Rabbi Jonathan Rosenbaum: 50 Years as a Rabbi Dedicated to ‘K’lal Yisrael’

Though my career has been primarily in academia, I have sought to remain active as a rabbi. After Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), I completed my PhD at Harvard University in Near Eastern languages and civilizations under Professor Frank Moore Cross (1972–1978). From 1976 to 1986, I taught and received tenure at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In 1986, I joined the faculty of the University of Hartford as the Maurice Greenberg Professor of Judaic Studies, professor of history, and director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies. In 1998, I became president of Gratz College as well as professor of religion. Since 2009, I have been president emeritus and professor emeritus there and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Simultaneously, I remained involved in the rabbinate. From 1972 to 1976, I was an assistant rabbi in a Conservative synagogue in Swampscott, Massachusetts. While in Omaha, I was the monthly and then High Holy Day rabbi in a Conservative congregation in Danville, Illinois. In West Hartford, Connecticut, I was the rabbi (mara d’atra) of Agudas Achim, an OU Orthodox congregation, for six years (1992–1998). Thus, I have had the privilege of serving and being recognized as a rabbi by Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform Judaism.

My parents, Rabbi Milton Rosenbaum, zt”l, and Rebbetzin Thelma Rosenbaum, a”h, were devout Reform Jews who treasured learning. Their encouragement led me to graduate from an after-school Jewish high school where the language of instruction was Hebrew and the students were Conservative and Orthodox (among them Susan Gordon, the young woman I would marry). That experience led to my spending a semester during twelfth grade at the Leo Baeck High School in Haifa. After majoring in Near Eastern languages at the University of Michigan and studying at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem, I entered HUC-JIR in 1968. Several of us there requested kosher food and the College-Institute willingly obliged, arranging lunch and dinner from a kosher caterer under Orthodox supervision. With advanced standing at HUC-JIR, I spent a year in Israel as a visiting graduate student at the Hebrew University. I concurrently studied Talmud at Neve Schechter in Jerusalem, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Penimiah (American Students Center). At HUC-JIR, I was deeply influenced by two renowned scholar-rabbis: Professor Jakob J. Petuchowski, zt”l, and Professor Ben Zion Wacholder, zt”l.

These experiences led me to see halachic observance and traditional Jewish theology as central to my rabbinate. Though I considered these elements potentially compatible with the Reform Movement, there was a practical limit to implementing such an approach. While Reform Judaism was gradually abandoning its classical Reform roots and adopting a more traditional presentation in ritual, garb, liturgy, and language, it was not ready for halachah as binding.

For these reasons, I became a member of the Conservative rabbinate and formally joined the Rabbinical Assembly in 1975 while still in graduate school. However, as one dedicated to K’lal Yisrael, I gladly maintained membership in the CCAR. As the Conservative Movement moved theologically closer to Reform, I found my theological and halachic commitments made me more at home in Modern Orthodoxy, a fact that led to active membership in Orthodox synagogues and, eventually, to serving as the rabbi in one.  

Yet my devotion to K’lal Yisrael did not abate. In Omaha, Hartford, and Philadelphia, my wife Susan (a psychiatrist for more than thirty years) and I have maintained simultaneous memberships in Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform congregations. Though my theological and concomitant halachic commitments place me in the Orthodox community, I am unwilling to leave behind those of other Jewish streams. I continue to feel shekol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh, “that all of Israel are responsible, one for the other” (Sifra, B’chukotai, 7:5). In a world characterized by division, this apt ideal continues to guide me as a rabbi and a Jew.

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenbaum is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. The CCAR honors and celebrates Rabbi Rosenbaum and the class of 1972.

One reply on “Rabbi Jonathan Rosenbaum: 50 Years as a Rabbi Dedicated to ‘K’lal Yisrael’”

This is a wonderful ongoing odyssey of adaptability and constancy.
I just read your 1994 essay on Rabbi T.H. Grodzinsky.
An opportunity to compare rabbinical trajectories.
Oliver B. Pollak

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