By Cheryl Conway
Working as an archaeologist specialist and guide in Israel had its flare for Rabbi Dr. Daniel Zucker several decades back, but after careful exploration, his passion for teaching and roots in Judaism led him to the rabbinate.
This July 1, Zucker of Hackettstown celebrates his one-year anniversary as the rabbi at Temple Hatikvah in Flanders. Founded in 1969, the synagogue is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and currently carries a membership of 75 families in Mt. Olive and surrounding towns such as Succasunna, Long Valley, Chester, Randolph and Hackettstown.
Next year in 2019, Temple Hatikvah will be celebrating its 50th anniversary as it remains the only established Jewish congregation with a shul in Mt. Olive. The Chabad of Northwest N.J.-Western Region also exists in Mt. Olive with organized services at the Flanders Valley Clubhouse and Rabbi Yaacov Shusterman’s home. The nearest synagogue is the Reform congregation of Temple Shalom in neighbouring Succasunna; and the closest Conservative synagogue is Adath Shalom in Morris Plains.
Working as a rabbi for 40 years, Zucker has found a warm and welcoming home at Temple Hatikvah. He was semi-retired when he learned about the opening at Temple Hatikvah. At the age of 69, Zucker embraces his new role which has him leading, teaching and even singing.
“I cover both sides of the bima (podium),” says Zucker as rabbi and cantor. Although he admits to no formal training as a cantor, Zucker says he has studied with a variety of cantors and carries a tune pleasing to the ear.
“We’re too small to afford a cantor,” admits Zucker. “Since I’m capable, and they consider my voice pleasant,” Zucker fills both roles. Over the years, Zucker says the synagogue never had both a rabbi and cantor lead services except for during the High Holidays. But now, during the High Holiday services, they say to him, “‘You want to do it, it’s yours.’ It worked out; they asked me to do it again this year.”
Before Zucker began as rabbi at Temple Hatikvah, Caitlyn Bromberg served as cantor to fill in for less than a year while the synagogue searched for a new spiritual leader. Rabbi Scott Roland led the congregation for three years from 2013 to 2016 before leaving to serve as rabbi at Congregation Sharey Tikvah in Cleveland. Prior to Roland, Rabbi Moshe Rudin led the congregation for seven years from 2006 to June 2013 before going to Congregation Adath Shalom in Morris Plains.
As a small congregation, one obstacle has been preventing rabbis from venturing off to larger congregations.
“Challenge is we are a small Conservative synagogue,” says Daniel Collins of Long Valley, chair of the Rabbi Search Committee and synagogue member for the past 10 years. “Keeping somebody who doesn’t want to move to a larger community,” has been the reason for rabbis leaving. “We’ve always been a smaller group.”
As a member of Temple Hatikvah for the past 30 years, Dr. Larry Leibowitz of Roxbury says Zucker is the sixth spiritual leader since he has been active. As president of the congregation for the past six years, a position he has held two other times over the years, Leibowitz served on the search committee for a new rabbi.
Out of a half dozen candidates, synagogue leaders are pleased with their choice.
“He brings the right level of experience to a smaller community,”
says Collins, “the right combination of experience of having led smaller congregations,” as well as the “right demographics” of members who are older as well as families. “He was the one that really stood out.”
Collins says he likes Zucker’s “style to his leadership. Part of his sermons he gives have been excellen. He knows how to engage people.”
Agrees Leibowitz, “He’s very experienced and knowledgeable and has a good personality. He might be the prototypical rabbi in wisdom and appearance. He’s a stereotypical rabbi in my opinion, he suits us just fine.
“He projects authority and a wisdom, he has a good singing voice,” adds Leibowitz. He is also “well mannered; he doesn’t get angry, he’s very calm natured and soothing to talk to. He gets along with the leadership; he’s very easy to work with. He’s very flexible in regards to decision making.”
