As a chaplain-in-training in the Army National Guard, Rabbi Aaron Gaber may have saved someone’s life. Now he takes over as rabbi at Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of profiles introducing new rabbis in the area.
Rabbi Aaron Gaber may have saved at least one person’s life while serving as a chaplain-in-training in the Army National Guard at Fort Carson in Colorado.
A soldier who had been serving in Korea returned to Fort Carson on an emergency leave in 1994 because his wife had allegedly been sexually assaulted in one of the barracks by another soldier.
“He wanted to kill the guy, and you know what, he could actually do it,” said Gaber, who joined Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown over the summer. “My job was to offer him counseling, provide him and his wife some ability to cope with what had happened. It was an opportunity for him to release his frustrations and maintain his status as a soldier in the military.”
Gaber, 46, left the service in 2000 after eight years, but said the lessons he learned there continue to help him help people during some of the most “intimate moments of their lives.”
The Newtown synagogue had been a bastion of stability — Rabbi Howard Hersch led it for 50 years — until recently, when Rabbi Shalom Plotkin and then Rabbi Aaron Philmus each held the position for less than three years.
Gaber is married to Sharon Bromberg, a teacher at Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees, N.J., and has four children. Prior to joining Brothers of Israel, he spent 14 years at Congregation Beth Judah, a Conservative synagogue in Ventnor, N.J.
What made you want to become a rabbi?
My experience as a USYer, as a teenager in my Jewish youth group. I met some incredible folks who loved Judaism and loved to share it with teenagers, helping them move along in their spiritual path, and I just decided that I wanted to go into informal Jewish education.
I went to Israel for a year, which was a very transformative experience for me. Then I returned to the joint program between Columbia and Jewish Theological Seminary. While there trying to figure out what is it I want to do in the realm of Jewish communal service and education, I decided that becoming a rabbi was a great next step.
I actually entered rabbinical school saying I would not be a pulpit rabbi, but really just wanted to be involved with youth. What’s confirmed for me over the last 18 years as a congregational rabbi is that I love it. I have this real opportunity to help people in significant ways. Sometimes I realize it, sometimes I don’t, but I’m helping people grow in their own Jewish understanding of the world.
What do you most identify with about the Conservative movement?
I was born into it but I also find the theology of the Conservative movement to be compelling. We maintain a strong connection to rituals and traditions, and yet we are ready and willing to confront modern issues. We maintain our feeling of being bound to the traditions, and yet we’re ready to change those traditions to meet our spiritual and emotional needs of the present and then the future. Over the last 50 years, the Conservative movement has confronted social issues, issues of egalitarianism, and the latest one was the ordination of gays and homosexuals and same-sex marriage. And we have confronted them in a very serious and very thoughtful manner — it’s a compelling image. It may be that something has a moral imperative, but it also has to have a religious imperative, and Conservative Judaism has found a way to bring both those together to meet the needs of the Jewish community.
What is the biggest challenge facing your congregation?
The biggest challenge facing my congregation, like many, is to create a compelling message for our community as to why Judaism, and in particular Conservative Judaism, has relevance to our lives today. I know for me, the observance of rituals is very important, both in my sense of history and as commandments of God, but that doesn’t mean that necessarily resonates with you.
And so I think the challenge is sending the right messages so that people will get involved with the community. It’s no longer about programming, but building relationships so that in times of joy and in times of grief, families can come together and support one another.
What is the biggest challenge facing American Jewry?
According to the Pew research, the largest growing group of Jews in North America are the “nones,” ones who don’t have any sort of affiliation whatsoever, but they consider themselves Jewish. That’s the greatest challenge we have — how do we connect folks into the community and how do we engage them? Once they are engaged and once they are involved, then they begin to see the value of why this is important for their lives.
It’s no longer about what you can do for the community but what the community can do for you — that’s an attitude that a lot of people have. We all know that to create community it takes people being actively involved, and that’s the major challenge.
You can talk about diminishing fundraising, diminishing attendance in synagogues, but what you really need to do is talk about how do we get folks connected and involved in a way that makes them feel it in their own neshamahs, in their own souls.
Could you share a favorite High Holidays moment?
One of my favorite moments is Havdalah at the end of Yom Kippur where we have all of the kids come up together and sing together and everyone is in this buoyant and excited mood and feels so good waiting for that tekiah gedolah, that long shofar blast, to sound, marking the end of Yom Kippur.
It’s not so much the end of Yom Kippur, but how everyone gathers together as a community.
With so much happening in Israel, the Middle East, Europe and in American Jewish life, how do you figure out what to talk about for your High Holiday sermons, and what will be your topic?
That’s the $64 question that every rabbi is asking themselves. It’s a particularly difficult year because there is a lot going on.
I know that one of my High Holiday sermons this year will actually focus more on the congregation and myself.
For many people, this will be the first time they are meeting me, and so I’m going to be introducing myself to them and at the same time talking a little about the vision that I hope Brothers of Israel and myself can work on together: How do we begin to create the compelling message as to why our Jewish community is so important and so significant to us?
I’m also planning to talk about Israel, but I’m not going to talk about the politics of Israel. I’m going to talk about why Israel is so important to us. Why is it that we need to support Israel? More of the spiritual and emotional meaning.
If people would like a dissertation on the very complex issues of the Middle East, then they have to go to AIPAC or other groups. I’m not an expert in that, but I’m hoping to move people to take action.