2016-08-31 / Voice at the Shore

Fox celebrates 10th year as rabbi at Brigantine’s Beth Shalom

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor

What is being a rabbi all about?

“To me, it’s about meeting people where they are and helping them live healthier, more Jewish lives—that’s at the core of my rabbinate,” said Rabbi Gerald Fox of Temple Beth Shalom in Brigantine.

The rabbi, who just celebrated his 10th anniversary at Temple Beth Shalom, said he feels blessed to be at a synagogue where he can fulfill that purpose.

“The greatest gift I’ve had as a rabbi is to be allowed entrance into people’s lives—having that intimate connection where I can be of service to them. I cherish that. I tell people that a life of meaning and purpose is what makes our life most worth living,” he said. He adds that this is just what he experiences as rabbi of the small Brigantine synagogue.

Fox is the part-time rabbi for the small Conservative congregation of roughly 85 households in Brigantine, founded in 1951. Most Temple Beth Shalom congregants are older singles or couples, either summer residents or former summer residents who fell in love with the quiet island and decided to move there upon retirement. The congregation, housed in a small, one-story building with a modest sanctuary, did not have its own building until the early 1970s, and did not have even a part-time rabbi until 1994.

Fox, who commutes from Abington, PA, is the third rabbi for the small synagogue, which he describes as unusually warm and welcoming. He is also the current president of the South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors.

As in a good marriage, the relationship that has developed between Fox and his congregation over the past decade is one of mutual appreciation, caring and support.

“He’s extremely caring,” stressed Lill Schender, who was temple president for the past 9 years before stepping down to become treasurer.

“I’m totally amazed at his dedication,” said current Beth Shalom President Jack Lieberman. “He lives and breathes the temple 24 hours a day. He is always there for the congregants, even though he is a part-time rabbi.”

Schender agrees: “He schlepps down here from Abington no matter what. He wants to be involved in everything.”

For his part, Fox has always appreciated his congregation’s unique character.

Fox was impressed that 15 congregants took part in his initial interview, an inordinate number for such a small synagogue. Fox also learned early on that, despite the temple’s low membership fee, people gave generously to the High Holiday appeal—meaning that people supported the temple because they wanted to, not because they had to.

Fox was also impressed from the start with the warmth and intimacy of the small Brigantine shul. Temple Beth Shalom was the polar opposite of the synagogue Fox grew up in, which had an enormous sanctuary with a four-foot-high bima, and was led by several impeccably dressed clergy members. In contrast, his current temple’s small sanctuary has a bima only onestep higher than the floor, and Fox was told from day one that he needed to take off his tie because “’this is the shore!’”

Fox still vividly remembers that moment. “It wasn’t a friendly suggestion; I was killing their spiritual buzz by wearing a tie!” he laughed, adding that he did not feel comfortable taking off the tie until two years later, after first shedding his suit jacket.

Although Fox guesses that his congregants, who are mostly over age 60, must have grown up with a more formal approach to Judaism and a more distant relationship with their rabbi, that’s not what they want now.

“They lifted me up,” added Fox of his congregants. “When they saw that I was nervous and sweating the small stuff too much, they would tell me not to worry about it,” said Fox. “My congregants understand that I am a human being and that we are on a path together, even though I’m the guide.”

Members of Temple Beth Shalom have also warmly embraced Rabbi Fox’s family—his wife, Sarah, and their twin little boys who are now almost six years old.

“We have all enjoyed seeing these boys grow into little men,” said Lieberman, who recalled how congregants took turn holding the boys as babies. Now, he notes, the boys regularly come to services and “lead Adon Olam at the top of their voices! They especially like it if the rabbi leaves the mic on,” Lieberman chuckled.

Fox has been gratified to see more congregants become more actively involved in the synagogue and in Jewish education over the past decade. In recent years, Beth Shalom has started a scholar-in-residence program and a book club, and is now seeking to become more involved in Atlantic County’s broader Jewish community, said Fox.

Congregants have also given their blessing and financial support to an upcoming synagogue renovation that Fox, Schender and Lieberman all stressed was urgently needed. s

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