Ordained exactly 40 years ago, in 1978, Zucker studied Congregational Rabbinics at Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York and studied Talmudic/Rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and Cincinnati.
Over the years he has served as rabbinical leader in ten synagogues in various states including Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Virginia, California, and Oak Ridge, Tenn.
He jokes: “Because of my four years in Oak Ridge, I still glow in the dark!”
To name a few, he previously spent over four years as rabbi at Congregation Hesed shel Emet in Pottstown, Pa.; two years at Temple Beth Shalom, Mahopac, N.Y.; and seven years at Congregation Beth Sholom in Long Beach, N.Y.
“I joined the rabbinate out of my love of teaching,” explains Zucker.
Before his decision to enter the seminary to become a rabbi, Zucker worked in Israel as an expert in archaeology. He had studied Biblical and Classical Archaeology, specializing in excavation techniques, at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel for one year before getting his bachelor’s degree from University of California, Berkeley.
For more than one year, he worked as an archaeology specialist and guide at the ‘Ami Asaf Ein Gedi Field School on the shore of the Dead Sea during school breaks and then returned after he received his bachelor’s degree.
While he enjoyed archaeology, he says he was concerned about the traveling and early hours as he knew he wanted a family someday.
“I looked at classmates who were married; none worked out very well,” he says. “I needed a career that allowed me to be home every day. For a young person it’s a wonderful job but for building a family not the best consideration; there are better professions.” At 4 a.m. he would be up leading groups on hikes and tours for eight hours. “I had the time of my life.”
He “looked into politics,” but says he had three strikes against him. “I was Jewish; I had scruples; I wasn’t wealthy,” so instead thought the rabbinate was a better fit especially since his interest was in teaching.
“I like praying, davening and chanting always are enjoyable to me,” says Zucker. “I love teaching. This allows me lots of opportunities to teach.” Zucker says he enjoys interfaith work and outreach to couples who are intermarried.
“A lot of our families are intermarried families.” says Zucker. “Our goal is to make the non-Jewish partner comfortable.”
It was also familiar ground to become a rabbi as Zucker’s father and older brother were also rabbis.
As the Heidelberg District rabbi, Zucker’s father, Dr. John Zucker, was the spiritual leader in November 1938 when their synagogue was burned down by the Nazis on Kristallnacht. In April 1939, he left Germany to go to England, then to the United States five months later. In 1940, he became an assistant rabbi in Cleveland; in 1942 was rabbi in Reno, NV for three years; and then first to Alameda, Calif., for two years before coming to San Leandro, Calif., where he grew his congregation at Temple Beth Sholom from 35 families to 350 families.
Like his older brother Rabbi Dr. David Zucker of Aurora, Colo., continuing in his father’s path was only natural for Zucker.
Signed onto a three-year contract as spiritual leader at Temple Hatikvah, Zucker is responsible for leading services, teaching and building up the membership of the congregation.
Temple Hatikvah has been an attractive synagogue to those in the area. There is a large active senior group of adults 55 and over and an active group of parents with religious school children.
Zucker says he is trying to attract more adults aged 40 to 55.
“We have been members for a while,” says Collins. “It’s a small community where you know everybody.” The environment at Temple Hatikvah can be described to that word in Yiddish, “haimesh,” meaning warm, describes Collins. “A haimesh is a little shul, a very homey place.”
Collin’s son, Gabe, recently had his Bar Mitzva ceremony in August 2017 under Zucker’s guidance and they were quite pleased.
“It was very impressing,” says Collins. “He did a fantastic job not only in terms of tutoring; he had him write his sermon. He actually had Gabe write it.”
For those looking for a synagogue that provides a good education with parents involved, “that’s something we can offer,” adds Collins.
Last year, 28 students were enrolled at the temple’s Hebrew school.
“Our kids are not lost in the crowd,” says Zucker. “They are involved in services, helping to conduct services on Friday nights.”
