MARBLEHEAD – Over his 50 years of service, Jonas Goldberg came to be known as a “rabbi’s rabbi.”
From Jerusalem to Georgia to Detroit to the North Shore, Rabbi Goldberg developed a reputation as a deep thinker with an encyclopedic knowledge of Judaism, a source of wisdom and compassion for those in need, and a leader able to preserve tradition while forging a forward-thinking and inclusive future.
“Rabbi Jonas was loved by many people, both in our temple as well as the broader North Shore community,” wrote Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez of Temple Sinai in Marblehead, where Goldberg served as rabbi from 1989 to 2007 and rabbi emeritus until 2019. “His vast knowledge of Judaism and tradition was complemented by his caring nature and listening skills. He will be truly missed.”
Rabbi Goldberg passed away on May 1 from congestive heart failure. He was 79. (Read his obituary here.)
Goldberg was born on Oct. 2, 1939 in Philadelphia to Jacob and Sarah Goldberg, an accountant and nurse who were deeply involved in their Jewish community. They helped found their synagogue, and Jacob was on the board of Camp Ramah in the Poconos and what was then called the Federation of Jewish Agencies of Greater Philadelphia. In middle and high school, Goldberg attended a Jewish day school in Philadelphia called Akiba Hebrew Academy.
Goldberg’s wife, Chelly, believes that her husband knew from an early age that he wanted to be a rabbi. “He knew pretty early on – his father wanted him to be a rabbi,” said Chelly. “I think his father would’ve loved to have been one himself.”
Goldberg was able to realize the family dream when he attended the joint program of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. While in seminary, he taught at different Hebrew schools, and spent his summers as a librarian at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, which he had attended as a child. He eventually became the camp’s assistant program director.
Goldberg also took part in the Leaders Training Fellowship, a youth group designed to groom the next generation of Jewish leaders. Goldberg’s father happened to be the adult supervisor of the group, and one weekend he met with the group’s treasurer, a fellow Philadelphian named Rachelle (Chelly) Gilgore, to discuss some financial details of the annual Sukkot celebration in Atlantic City. Jacob was so charmed by Chelly that he decided his son should meet her. Goldberg was equally charmed, and in 1963, he and Chelly got married.
Two years later, Goldberg decided to spend his junior year at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s campus in Jerusalem, and he and Chelly spent 10 months living in a dorm just steps from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Once the semester was over, the newlyweds spent seven weeks traveling in Europe.
After Goldberg was ordained in 1967, he was assigned his first pulpit as an Army chaplain in Fort Benning, Ga. “He was the only Jewish chaplain at Benning, which was a huge post, because it was at the height of the Vietnam buildup,” said Chelly. His services were well-attended, though not for totally kosher reasons: According to Chelly, services offered good food, a rare chance for married couples to interact, and a pass from cleaning the barracks. “We had a lot of converts,” she said dryly.
At Fort Benning, Chelly gave birth to a son, Avram, who died in infancy. The couple then adopted their oldest son, David, and in the following years Chelly gave birth to Don and Uri Goldberg. “He was a good father in their eyes because he would watch cartoons with them,” said Chelly. “He had a huge thing for kids … he connected so well with young people.”
After his chaplaincy, Goldberg spent a year as a rabbi at Temple Sinai in Cinnaminson, N.J.; then two of the “coldest years of [Chelly’s] life” as an assistant rabbi at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, a Detroit suburb; and then 17 years as the rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, Conn.
In the late ‘80s, Goldberg’s accountant told him that a pulpit at Temple Sinai in Marblehead was open, and that he thought it would be a good fit. He and Chelly came to visit, and they liked what they saw. “There was a feeling of real community here – there was a warmth and acceptance that was very special, and physically of course it was beautiful,” said Chelly. “It just felt comfortable.”
During his tenure at Sinai, Goldberg was deeply involved in every aspect of synagogue life, and would hurry to the temple to make minyan even on days off. “He was amazing with names, and when a person was called for an Aliyah, he also remembered their Hebrew names,” said David Aronson, the cantor at Sinai since 1990. “He always informed me of the news, good or bad, going on in the temple – if somebody’s sick, who to call … he would be the person to inform me of all the lifecycle events, which was vital.”
Goldberg also took progressive stances on LGBTQ inclusion and the role of women in temple life. Under his leadership, Sinai was one of the first synagogues to count women in minyans. When a gay couple wanted to join Sinai, he helped educate some in the congregation about how their presence would enrich the community.
Golberg also worked to foster close personal relationships and dialogue with clergy of other denominations and faiths through active involvement with the Marblehead Ministerial Association and the North Shore Rabbinical and Cantorial Association. He was also a Jewish chaplain for the Marblehead Police Department, the North Shore Medical Center in Salem, and Care Dimensions hospice services in Danvers.
“He did a lot of hospital visits – that I think was one of his greatest strengths,” said Chelly. “People at a time of need and vulnerability were able to connect with a rabbi, even if they didn’t see themselves as observant.”
After his retirement in 2007, he stayed active in Temple Sinai life as rabbi emeritus. He continued his chaplaincy work and met with fellow rabbis for study groups on Judaism and spirituality.
“He was there for everything – for good and for bad,” said Aronson. “He was kind – he was a mensch. I will miss him and his brilliance.”