Rabbi James B. Rosenberg: On a religious quest for over 50 years

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James B. Rosenberg was recently honored for his 50 years as a Reform rabbi during a service at Temple Habonim, in Barrington, the congregation that he has been connected with for 47 of those 50 years, including 33 years as the congregation’s rabbi.

“I thanked the congregation for giving us a place to call home,” Rosenberg said in a recent interview.

Rosenberg grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he was active in USY (United Synagogue Youth, the youth organization of the Conservative movement), serving as youth group president and in regional leadership roles.

He attended the Pingry School, in Hillside, New Jersey, in grades 1-12, and went on to graduate from Columbia University with a degree in philosophy.

Rosenberg was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York, in June 1971. He served as an assistant rabbi at Temple Israel, in Boston, for three years and then became the rabbi at the Barrington Jewish Center, now Temple Habonim. He retired in 2007, but is still part of the Habonim community. He and Sandy have been married for 52 years and have two adult children, Karen and David, and five grandchildren. They now live on the East Side of Providence.

Jewish Rhode Island recently sat down with Rabbi Rosenberg for a wide-ranging conversation on retirement, 50 years in the rabbinate and a number of other topics. Here is the edited interview.

What keeps you going? What has been influential in your life?

In my retirement, through my writing and reading, I am greatly nourished by the millennia of Jewish texts. I have a deep respect for Jewish texts. As [the late Israeli writer] Amos Oz said, we Jews are not so much a bloodline as a text line.

It is powerful, that feeling that we are tied by something that lives through the ages. How powerful is it that someone could be sitting down and writing something thousands of years ago and it still touches us? That is both miraculous and comforting.

I am deeply affected by literature of all kinds. I’ve read “The Brothers Karamazov” three or four times and “Moby Dick” five times, and listened to it twice. Each time, I’m at a different stage of life. The books help me see myself differently. The characters change each time.

Judaism is not answers, but questions. For this I’ve been consistent throughout my adult life, which really began in high school.

Why the rabbinate?

Because I read “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Moby Dick”! I was very involved in USY [in high school], which strengthened my love for the Jewish people. I went to a non-Jewish school. I wanted to be involved with the ruach [spirit], and those two books ignited a desire for a religious search.

Religion is not about answers. For me, it is impossible to be religious if you go through life having answers. Religion is a quest. I’ve been blessed to be able to spend my entire life wrestling with those questions in various ways.

With an upbringing in the Conservative movement, why choose the Reform rabbinate?

Some people at JTS [the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinical school of the Conservative movement] encouraged me to apply. But at the time, some of the requirements and the theological orientation was too literal for me. I was very open about that. [But] I have to say, after my experience with my Conservative colleagues, I don’t see much difference in our theological positions at all. Today, branches of Conservative Judaism are much closer to a conservative branch of the Reform movement, which is where I’m at.

When I started at the [then] Barrington Jewish Center, I said I don’t believe a single syllable of Torah is God’s word or God’s language. But I believe every syllable of Torah is sacred. I believe that the Torah is the living record of my ancestors and their experience with God.

Where did playing the guitar during services come from?

In those days it was unusual. It’s much more common now. It was a way of bringing people together. I was very careful not to overdo it. I would open the service with music and then I would switch to leading the service. Ironically, my real instrument is the piano.

I learned to play the guitar in high school, and I played guitar and banjo at Columbia, occasionally at the Postcrypt [Coffeehouse] in the basement of St. Paul’s [Chapel]. They could call me at the last minute, and I would come and play.

Do you think anti-Semitism has grown over the last 50 years?

In my entire life – before Pittsburgh [mass shooting at a temple] – I could never imagine Jews being targeted while worshipping. I think it’s more dangerous now.

The only positive side is it’s now out in the open, and it’s easier to deal with something when they are upfront. But social anti-Semitism has been around forever.

How did you come to write a column in Jewish Rhode Island (then the Jewish Voice & Herald)?

In 2008, [columnist] Yehuda Lev got sick. He had been writing a column called “A Majority of One.” The then-editor asked if I’d be willing to write a couple of columns until he recovered. Unfortunately, he never returned – and I’ve never stopped. I’ve also been writing for the Barrington Times roughly once a month since 1998. The last four years, I’ve [also] written essays for the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association’s Notes.

What are you reading right now?

“Resurrecting Hebrew,” by Ilan Stavans.

“One Night, Markovitch,” [Israeli author] Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s first novel. Someone gave me her second novel [“Waking Lions”], which was so good. She’s just a phenomenal novelist. She’s written a third.

I’m always reading the poetry of [Israeli poet] Yehuda Amichai. I’m addicted to him.

Kugel or knish?

Kugel. [Even though] I’m a diabetic, so it’s not wise.

What three people would you like to invite to dinner and why?

So many possibilities, it’s an embarrassment of riches!

Joe Biden, because he’s a mensch. Yehuda Amichai, resurrected, because his poems tell the truth. The unknown author of Job, because of the questions he asks.

FRAN OSTENDORF is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.