His Life

Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein (1935 – 2013) was a person of diverse talents, simple needs, and profound teachings.  An acclaimed teacher and speaker, he was the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ for thirty-five years. He was a gifted pianist, magician, tennis player, chess master, writer, and friend. He fulfilled the Talmudic instruction to “raise up many students,” even as he and his wife, Sylvia, raised three children and seven grandchildren.

Jehiel was born in Brooklyn to Romanian Jewish parents, Max and Mathilda Orenstein. He grew up in Jamaica, Queens with three brothers, Anci (Arthur), Ben, and Arbie. After graduating from Columbia College, he attended The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, fulfilling the dream he had had since age 8 of becoming a rabbi. There, we won the academic prize in Hebrew Literature, a subject about which later published a book and teacher’s guide. At the Seminary, Jehiel served as personal secretary to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for two years. During and after his rabbinical school years, he advocated for – and worked with – Soviet Jewry. He traveled to the Soviet Union for the first time in 1959 with his new bride. Over the years, he taught and mentored refusniks, bringing books, medication, kosher food, and, most of all, hope to Jews behind the iron curtain.

After serving in the United States AirForce as a Captain and chaplain, he held a pulpit at Beth David synagogue in Lynbrook, New York. At the time, he was the youngest rabbi on Long Island serving the oldest congregation there. Subsequently, he served as assistant to Rabbi Mordecai Waxman at Temple Israel of Great Neck, where he was mentored by that great spiritual leader and mentored others, in turn, including several students who became rabbis.

At Congregation Beth El in South Orange, he created a vibrant, loving, learned, and participatory community. He also reached out beyond the borders of the synagogue, building many relationships with clergy of other faiths, co-founding the annual South Orange Inter-Faith Holocaust Commemoration, and raising money for countless worthy causes, from Golda Och Academy (then, Solomon Schechter Day School) to Israel Bonds to the Interfaith Coalition for the Homeless to Sister Rose Thering Endowment.

He was a volunteer chaplain for the New Jersey State Troopers for over twenty years. He taught classes not only in synagogues but in law offices and tennis clubs, extending his outreach to people wherever they gathered. Though he had a truly brilliant, synthetic mind, he was not the least bit intimidating or abstruse. Everyone could relate to him, learn from him, be cheered by him, and laugh with him.

In additional to public, communal work, Jehiel and his wife Sylvia practiced a more personal form of lovingkindness – opening their home to out-of-town Sabbath guests, prospective rabbis, prospective converts, and students from Israel, who stayed for up to a year at a time. They also informally adopted a political refugee from Cameroon, who found safety and a new family with them.

Jehiel Orenstein died on May 5 after a heroic battle with ALS. Jehiel Orenstein is survived by his wife of 54 years, Sylvia, by his children (born, by marriage, and adopted) Aviva, Debra, Raphael, Yossi, Christophe, Natalie, and Ernie; his grandchildren David, Michael, Ben, Elliot, Sam, Emmett, and Hannah Mathilda; his brothers Anci and Arbie; and countless other friends and relatives who will miss his fascinating stories, wise words, and deep kindness. They hope to follow his example and live by his frequent exhortation to “enjoy life!”

 

Here are his own words about his personal history, prepared for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his ordination, and delivered at the Rabbinical Assembly convention in 2011:

“After serving two years in the US Air Force as a chaplain, I commenced my first congregational pulpit in Lynbrook, NY, where I served for five years. I then became the associate to Rabbi Mordecai Waxman z”l at Temple Israel in Great Neck, NY, where I stayed until 1970. For the next thirty-five years, I served as rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ. When I applied for that position, there were three congregations in search of rabbis in close proximity; two in South Orange and one in neighboring Millburn. Rabbi Theodore Friedman z”l, the outgoing spiritual leader of Beth El in South Orange, assured me that his congregation was the best choice and the he would be the best rabbi emeritus in the country — because that country would be Israel. (And he promised not to bother me long-distance.)

“My goal in becoming spiritual leader of Beth El was to create a large, loving family, Jewishly knowledgeable, and dedicated to actively pursuing mitzvot. I insisted that no matter what differences arose, everyone should be treated with respect. I derived the greatest pleasure from teaching and attending to the congregation’s pastoral needs. For me, teaching could involve a class full of adult Bible students, a couple coming to my home to prepare for conversion, or twenty kids hanging out with the rabbi to play simultaneous games of chess. I turned most of the administration over to the congregants, giving them a sense of ownership.

