Rabbi Eli L. Garfinkel was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999. Since ordination, he has served as an assistant rabbi in Toronto and Cincinnati. In 2005, he became the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey, where he has started an annual Jewish film festival, organized communal Passover seders, and taught popular adult education courses. In November 2013, Rabbi Garfinkel also became a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate, working with JOI’s Big Tent Judaism Concierge for Middlesex County Caren Heller to open the tent of the Middlesex County Jewish community.
He is the author of three books that are used throughout the Ramah network of Jewish summer camps: Mikraot Ramah, a commentary on the summertime Torah portions, Dim’ot Ramah, a commentary on Lamentations that is read on the fast day of Tisha b’Av, and a commentary for younger campers entitled Torat Ramah. He is also the developer of several apps for the iPhone and iPad, including two that help users how to read Torah and Haftarah readings. Rabbi Garfinkel lives in Somerset, New Jersey, with his wife, Naomi Lasky, and their twins, Sari and Josh.
What do you love about the work you do to open the tent of the Jewish community?
I love surprising fellow Jews and their loved ones with a message of openness and acceptance. So many have grown to assume that the organized Jewish community will not tolerate them. I enjoy changing those perceptions. I love it when non-members and even former members come to my classes; I find the entire idea of membership to be a distasteful, albeit financially necessary, model for community building. I look forward to the day when we can say, “Hi, I’m Rabbi Garfinkel, and you don’t need a membership application form because you’re already a member.”
If you could solve one challenge in your local Jewish community, what would it be and why?
I would wave a magic wand that would decrease the average age of our community by twenty or thirty years. Young Jews for a variety of reasons are not choosing to settle in our area as they used to. Having said that, there is, obviously, no magic wand that would accomplish such a miracle. The only thing we can do to attract the people in their twenties and thirties is to provide them with an experience that relates to their world. The synagogue experience has not changed significantly in many decades. A time traveller from the 1930s could walk into many of our synagogues and feel, for the most part, right at home. Connecting with younger adults will require a Mormon-style, door-to-door approach that will allow us to create relationships. Those relationships are the seeds of future members and donors.
How have you incorporated what you have learned as a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate into your work?
On a practical level, I am in the process of organizing our community’s first public-space event, a hamantaschen and wine tasting party, in a local gated community. On a more spiritual level, JOI has encouraged me to look at all Jews as valuable, whether or not they fit a preconceived notion of what it means to be a part of our community. I look forward to convincing my lay leaders that the public space model is not a new-fangled fad. Ezra himself used the very same model when he instituted the reading of the Torah in the public marketplaces on Mondays and Thursdays. [a story from the Talmud.]
What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do in Middlesex County?
I love to eat Jewish soul food at Lox Stock and Deli. The owner, Jesse Reitman, is a wonderful cook. His chicken soup is out of this world, and the short ribs are to die for. For readers who are vegetarian, I highly recommend the grilled veggie wrap.
For more on the Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliates program, please contact BKearns[at]JOI.org or 212-760-1440.