For students who play a sport or cannot make class, a program is offered where everything is taught online. “They can get material to catch up,” says Zucker. “Our preference is they to come to class, but if ill or at a sport, as long as they make up the material they can move ahead. Smallness allows hands-on tailoring to the student for a strong education.”
When it comes to training students for their bar or bat mitzva ceremony, Zucker has good intentions.
While some of his students have done the entire service, Zucker says “I try to teach them as much as I can. I try to cram as much knowledge… enough Judaic knowledge so that when they are off on their own they will be more comfortable at any synagogue on the continent. That they know enough as Jews, join a Hillel in college, marry a fellow Jew and join a congregation. Whatever the students’ ability is we push them to their max so they can take that knowledge with them to a synagogue for the rest of their life.”
Besides students, adults have populated the shul too.
With the new Toll Brothers community of older adults around the corner, the synagogue has attracted even more active retired members as well as families.
“Flavors of all walks of life are welcome to join,” says Collins.
Agrees Leibowitz, “All facets of religion come into play at our temple. We are all compatible. We have a good cross section of people of various religious beliefs; some are very religious with the laws of Judaism, some not very religious and then others are not religious at all. You get what you put into it.”
Not matter one’s beliefs, Leibowitz has appreciated all of the friendly people he has met through the synagogue.
“The members are all very friendly, down to earth, non-presumptuous type of people,” says Leibowitz. There are very nice people at the temple; very supportive of my family when my wife had health issues.”
Zucker is pleased with his decision to come to the Mt. Olive synagogue with his wife Elena.
“I had finished my position in Pottstown, was semi-retired but didn’t really like being retired,” explains Zucker. “Retirement to me is bad news. We’re very comfortable, very happy.” Out of all the congregations he has ever led, he says, “This is one of the warmest. They are really one of the warmest I’ve served in my 40 years. Kids are really fun to teach. I enjoy conducting services and teaching.
“Elena and I have felt very comfortable here,” continues Zucker. “It’s been a lovely wedding between the congregation and the Zuckers. We are enjoying it. In a small congregation you get to know everybody and can be more hands-on in the religious school.”
Looking ahead, Zucker is looking into joining forces with Temple Shalom in Succasunna to provide programs for teenage youth as well as adult education.
When it comes to education, “We’re able to see eye to eye in a lot of things,” says Zucker.
In September, a biweekly adult education class will be starting on Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., confirms Zucker, titled “Introduction to Judaism: Everything we’ve forgotten since Bar or Bat Mitzvah or didn’t learn the first time.”
Zucker’s goals are to “strengthen Jewish knowledge, strengthen curriculum and the religious school and build the congregation. They like being small but if we can pick up another 10 to 15 families, we would be better financially. A few more members would be helpful.”
While summer is a bit slower at Temple Hatikvah, Zucker invited the community to the congregation’s annual garage sale set for Friday, August 3 and Sunday, August 5. Gently used items will be featured as well as rugs with a free entrance to attendees. The synagogue’s sisterhood group sponsors the sale every year as a fundraiser to maintain programs and general funding.
To get a closer look at Temple Hatikvah, visit the synagogue on Sunday, August 26, at 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., for its open house event. Enjoy games, refreshments, register for Hebrew school and meet some members.
Prospective members are also invited to the temple’s community Shabbat Dinner on Friday, September 6, at 6 p.m., at the synagogue. Weekly services are held Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 9:30 a.m., and all Jewish holidays.
Although it is customary to take out the Torah once there is a minyan, meaning 10 men or more in a room, Zucker does not let fewer numbers spoil services. He reads from the Humash with prayers in printed form as opposed to the Torah scroll when a minyan is not met.
“You do as much as possible to a full service,” says Zucker. “Why should you penalize those who do come? Why say you can’t do this?”
Zucker concludes, “If you are looking for a huge congregation, pass us by. If you are looking for small, very warm group of people, very hands-on, accommodating,” Temple Hatikvah is great choice.