2017-05-24 / Home

THZ’s longtime rabbi Richard Simon to be feted at retirement event

By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff


RABBI RICHARD SIMON RABBI RICHARD SIMON Recalling a catchphrase that one of his own mentors used to describe his ministerial work, Rabbi Richard Simon considers himself a “generic spiritual leader with a Jewish flavor.”

And indeed the moniker makes sense when considering the rabbi’s spiritual path, ministerial career, and next chapter in his life journey. Intrigued by Jewish learning from an early age, Simon left a career as a scientist in his early twenties when his interest in mysticism led him to the Jewish Renewal Movement and the rabbinate. Now, having recently stepped down after 32 years as Temple Har Zion’s fulltime leader, Simon continues his spiritual studies and teachings through his association with an interdenominational Zen Buddhist center.

“The Zen teachings are about being authentically who you are,” explained Simon, who is still working part time at THZ through June when his successor, Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum, takes the helm at the Mount Holly shul that describes itself as an egalitarian, Jewish Renewal-oriented synagogue in the Conservative tradition.

“Since I am authentically a rabbi, the teachings are for me to take my Judaism more seriously,” he said.

While Simon will remain a congregant and has already assumed the title emeritus rabbi, THZ is sponsoring a Farewell Celebration the weekend of June 2-3, starting with a special Oneg following Friday night’s Shabbat services and continuing with Saturday morning minyan and a Kiddush brunch.

For Simon, the mixing of the ancient with the new, including the incorporation of drums, keyboards, chanting, dancing and meditation into religious services, has provided the path to his authentic spirituality. He feels blessed that THZ embraced such practices over the decades and that some members have even been inspired to further their spiritual studies and practices over the years.

“My goal was to introduce more Jewish spirituality, Kabbalah, meditation and the like, and I accomplished that even though not everyone in the congregation was into that,” he said. “We tried not to split the congregation. Most of our congregation liked coming to both types of services. That was my goal.”

The first Renewal rabbi to come to THZ, a synagogue that has leaned both Conservative and Orthodox in its 80-plus year history, Simon took a non-traditional path. A California-born chemist who moved to South Jersey after spending his early years in Brooklyn yeshiva education— he actually holds a patent in the field of electroplating— Simon first came to the synagogue as a Hebrew school teacher and b’nai mitzvah tutor in 1979. Through his studies with Rabbi Hershel Matt, Har Zion’s rabbi at the time, Simon grew interested in Jewish mysticism. Through Matt, he was introduced to Rabbi Zalman Schachter- Shalomi (Reb Zalman), one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement and the original self-described “generic spiritual leader with a Jewish flavor.”

Through his studies with Rabbi Matt, Reb Zalman and others, Simon pursued the rabbinate. Ordained in 1985, he spent one year as the rabbi at Beth Torah in Willingboro before moving on to THZ.

While it took some trial, error and seasoning to figure out how to incorporate Renewal practices, Simon said he eventually found his groove. Over time, synagogue membership grew from 90 families to some 150, attracting families not only from Mount Holly but also from across South Jersey.

“The highlights for me mostly had to do with the spiritual stuff—being able to bring in twice-a-month Renewal services. Second-day Rosh Hashanah was Jewish renewal with drums and instruments and everything.”

After more than three decades, he said, he felt it was time both for him and the congregation to branch out in new directions. Noting that Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum, who is currently working at a synagogue in Milwaukee, has expressed interest in continuing Renewal practices, he is willing to continue providing her guidance. Meanwhile, since December, he works full-time as a chaplain for Samaritan Healthcare & Hospice and part-time at Temple Judea of Bucks County, while both studying and teaching students with the Pine Wind Zen Center in Shamong.

Congregant Gail Tishman, whose interest in Kabbalah led her to THZ in the 1980s, said Rabbi Simon’s passion for helping people find their spiritual path was her gateway.

“The Renewal services were incredibly joyous, fulfilling, upbeat services,” said Tishman, of Mount Laurel. “I would leave there feeling spiritually high, happy, free and light. A defining piece of that was Rabbi Simon. He brought a lot of us who were drifting back to Judaism.”

Tishman not only took on lay leadership roles at the synagogue, but in 2008 embarked upon a three-year program of study that led to her ordination as a Kohenet, a Hebrew priestess.

“Learning from him has changed my life in ways I could never have anticipated,” she said. “I am inspired every day by the teachings he has shared with me, and deeply grateful for his guidance and mentorship.”

For more information on the Farewell Celebration activities and schedule, contact Tishman at gailtishman@templeharzion.org 

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