.

The suddenness of death, the unknowable mystery of life, hung over a tight-knit community shaken by the peaceful image of the rabbi and his wife going to sleep on Friday night, then succumbing in a violent manner on Shabbat HaGadol — the Great Sabbath — before Passover.

And there were thoughts of the Rubenstein children, in their 20s, entering Passover this weekend without parents or a house to go home to for the seders.

New Rochelle fire officials, a number of whom attended the funeral, said a lightning strike was the likely cause of the fast-moving fire that swept through the Rubenstein home, virtually destroying it, in the early hours of Saturday morning.

In the days since the fire, members of the Jewish community gathered outside the remains of the Rubenstein home, which in the late 1960s had served as the congregation’s first site, to recite Psalms, and they shared the story of the time that the rabbi helped firefighters save a neighbor’s home in 2001.

The Jewish community went through “a Shabbat of darkness and a Sunday of pain,” Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern, the congregation’s assistant spiritual leader, said in his eulogy.

“The county is grieving,” said Elliot Forchheimer, the executive director of the Westchester Jewish Conference. “Not a family, not a synagogue — the entire county.”

In eulogies, written remarks and interviews this week, the Rubensteins were remembered as a couple who fostered the growth of the synagogue into the largest Modern Orthodox congregation in New York City’s northern suburbs and created a network of close friendships.

“Ultimately, our thriving community is the legacy the Rubensteins have left us,” a memorial page on the synagogue’s Web site said this week.

“You never heard any words of disrespect, disparagement or hatred coming from his pulpit,” said Joel Goldschmidt, a former co-president of Young Israel. “It didn’t matter if he was talking about Jews, Christians, Reform, Conservative. He always looked for the good in people.”

Some recalled an energized Rabbi Rubenstein telling his congregants in December, on his first Shabbat back in the pulpit after a sabbatical, how joyful the time away had been for his wife and him, and how committed he was to bringing new life to the synagogue.

Rabbi Rubenstein, who was 58, had served as president of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also chaired the rabbinic advisory committee of UJA-Federation of New York, had served as president and national chairman of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal and participated in a pulpit exchange with Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale.

“He was well known for being an open-minded person,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division who worked closely with Rabbi Rubenstein.

“He always wanted to push the envelope,” said Morgenstern, who has served at Young Israel for the past eight years. “He was never satisfied with the status quo. He wanted to be able to teach people in a way that they [previously] weren’t able to be touched.”

Rabbi Rubenstein, who studied at several yeshivas in this country and Israel, made a special effort to establish a relationship with children in the congregation.

Morganstern said Rabbi Rubenstein often visited the classes and youth group meetings, and taught bar and bat mitzvah students.

“He didn’t want to just shake your hand” at a simcha “and say mazel tov,” , Morgenstern said.

Forchheimer, who was Young Israel’s youth director two decades ago, said Rabbi Rubenstein “could teach Talmud and he could teach the Rolling Stones, although the Allman Brothers was his favorite band. He showed up with his guitar and played in his black suit. He was on the floor with the kids. He was so accessible. The kids loved it.

“I told him he was the best youth director we ever had, even though I was the youth director.”

As a rock ‘n’ roll fan, Rabbi Rubenstein actively promoted his synagogue’s first Jewish Rock Festival last year.

Born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany to Holocaust survivor parents, Rabbi Rubenstein came to the United States as a child with his family. He lived in Memphis, Chicago and Israel, and served in pulpits in Providence, R.I., and Milford, Mass., before coming to Scarsdale.

He received his ordination from the chief justices of both the Rabbinic Court of the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic community of Jerusalem. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Hebrew University and a master’s at Harvard.

In 1999 he was an author of “A Time to Forgive,” a guide to forgiveness used in Orthodox synagogues. During the High Holidays of 2003 he was one of 15 rabbis invited to meet President Bush at the White House.

Deborah Rubenstein, a native of Montreal who attended McGill University, left her home during her late teens to study in Israel, where she met her future husband.

“She was quite independent, very strong-minded,” said Sandra “Cookie” Lang, Deborah Rubenstein’s sister.

Deborah Rubenstein was the rabbi’s “silent partner” and “a very private person,” Lang said. “Whenever he did anything of importance, he always ran it by her. She was the primary caregiver to the family because the rabbi’s time was so taken up with the community.”

Shira Rubenstein told about her mother’s behind-the-scenes role, sending meals to the infirm, visiting the isolated, sending notes to the despondent.

“My mother possessed a quiet disposition but an inner strength that was comparable to that of an army,” Shira Rubenstein said. “She was an amazing educator,” teaching at two Westchester Hebrew schools over the years.

One of the schools, Temple Israel in New Rochelle, held a memorial service for the Rubensteins on Tuesday night.

“They had such a mission — a mission of family, a mission of community, a mission of changing the world,” Shira Rubenstein said.

She said a few items — the couple’s love letters, Deborah Rubenstein’s college notes, some family photos — were found intact in the gutted shell of the home.

“Treasures, definite treasures,” she said.

John Ruskay, the executive vice president of UJA-Federation, said Rabbi Rubenstein “served as a powerful exemplar of rabbinic leadership in his congregation as well as far beyond.”

“Rabbi Rubenstein will be remembered as a giant rabbinic figure who combined intellectual and spiritual depth with a conviction to embrace the entire Jewish community,” he said.

The news about the couple’s death spread quickly by word of mouth in Scarsdale’s Orthodox community on Saturday morning, when Orthodox Jews don’t use the telephone or television.

By the time worshipers arrived for Shacharit services, “everyone knew,” said William Schrag, a former Young Israel president. Many members of the wider Jewish community showed up too, he said.

“We finished services very quickly,” many people remaining in the synagogue to recite Psalms or console each other, Schrag said. “People wanted to be there.”

“In some way, the rabbi prepared the community for something like this,” said Morgenstern, who this week performed pre-holiday duties usually done by Rabbi Rubenstein. “He always spoke about the bitter and the sweet,” about the painful parts of life that often accompany or color the pleasant parts.

At a recent eulogy, he said, Rabbi Rubenstein drew upon the upcoming Passover symbolism, stating that the matzah, a symbol of freedom, is eaten with the maror, the bitter herbs.

“He said, ‘There’s always the matzah and the maror together,’ ” Morgenstern recalled.

Along with their daughter Shira, the rabbi and his wife are survived by two sons, Daniel and Jonathan; a daughter, Yocheved; two daughters-in-law, Orite and Samantha; four grandchildren; four siblings; and Deborah Rubenstein’s parents, Sarah and Jerry Powell of Montreal.

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