A Jewish day school in Westchester County, N.Y., might not be the most rough and tumble place to get an education, but Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg said he had to learn to be tough as a kid: His parents were from Philadelphia and he was a diehard Phillies fan surrounded by Yankees and Mets devotees.
Now, finally, Gruenberg is living in Phillies territory for the first time in his life. This summer, the 38-year-old became religious leader of Congregation Beth El in Yardley.
By moving from the 175-family member Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack, N.Y., Gruenberg is assuming a pulpit nearly twice the size of his former synagogue. He lives with his wife, Elissa, 6-year-old son Sammy and 4-year-old Kayla.
Beth El is one of those rare Conservative congregations that has grown substantially in the past decade, increasing from about 225 families to more than 300. In fact, Gruenberg pointed out, the congregation continued to experience membership gains even through the recession years.
In 2008, the synagogue was overhauled, including a new sanctuary, kitchen and social hall.
The rabbi said he won't immediately be focused on growing the synagogue but instead plans to concentrate on those already invested in congregational life.
He said he will dedicate his first year on the job to getting to know as many members as possible, to learn their "Jewish stories" and discern how he can serve his congregants both individually and communally.
"My primary goal the first year is building relationships with the community, to get the lay of the land," said Gruenberg, a 2002 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Gruenberg's father was the educational director of the Conservative shul in New Rochelle, N.Y., where the family belonged. Growing up at a synagogue, Gruenberg had always considered a career in the rabbinate but didn't know for sure that it was right for him until the start of his second year at the seminary, when he conducted High Holi-day services at the University of Georgia. Having people look to him as their guide through the Days of Awe had a profound effect on the young student.
"It is a great privilege to be there for people in both their great and difficult moments," he added. "The ability to be a part of their most intimate moments is a tremendous responsibility, but also a tremendous gift."