When Rabbi Steven Kushner joined Temple Ner Tamid in 1980, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. As the new Rabbi rose to begin his first Rosh Hashanah morning sermon, about 30-40 people got up and began to walk out. Sermons, in general, had not been a draw at the synagogue. “Could the ushers take the names of the people leaving?” Rabbi Kushner called out. A startled breath, and then each of the congregants returned to their seats. A new era at Temple Ner Tamid had begun.
In 1980, Ner Tamid was also an experiment in survival. Two Bloomfield congregations, one conservative and one reform, found they needed to merge due to dwindling membership. During those early years, Rabbi Kushner led the newly-united congregations through finding middle ground and common purpose. With a reform Rabbi, a reform Cantor, and a reform Prayer Book, the concessions to the conservative congregation included keeping a Kosher kitchen, maintaining conservative traditions during worship, and highlighting conservative influence in every day worship. Rabbi Kushner accepts credit for the healthy and successful transition. He emphasized and encouraged that the congregation held the Community as more important than individual worship. As a result, over the years, Temple Ner Tamid has gone through major expansion and gains despite avoiding a “hard sell” tactic for membership growth.
Now, 38 years after strongly encouraging the congregation to stay for his first sermon, the Rabbi shares, “I’d like to think my words are taken seriously.” But the tension of performance anxiety, the element of being judged, has never really faded, especially during the High Holidays. (Read one of his Rosh Hashanah sermons here.) Rabbi Kushner still feels a strong need to be affirmed, a need based in the respect and admiration he has for the individuals in the congregation.
So why leave now? Like anyone on top of his game, Rabbi Kushner says, “I wanted to finish with a feeling it was my decision. I wanted time for not just another chapter, but another book.” The synagogue is also robust, and has a strong and consistent clergy and staff. For Rabbi Kushner, the greatest honor a Rabbi can have is to bequeath and turn over a healthy congregation to a really good Rabbi. He is confident that’s what he’s doing.
When discussing dreams and plans left unfinished, Rabbi Kushner details the hopes of developing a vibrant community and cultural center of Jewish Life and Learning at Temple Ner Tamid. The Rabbi imagines something for the community, modeled after the 92ndStreet Y in Manhattan. Despite having shepherded many strong programs for children and adults in the arts and education over the years, “The good news,” Kushner says, “is there is still much to do.”
Members of his congregation reflect the forward thinking and acting attitude of Temple Ner Tamid’s spiritual leader. The robust community includes an emphasis on study, social issues, cultural awareness, worship, and what the mission states as G’milut Chasadim, Acts of Loving Kindness. Jake Adler, a rabbinical student who grew up in Ner Tamid, recently delivered a d’var torah to the congregation that focused on the community of leaders at Ner Tamid. He discusses the lessons he learned about delivering messages for impact, choosing a kippah, holding discussions respectfully, and paying attention to details.
Other congregants also share an admiration and sincerity interlaced with self-deprecation. Longtime member Debra Galant says of Rabbi Kushner, “He is a wonderful teacher. I wish I’d gone to services more often.”
And it is the importance of community that keeps coming back when conversing with Rabbi Kushner. He has always seen his Rabbinate as a partnership, he explains, and he’s been blessed with talented colleagues and a uniquely devoted cadre of lay leaders. The gestalt of Temple Ner Tamid, according to Kushner, has always been based in the best interests of the synagogue, not individual agendas, including his own. “That is who we are,” the Rabbi states. And with the firm foundation Rabbi Kushner has provided, it’s sure to be what guides Temple Ner Tamid as it continues to grow under new leadership.