“Since my retirement in 2005, I’ve continued to be with the congregation as rabbi emeritus and recently flew to Atlanta, GA, with forty members of the congregational “family” to celebrate the marriage of a young woman whom I had named, at her birth, thirty-nine years earlier. The four tables, filled with Beth El congregants, made me feel that my thirty-five years at Beth El were well spent.

“Of my children – our daughter, Aviva, teaches law at Indiana University. She recently delivered the Rosh Hashanah sermon at her shul in Bloomington. Our second daughter, fellow Rabbinical Assembly member, Rabbi Debra, serves a congregation in Emerson, NJ, and her publications have achieved their own fame. Rafy, our son, volunteers as a music teacher, Torah reader, Purim spiel playwright, and pianist at his synagogue in Chapel Hill, NC. He is a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, and he recently spent a month of his sabbatical working in Peru. I had the joy of joining him there this past summer to witness his work in a clinic and orphanage high in the Andes. Our family is blessed with seven grandchildren — six boys and, finally, one girl, ranging in age from four to twenty-eight.

“My wife Sylvia, in addition to being a wonderful rebbetzin, is also an appellate public defender, fierce in her dedication to justice, community and family. We just celebrated our 52nd wedding anniversary. I cannot imagine having made this journey without her as my partner. Sylvia is the daughter of Rabbi Israel and Libby Mowshowitz z”l, and the line of rabbis in her family goes back for five generations that we know about. I am the sixth generation, and our daughter is the seventh in the family chain.

“Looking back, I realize that I had the rare privilege of teaching Torah in a congregation that practiced regular acts of loving-kindness. I really felt a bit guilty for being paid for work that I would have chosen to do for the sheer joy of it. ”

Below are his recollections of one of his greatest teachers
, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. These are selected remarks from a speech and teaching about Heschel that he gave in April, 2011:

“Serendipity is a word that includes magic and mazel.  After graduating from Columbia College,  I was given the choice by the [Jewish Theological] Seminary of a partial or a complete scholarship. I decided upon the complete scholarship, feeling that my parents had put me through college and that was sufficient. I also wanted never to doubt that I owe the Seminary my total allegiance. I was informed that if I received a total scholarship, I would have to become the secretary of one of the professors.  For two years I was the secretary of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Warsaw Poland on January 11, 1907. He studied in a traditional yeshiva but then went on to the University of Berlin and a liberal rabbinic ordination under the great scholars of the time: Ismar Elbogen, Leo Baeck, and Julius Guttmann. Later he taught Talmud in the same school where he had studied.

“In late October 1938, when he was living in a rented room at the home of a Jewish family in Frankfurt, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Poland.  Instead of going into hiding, he taught philosophy and Torah at the Warsaw Institute for Jewish Studies. Six weeks before the German invasion of Poland, Heschel left Warsaw for London with the help of Julian Morgenstern, president of Hebrew Union College. He arrived in the United States in March 1940. He served on the faculty of Hebrew Union College for five years and then took the position of Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America until his death in 1972.

“Professor Saul Lieberman, considered the greatest Talmudist of his generation, was also at the Seminary at that time. He did not know what to make of this professor of mysticism. He assigned Heschel to teach at the Teachers Institute, and Heschel found himself trying to teach Mishnah to students who were still struggling with their Hebrew. At one point, he asked a student’s comments on the next week’s Torah portion. When the student said he had no idea what next week’s portion was, Heschel assigned us to memorize all the Torah portions in order. I remember Golda Garmace, later to be Golda Och, setting up a group so that we could coach each other and memorize the entire order of Torah portions. Fortunately or unfortunately, Heschel forgot the assignment, and we went back struggling with the Mishnah.

“Heschel was given an office the size of a closet in the Teachers Institute building. There, twice a week, he would dictate about 20 letters to me which I had to type by hand. ‘Dear So-and-So: Thank you for your kind invitation to speak at XYZ. Unfortunately, I am teaching full-time at the Seminary and so cannot be with you. Please give my best regards to ABC, and thank you again. Sincerely Abraham Joshua Heschel.’ I can still type that letter in my sleep.

