OCTOBER 19, 2017 – Rabbi Robert Goldstein has served as the spiritual leader of Andover’s Temple Emanuel for 27 years. Goldstein grew up in Longmeadow, a suburb of Springfield, and received his rabbinical ordination from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Rabbi Goldstein also earned a doctorate of ministry at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton. Rabbi Goldstein lives in Andover with his wife Faith, an elementary school teacher. They have three daughters.
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Can you tell me about your upbringing, and your family background?
I was raised in Longmeadow in a warm and strong Jewish community, among siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The rhythm of our family life was very much in sync with the Jewish calendar. Though I would not say my family of origin was overtly religious, the conservative congregation, Temple Beth El, where I grew up, and where my mother is still a member, was a big part of our lives.
My parents were involved in the community and instilled in my sisters and me the importance of staying engaged with the Jewish community, as well as the broader community. I also came of age during the turbulent sixties when social activism was at its peak.
One summer during my high school years, I worked as a teacher’s aide in a Title I summer school program in a primarily Hispanic neighborhood of Springfield. The following year, I started a tutoring program where some of my fellow high school students and I would go to Springfield once a week to tutor elementary school-age kids after school. It was extremely gratifying and sparked my own interest in community service.
Some years later while in rabbinical school, I spent most of my summer breaks working at a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children run by the Catholic Diocese in West Springfield. I found that the balance between the academic year spent studying Jewish texts and my summers working with non-Jewish kids in a place run by Catholic nuns to be grounding and enriching.
What made you want to become a rabbi?
Aside from my family, the two pillars of my life were community responsibility/social activism and Judaism. As I passed through my college years, those two passions very naturally melded together. The next logical step for me was to apply to rabbinical school.
What are some of your biggest accomplishments over the last 27 years at the Andover temple?
Temple Emanuel has had only two senior rabbis during the last 55 years. I am proud of the fact that I was able to build upon the strong foundation established by my predecessor, Rabbi Harry A. Roth, who is now living in Los Angeles.
Temple Emanuel has always been a stable and dependable presence in the Merrimack Valley and a visible center of Jewish life. I believe that in keeping with the principles of Reform Judaism, we have maintained certain traditions that have not changed since our founding almost 100 years ago: a traditional Shabbat morning minyan (the more liberal bar/bat mitzvah service follows), two days of Rosh Hashanah.
At the same time, we have become more welcoming and affirming, and I’d like to think a bit less judgmental of those who found their way to Temple Emanuel in less traditional ways. We are a far more heterogeneous community than ever before. There is no longer just one definition of a “Jewish family.” Many members of our community were not born Jewish but love someone who is and are raising Jewish children. We are a congregation of different ages, faiths, races, genders, and sexual identities. I like to think that we are a welcoming community.
We have increased the role of music in our liturgy. I think this is the area of greatest and most impactful innovation. Thanks to the skill and talents of our cantor, Idan Irelander, along with our soloist, Gitit Shoval, we have reached previously unimagined heights in the quality and spirit of our music.
Our Shabbat services are joyful and accessible and our High Holy Days are inspiring. I have observed how our congregants have embraced these changes with enthusiasm.
We also started a Sunday morning “family service” during the school year. Between 150 and 200 people attend this liturgy. There is lots of singing, a brief d’var torah (word of Torah). The service is noisy, spirited, and fun. Our goal is simple (and it’s working!): we want to expose kids at a young age to the basic rubric of Jewish prayer, and also introduce the idea that the synagogue is a place you want be.
On a more personal level, I have been extremely involved in the broader community. I believe it is important to represent the Jewish community and Jewish values in the public square. I have served for many years on the Board of the Lawrence General Hospital, I presently serve on the Board of Edgewood, a retirement community in North Andover, and I started a local-access TV program with two of my colleagues called “A Rabbi, A Priest, and a Minister Walk into a Studio …” I also occasionally write op-ed essays for our local newspaper, the Townsman, on issues of relevance to our community.
What’s the most rewarding part of being a rabbi, and what’s the hardest part about being a rabbi?
The most rewarding and most challenging parts of my rabbinate are actually the same. Being a rabbi is a unique, and I would even say “sacred” privilege. People allow you into their lives at their moments of greatest vulnerability. While it is obviously better to be able to celebrate a baby naming, a bar or bat mitzvah, or a wedding, helping a family through the difficult challenges of a loss, while certainly something I do not look forward to, can be equally gratifying just knowing that my presence may have in some small way eased this difficult journey.
In rabbinical school we were taught to perform life cycle events. While I would not want to overestimate my importance, our training also equipped us to support our congregants before and after their moments of greatest joy and deepest despair. Given my long tenure I have had the indescribable joy of standing beneath the chuppah with kids whose bar and bat mitzvahs I have done. For many, I have also had the honor of naming their children. The inverse of that, however, is the personal sadness I feel when standing at the grave of someone I have known for many years and with whom I have developed a close and loving relationship.
What major changes has the temple implemented for congregants since you began in Andover?
As I mentioned, our Sunday morning family service, and innovations in music. Our religious school has made tremendous strides in implementing modern and more effective pedagogic techniques; we have become more open and welcoming to the members of our congregation who were not born into Judaism. We have found ways through innovation and invention to include non-Jewish extended members of families into our liturgy.
I would like to think we are a more joyful place, a little less formal, but still dignified. We are a little less concerned about where you came from, how you look, what you wear, what you believe … we just want our folks to know we’re glad they chose to cross the threshold of our temple.
According to a 2013 Pew report, just about one-third of all American Jews affiliate with a synagogue. What do temples need to do/implement to remain relevant to Jews and to grow?
I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. Is the traditional dues model dead? Maybe. Would people prefer more of a cafeteria style of Judaism where they can pick and choose what liturgies or programs interest them? Perhaps.
I would imagine in 20 to 30 years we will look back and realize this was a period of major change, not only for the Jewish community, but in general, for the way all Americans choose to affiliate with different affinity groups, whether it be churches or synagogues, or as sociologist Robert Putnam famously put it, “bowling leagues.”