MONTVILLE, NJ - This is the continuation of the story on an interview with Rabbi Mark David Finkel. The first part of the story dealt with Finkel’s early life and the influence of his family on developing his values and setting the stage for the course of his life (Read about it HERE). The second part of the story includes Finkel’s education and his life as a rabbi leading him to the Pine Brook Jewish Center (PBJC).
Rabbi Finkel was educated in the public schools in his hometown near Boston. In the afternoons after regular school, Finkel would attend religious school in his nearby synagogue learning Hebrew and the Torah.
After high school, he attended New York University (NYU) for his undergraduate courses, majoring in economics and Near Eastern studies. He said, “The next stop in my education was a year of study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,” and then Finkel went to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, PA for a five-year course of study. He explained, “This college was known, from its founding, for its independent thinkers.”
During the summers while in rabbinical school, he went back to NYU, taking courses towards a Master’s degree in history. Finkel lived with his cousins in Engelwood, NJ. To get into the city, he drove to Hoboken and took the PATH as many commuters do. All this activity culminated in June 1979, when he received his Master’s Degree, and days later, he was ordained a rabbi.
After being ordained, Finkel became an assistant rabbi in the suburbs of Philadelphia. After a while there, he decided to leave PA and go back, closer to home, to Holyoke, MA.
When he received a sabbatical from his Holyoke congregation, he went to Harvard Divinity School focusing his work on scripture. From Harvard, he received his second Master’s Degree in theology. During his studies there, his faculty advisor was Professor Frank Moore Cross, a world renowned biblical scholar best known for his work on interpreting the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls are texts found between 1946-1956 in 11 caves in the vicinity of the ancient settlement at Qumran. The caves are a short distance inland from the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, from which they get their name. The scrolls are dated from the last three centuries BC and the first century AD. Finkel said the scrolls were hidden because of the political and religious upheavals in the area, and they were put in the caves by the Essenes for safety. The Essenes were a religious sect living during the time of Christ who lived in simple communities away from the towns.
Finkel and his class actually got to work with Cross on the translation of scrolls containing the biblical books of Samuel and Kings. He said, “I don’t know how much I contributed to his research, but it was a great experience and a great time.”
In his studies, Finkel had to take a crash course in Greek because many of the oldest translations were written in Greek, and he also took courses in the New Testament. His classmates found it amusing that he was a rabbi taking New Testament courses, but they were happy to have him in their classes because he explained to them the many references to the Old Testament in the New Testament. Finkel was right there to help them find these Old Testament references, and they were there to help Finkel with the New Testament citations.
Finkel said that he has traveled to Israel about 15 times, a number of those trips were to follow up on his Dead Sea Scroll research. While in Israel in 1987, he actually picked up three soldiers who were hitchhiking to their post, which was a common occurrence in Israel in those days. Finkel told the story about this incident saying, “I had just come from visiting Cana in the Galilee, where the New Testament tells the story of Jesus turning water into wine. The soldiers, whom I assumed to be Jewish, were curious about who “their driver” was. They asked, among other things, about my profession and how I was spending my time in Israel. I shared with them that I was an American rabbi, and that I had just come from Cana, where … And at that moment, one of the soldiers blurted out simultaneously with me ‘Jesus turned water into wine.’”
He continued saying, “Many may think it out of the ordinary for a traditional rabbi to know the stories of the New Testament. It is equally out of the ordinary for a Jewish Israeli soldier to be familiar with that material. We looked at each other incredulously through the rear view mirror.”
He went first: “How does a traditional American rabbi know the stories of Jesus?” I explained to him of my New Testament studies at a Divinity school. Now it was my turn to ask: “How does a young Jewish Israeli know the stories of Jesus?” There was a smile and a pause, and then he said, “I am studying to be a tour guide, and I will be escorting Christian pilgrims there.” We both laughed at the irony of what we had in common. Even after taking the time to help these Israeli soldiers, Finkel was able to get to Tiberias that evening and have dinner with his brother, who was also visiting Israel at the time.
After Holyoke, he moved to Nashua, NH, where he was a rabbi for 17 years. The congregation in New Hampshire also granted him a sabbatical. Finkel did doctoral work at the Jewish Theology Seminary and Hebrew Union College in NY, but more importantly, Finkel met his wife, Abby, during that second sabbatical. However, after hearing some of these stories, Abby worried if she was becoming involved with a “perpetual student.”
Finkel became interested in coming to NJ after officiating at a Bat Mitzvah in NH for a granddaughter of grandparents who lived in Lake Hiawatha, NJ and were members of the Pine Brook Jewish Center. (In the mid-1990s, the Lake Hiawatha Jewish Center merged with PBJC.) It just so happened that Pine Brook’s rabbi, Asher Krief, was retiring after 26 years. One of the grandparents’ friends, also from PBJC, said to Finkel, “You would be the type of rabbi we would like.” They had planted the seed, but it was not ready to sprout. Finkel felt that his work in NH was not yet complete.
