SOMERS, N.Y. - After almost 15 years, the Hebrew Congregation of Somers is saying goodbye to Rabbi Fred Schwalb as he enters retirement and welcomes a new leader, Rabbi Halina Rubinstein.
Schwalb was still a student when he joined the Hebrew Congregations of Somers in 2003. He matriculated into Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and graduated in 2005 with a rabbinical degree and a Master’s Degree in Hebrew Letters. At 51, he became the congregation’s rabbi, a pipedream that had been put on hold for several years.
“It was something that I wanted to do but sometimes life plays tricks on you,” he said.
After getting a degree in history and semantic languages from Wisconsin University, he was an export director selling rugs in Saudi Arabia. A New York native, he met his wife, a fellow New Yorker, when he went to school in Wisconsin. In 1987, after they married he joined her father’s family real estate business after being given “an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
Now, he is looking back at his time at the congregation.
“In terms of career, my relationship with that congregation will be the highlight of my life,” he said. “I just dearly love those people. They are wonderful people.”
That speaks volumes, considering that being a rabbi is one of three jobs for Schwalb. He still works in commercial real estate—he owns and operates shopping centers, mostly in Yonkers. He is also president of an Israeli charity: American Friends of Beit Morasha.
“We teach Judaism to the Israeli Army and how to apply religion to your behavior as a soldier,” he said.
His role in the charity has required him to travel to and from Israel countless times over the years, he said.
Schwalb said he would like to leave behind a two-part legacy for the congregation: The first is a love of learning, and the second he described as, “living your religion.”
“Judaism is all about behavior,” he said. “It’s not really about belief. To me, living a moral life is what Judaism is all about.”
Schwalb said that after his retirement from the congregation he will focus on his other jobs, mainly the charity.
Mary Wolchan, president of the congregation, said the congregation will miss the unique perspectives offered by Schwalb.
“He’s s a special kind of person,” she said. “He’s so knowledgeable about history and he has a connection to Israel. He comes back with so much information and with a whole different perspective than what we read in the American newspapers. He didn’t just focus on Judaism; he focused on every aspect of history throughout the ages which is fascinating.”
While Wolchan says that Schwalb will be missed, she thinks Rubinstein will uphold the values of the congregation and continue to carry out the congregation’s long-term goals. Services at HCS are informal with a mixture of English and Hebrew, she said.
Wolchan said the congregation welcomes all people regardless of marital status, age, race, family composition, sexual orientation and/or disabilities and encourages intermarried families, where some members may not be Jewish, to participate.
She said that when accepting applications it was important to the congregation to find a new rabbi who shared these values. She said the process took about six months to find Rubinstein.
Wolchan said she and Rubinstein have discussed adding a story hour for preschool children on Sunday mornings in addition to the already established Hebrew School for young members of the congregation. The congregation also offers weekly adult education classes and places a high value on learning.
Rubinstein said she looks forward to serving the congregation because she finds it to be a warm and welcoming place.
Originally from Mexico City, Rubinstein said she will bring a unique multicultural experience to the congregation and will welcome Jewish people from all backgrounds.
“I was ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial seminary where I learned to accept that there are many ways to practice Judaism and the Somers Hebrew Congregation, with members coming from a varied Jewish experience, feels like a good fit,” she said.
While the Somers community is small, Rubinstein said the quality and style of the congregation is what impressed her. She said that nevertheless she is welcome to growth.
“The best a congregation can offer is to be the best it can be. The Hebrew congregation of Somers is best at welcoming, caring and accepting all kinds of Jews,” she said.
Rubinstein said she’s confident that those characteristics will eventually attract people to the community and “hopefully grow and keep the school vibrant.”
“This is a group of people who love to learn,” she said. “They are very open to being educated ‘jewishly’ and they are really sophisticated professionals. It’s wonderful to bring these wonderful people the richness of Judaism. I hope I can inspire them to expand their Jewish experience and to bring joy into their lives as they grow their Jewish practice.”
Wolchan said first-year membership is free for anyone interested in coming to check out the congregation.
“Choosing a congregation is a very personal thing,” she said. “We welcome anyone who is interested to come see what we’re about without any obligations.”