“After about six months of typing and doing odd jobs for him, Heschel called me to his office. As usual, it was filled with smoke from the cigar that was constantly in his mouth.  He was clearly ill at ease.
‘I understand that your wife studied at Cornell. Did she study with Vladimir Nabokov, the famous Russian writer?’  ‘Yes,’ I said.
‘He writes well, I understand,’ Heschel remarked.  ‘And, I believe that, like me, he came late to English.’
‘That’s true, professor,’  I replied.  ‘His writing is truly wonderful. Each sentence he writes is like a brick, and the paragraphs are like miniature cathedrals.’
‘Well, you see,’ Professor Heschel said, ‘I would like to read him, but …’
Finally I saw where he was going, and I said to him, ‘Professor, say no more. I understand.  Prof. Abraham Joshua Heschel cannot go into a store and ask for a copy of Lolita.
So that Shabbat afternoon, Sylvia and I pushed Aviva in a baby carriage on Riverside Drive, and delivered a copy of Lolita to Professor Heschel in a brown paper bag by placing it in the back of Suze Heschel’s bicycle. The drop was made. And Heschel loved Lolita.

“Heschel himself was an extraordinary writer. Although he wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish, many of his works were originally written in English. Those books read like poetry, the language deep and rich and memorable. As Heschel observed, Nabokov’s first language was French, the language of the wealthy, educated classes in Russia at that time. He then learned Russian, and wrote his most famous works in English. Heschel’s first language was Yiddish, then Polish and German and, surprisingly, Spanish. In fact, he once told me that he thought he wrote best in Spanish. Finally, he learned English. His English was self-taught.  He learned it by reading the New York Times. His students threw him  a ‘Times Party’ the day that he read the paper from cover to cover, including the sports section, and didn’t have to look up a single word.

“I remember walking along Broadway with Heschel one day when he was accosted by a man who demanded, ‘Brother, have you been saved?’  Heschel thought for a moment.  Then he replied.  ‘That’s not my question.’  The man was taken aback.  ‘What’s your question?’ he asked. ‘My question is: what is the next mitzvah I can do?’  ‘What’s a mitzvah?’ came the reply.

“And then Heschel had him.  For the next half-hour, Heschel explained the concept of mitzvot to a stunned man, who probably was never the same again.

“Heschel was an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. To the amazement of his fellow professors, he was invited again and again to the White House to speak on civil rights, the treatment of the young, and care for the elderly. ‘When I was young,’ he wrote, ‘I admired clever people. Now that I’m old, I admire kind people.’  He was also a fierce supporter of civil rights and marched with Martin Luther King.  Of that experience, he wrote ‘when I marched in Selma, my legs were praying.’

“In the early 1960s Heschel began to speak out on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Heschel encouraged Sylvia and me to go to the Soviet Union in 1959, when few people from the West visited. He said,  ‘You can never tell what the results of your protests might be.’

“Later he wrote, ‘Remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity.  Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power. Never forget that you can still do your share to regain the world in spite of all absurdities and frustrations and disappointments.’

“After many protests and many years of struggle by our brave sisters and brothers in the Soviet Union, Sylvia and I were privileged to see them go free.

“In many ways, Heschel was a prophet who was not honored in his own time, at least not by the institution to which he devoted his life.  When he was at the Seminary, they really didn’t understand or appreciate him; he was not a Talmudist.  What he taught was a philosophy of spirituality in action.  He taught us how to look and the world and how to live in it.

“He said, ‘Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.’

“And he also wrote, ‘A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers from harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.’

“I was privileged to know this great man.  All who learned from him will never forget his teaching.”

Seminary Daze: Memories of My Rabbinical Professors

Professor Moshe Zucker

Moshe Zucker was a professor of Bible. Though diminutive in stature, he was great in learning. He was one of the few professors who used to invite students to his home for Shabbat. He was shorter than five feet tall, and his wife was even shorter than that. But they were big hosts.

I studied Isaiah with Zucker. He would ask you to read a verse or a page and then to interpret it. It sounds like a routine method of Socratic teaching, but he was intimidating in his knowledge and could be brutal in his cross-examination. I recall reading a section from Second Isaiah for him, though he would never have called it that. He regarded Isaiah as one indivisible book. If memory serves, I acquitted myself well. Even if you knew the material, however, Zucker was a teacher who frightened you to death. He asked questions and then made mincemeat out of you.

