Old Rabbis Not Fading Away

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elliot-strom_left-in-the-kitchen
Elliot Strom and George Simon.

While old soldiers may just fade away, old rabbis are finding retirement is merely the start of the next chapter in their busy lives.

Now that they no longer have to worry on a regular basis about what words of wisdom they need to inspire their former congregants, especially during times of crisis, they’ve discovered a different world.

It’s a world where, in many cases, their everyday lives — due to the commitment it takes that goes well beyond the bimah — have often had to take a back seat to until now.

But no longer.

Now they can read that book they never quite had time to finish. Or write that short story that’s been in the back of their minds. Or teach. Or attend the theater. Or learn to cook. Or do nonprofit work for a public service agency. Or simply get away somewhere and relax, an option seldom available when so many depend on you.

The main thing retired rabbis universally say is that it helps to have some kind of plan.

“I’ve read a number of books about retiring clergy, which I found helpful,” said Gary Gans, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, N.J., who, among other things, is spending the holidays as the rabbi on a cruise ship. “They all spoke about being creative and finding positive outlets.

“I am doing exactly that. I’m a licensed family therapist with a doctorate. So I’ll be doing some of that. I’m also on the board at Crescent Memorial Park cemetery and a chaplain in the Evesham Township Police Department. I’m going to lectures I couldn’t make before and auditing a class in social work at Rutgers-Camden.

“And I’m also a genealogist. I was able to attend a conference last year in Seattle and previously in Jerusalem.”

Gans’ hectic life is typical of his col-

leagues, who’ve discovered new passions once they stepped away from the pulpit.

For Elliot Strom, rabbi emeritus at Shir Ami in Newtown, it’s cooking. He’s become a bit of an amateur chef after taking classes at Sur La Table in New York City, where he and his wife, Susan, have an apartment.

For George Stern, it’s working in social justice in the nonprofit world, where he was director of an interfaith group in Mount Airy for years until funding cutbacks led to its demise. And, like many of his rabbinical counterparts, he spends time with his grandchildren.

For Robert Layman, it’s both teaching and taking courses at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Temple University’s Center City campus. Lately, he’s taught a class on Israel and the Jewish world, essentially a current events course. He’s also taken classes in the arts, history, politics and languages, and he’s learning a little Russian and polishing up on his high school French.

“They have a variety of courses and a membership of around 1,300,” said the 84-year-old Layman, the former regional director of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, after being rabbi at Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim for 14 years. “Most of the people are in their 70s and 80s. A few are in their 90s.”

Layman’s other pursuit has been working with the Rabbinical Assembly, which has a division for retired rabbis and holds an annual convention. He served as president in 2009 and 2010, and has kept up with them since.

Closer to home, he’s involved with the weekly lunch-and-learn sessions at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park. He also teaches adult education at Congregation Beth Sholom and gives D’Var Torah periodically.

“One problem many retiring rabbis face is they can’t let go,” Layman said. “Early in my rabbinate, I followed someone who’d been there for 40 years. He didn’t want to retire but had to and was bitter about that.

“You have to let go and let someone else take over. You also have to plan to be active. The worst affliction for anyone is to be idle. I’m in good health, and I’ve maintained that by being active.”

While Layman stayed active remaining close to home, Simeon Maslin has done it by splitting time, spending a good chunk of it at his new summer retreat in Maine, where he’s not only developed a new set of friends but found a job.

“I was pretty confident I’d have things to do,” said the 85-year-old Maslin, who retired from Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park in 1999. “I like to write. I’ve written three books and published 108 articles.

“But I sort of stumbled into something that’s made life interesting and pleasant over the past 19 years. I bought a retirement place in Brunswick, Maine, near Bowdoin College and made friends with lot of faculty at Bowdoin.

“They asked me to serve as their rabbi for the High Holidays there. There’s about 100 to 125 students and 25 to 30 faculty who attend. And what happened after that was I started a Shabbat morning chavurah using their facilities, and I sort of became the town rabbi.

“Our lives in Maine have become very rich because of that.”

According to Maslin, who’s been the rabbi on a number of cruises and will soon set sail for New Zealand and Australia, being a rabbi can’t be the only thing in your life.

“You have to have some outside interest other than the rabbinate,” said Maslin, who, in his early years, was rabbi on the island of Curaçao, where he helped merge the Sephardic synagogue considered the oldest in the Western hemisphere with a new one. “If all you have is the rabbinate and you retire, there’s not much for you do to.

“The book I just finished, Uncle Sol’s Women, is my first novel. It’s been percolating in my mind for years. But I had no time as a rabbi to do that kind of serious writing.”

Neither did Elliot Strom while at Shir Ami. In fact, whenever he sat down to work on Rabbi, Run, a takeoff on the popular John Updike novel, something got in his way.

“I wanted to finish my book,” Strom said. “It was a dozen years in the making, but I never had time to finish it to my satisfaction. It’s a story about a rabbi who’s literally a runner. But he’s also running away from things, from congregational life. From the role of the rabbi and his family.”

Besides writing, Strom’s done his share of reading.

“I’ve had time to read for pleasure,” said the 65-year-old Strom, who retired in 2015. “Before, everything I read had a purpose or I was getting ready to teach a course.”

And he and his wife have become fixtures on the New York theater and museum circuit. Then there’s the man who prepared a special Valentine’s dinner for his wife this past year and who loves to cook short ribs — kosher, of course.

“We’ve had this place in New York for four to five years, but we couldn’t do as much as we wanted until now,” Strom said. Now we go up there every other week. We like serious drama — off-Broadway — which gives us lots to talk about after the play.

“But we’ve seen Hamilton, too.”

But for all those pursuits, they’ll still tell you don’t stop being a rabbi simply because you don’t have a place to preach.

“I love going back to synagogue and doing things at Shir Ami,” said Strom, who helped the congregation celebrate its 40th birthday Dec. 2. “I love being in the building.

“And I still get to do all about the things about the rabbinate I love — weddings, funerals, et cetera — and still have time to pursue other things. I get to have my cake and eat it, too.”

Meanwhile, Gans, who claims his 40-year marriage to Reconstructionist Rabbi Ilene Schneider is the second-longest in the world among rabbinic couples, is working on a murder mystery in which the heroine is a South Jersey female rabbi. But that didn’t keep him from recently conducting services in Boston.

“We’re so used to being busy in our lives we can’t imagine stopping and going to the rocking chair,” he laughed. “I’m not ready for that.”

Neither is Maslin, who’ll never forget the chain of events surrounding a cruise he took to Iceland — on 9/11.

“We were just off Iceland and the captain the ship asked me to conduct a service,” Maslin said. “I was the only clergyman onboard. At that time, we knew very little. People were upset, so I just did a general service of hope. Maybe 50 to 60 people showed up.

“But when others heard we’d had a service they went to the captain, and I did another one for several hundred people. And when we docked at Iceland, all the flags were at half staff.”

Not every rabbi — active or retired — has such a story to tell. But each of them surely has had some moment when they gained a true appreciation for how special and unique their jobs and lives have been.

While their careers may be winding down, they’re not about to fade away.

Contact: jmarks@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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