However, Pine Brook’s “new rabbi” moved to California after about four years, and a search began for the next rabbi. After Finkel had heard that a new search had begun, he mentioned it to his wife Abby, implying that maybe it was time for a new challenge. Abby was pregnant with twins at the time, and she looked at her husband and said, “We are not going anywhere!”
Behind the scenes, the search for Pine Brook’s next rabbi was inconclusive. An interim rabbi served there for two years, and then a search for the next new rabbi began. Deja vu. Finkel said to his wife, “Do you remember that place in NJ?” They decided to look into it and found that the chemistry was there.
The first part of the interview process was done by phone and that went very well. The second part of the process required Finkel to be interviewed in person and have his family come to Pine Brook for a weekend. At this point in the Finkel family, there were three children. The Thursday night before the big interview weekend, his then one year old twins came down with a stomach virus. Hoping that it would be only a 24 hour virus, the Finkels did not cancel the trip, and the rest is history.
When describing his congregation at the Pine Brook Jewish Center, he said that many members grew up in other communities and later moved to Montville. Members have a similar but not the same background. He continued to say that he has had the pleasure of building a sense of community, but it has had its challenges.
Finkel stated that people today are “often on the run, and we don’t have the time to talk on a less formal basis.” He explained, “The Hebrew word for synagogue translates as “house assembly.” Certainly one purpose of assembly is for religious services, but the Hebrew word which we translate as “assembly” literally means a “place of entry.” It isn’t a strictly religious term. Finkel believes Jewish tradition meant for the synagogue to be entered as a “way station,” a home-away-from-home whenever people needed connecting to other people. Those are sacred moments, regardless of the context of the meeting.”
Many of the congregants are from families that have lived the American dream. Many people in Montville have relatives who came from Europe, the Middle East, Iran, and Iraq. Finkel said that Montville is a blended and diverse community.
I had the honor of being brought into the sanctuary of the synagogue, and as a Catholic, I was in awe of seeing the curtain behind which the Torahs are kept. Rabbi Finkel was so kind and let me see the scrolls. He explained their origin and symbolism. In addition, he explained the tradition of placing on each Torah rimonim, ornaments with tiny bells. The soft, subtle sound of the tiny bells reminds those present to be joyous, yet respectful, in the presence of these sacred scrolls that have been handed down from generation to generation. He explained that the scrolls were handwritten with feather pens and ink. (On a side note, in recognition of the holiday season, he added that the scribes he has known have preferred turkey feathers for their durability.)
The sanctuary holds eight scrolls. Although the text of each Torah is identical, each Torah’s history tells a story.
The newest Torah at PBJC has its own special story. Finkel explained that the newest Torah was commissioned and presented to the congregation by a family with the hope that the bonds among five grandchildren would be shared and strengthened by each having the honor of reading from the same scroll at their Bar Mitzvah celebrations. It’s “newness” would greatly reduce the chances of it suddenly needing repair at the time of a grandchild’s Bar Mitzvah. Torah scrolls need regular care; but as they age, they often need repair serious enough that they cannot be used at a service. This family did not want to take a chance that this would happen to their family, thus the new Torah.
He explained the beautiful symbols of the stained glass windows and the art work on the walls. They depict the festivals of the Jewish year and the 12 tribes of Israel. I was especially touched by the two prominent menorahs, candelabras, portraying the symbolism of light, God’s presence in the sanctuary.
As if this wasn’t enough, he took me out into the hall and showed me the Torah that is encased in a frame on the wall. He explained that during World War II and the Holocaust, the Nazis confiscated Torah scrolls in anticipation of building museums to highlight the elimination of the Jews. After the war, a man in London took on the search for these Torahs, and 1,564 were found. In a beautiful and sacred process the Torahs were “adopted” by synagogues around the world to be held until their original communities were reestablished. “Given the aftermath of the Holocaust and the oppression of Jews and religion by the Soviet Union after the war, the restoration of many of these communities is still a dream 70 years after the end of WWII,” said Finkel. PBJC has adopted two Torahs from what is now the Czech Republic.
When asked what he is most proud of, he said he is most proud of the work he does as a pastor and in the community. He said people tell him he is best when he is dealing with critical moments, both sad and joyous, in peoples’ lives.
As for hobbies, Finkel says his spare time is very limited. Because his family is very important to him, he plans his spare time carefully around them. He tries to plan something for everyone. This past summer the family kept to a mountain theme where the temperatures were cooler. They visited the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, the Green Mountains in Vermont, and the Berkshires in Massachusetts.
Somethings people do not know about him are that he has played the trumpet since he was in third grade, and he dabbles on the piano. He taught himself the B flat baritone horn, which is between a trumpet and a tuba, and he loves religious folk music.
He sees the world changing, and the Jewish community changing with each generation. There are different needs with new interpretations of tradition. “These changes keep me fresh, and if not, my kids will,” he said.
Rabbi Finkel is a man with a positive, optimistic attitude, and a man of conviction and of values. Even though the world today is a very different place from the world of his grandparents, and it offers many challenges to society, Finkel is full of hope for the future. As his grandparents taught and as Finkel believes, “Everything is possible in the United States.”