For obvious reasons, students were always reluctant to read aloud in his class. One day, he said, “Ruti, kiree at,” – “Ruthie, you read.” There were three Ruthies in the class. None of them wanted to read, so one of them asked, “Eyzo ruti? – Which ruthie?” With a twinkle in his eye, he replied, “Hayefeyfiah – the pretty one.”

During Zucker’s tenure, another professor at the Seminary was very ill and soon to die. Zucker had never driven on Shabbat, but he decided that he would drive on Shabbat to visit his dying colleague. The colleague lived in a high rise on one of the upper floors, but Zucker saw no reason to compound his Shabbat violation – judiciously chosen – by using electricity thoughtlessly. With the intention of getting close enough to his final destination to travel the rest of the way by stairs, he got into an elevator and waited for someone else to arrive and press the buttons. A woman came in and did just that. She then asked politely, “What floor are you going to, sir?” If he named the floor and she pressed the button, it would be a violation equal to asking her to do it for him in the first place. Searching for a proper halachic response and temporarily at a loss for words, he blurted out, “Whatever floor you are going to will be fine for me, sweetie.” His discomfort may have made him smile – or seem to leer. She took her pocketbook and hit him over the head, screaming, “Masher, masher, masher.”

Avraham Schreiber

Before the outbreak of WWII, Professor Avraham Schreiber was a student of Judaica doing research at the Vatican. When the war broke out, everyone realized that it was too dangerous for him to leave the premises. So, he was invited to stay at the Vatican. He remained there for the entire war.

In 1943, 100 children were ready to ship out to Israel from Rome, but the Nazis sent a letter to the mayor of Rome forbidding the children from going. Schreiber went to the mayor and told him, “I am Avraham Schreiber, Chief Rabbi of the Vatican. And if you don’t send those children to Israel, you and your children will be damned to hell for eternity. I, the rabbi of the Vatican, have spoken.” His scare tactics worked, and the children were saved. When he told this story, Schreiber would laugh a little and add, “The funny thing is: we Jews don’t even believe in hell.”

Schrieber’s field was Talmud, and I studied the Talmud tractate Baba Metziah with him at the Teacher’s Institute. We would read the text and then discuss it in Hebrew. The Teacher’s Institute was far ahead of the Rabbinical School when it came to learning and speaking in the Hebrew language. Schreiber would throw lighted cigarettes at the students arbitrarily, whether you knew the answers or not. It kept you sharp.

It seems strange now, but we accepted this kind of behavior. It was who he was.

At Teacher’s College, Schreiber taught women as well as men. However, he did not treat women as equals. In some ways he favored them, paying special (often unwanted) attention. In other ways, he condescended to them. He didn’t really believe that a woman was capable of understanding Talmud, so he would address the class by saying, “Aten mevinot?” – Do you (feminine second person plural) understand?” It was a different era.  He assumed that the boys would figure it out on their own, but he was concerned that the girls could not keep up. He was also flirting with them a bit.

In the late fifties, during the last week of December, Schreiber rushed into class, saying, “If the police come, you don’t know Schreiber and Schreiber doesn’t know you.” We asked him, “Professor, what happened?” He said, “I was standing outside, and it was very cold. I heard two people arguing in Yiddish. He said, “Finif un fiftzig [fifty-five] “and she said, “Firtzig  [forty]. I, Schreiber, wanted to make peace, so I said , Nu, fiftzig [fifty].” They both smiled, and shook hands. Then, she gave him the money, and he gave her a Christmas tree. I took the tree, and I hit him over the head, and then I hit the girl. So, if the police come, you don’t know Schreiber and Schreiber doesn’t know you.”

Shalom Spiegel

Professor Shalom Spiegel was one of the best teachers I ever had. He taught rabbinical students the prophet Jeremiah, and going to his class was always a memorable and emotional experience. He touched you. He was a gifted teacher who made the text come alive.

Spiegel clarified the line in Jeremiah “heychal hashem, heychal hashem heyma.” The repetition of “heychal hashem” implies a kind of superstitious chanting – cheerleading for God or forcing God’s hand. Jeremiah answered, “heyma– that’s for them.” We want a more authentic kind of prayer.

Once he assigned us to read an introduction to a Hebrew poem, and he called on me in the next class to discuss it. I told him that I hadn’t read the introduction. When he asked why, I explained that I wanted to “go head to head” with the poem, and experience it directly. He replied, “How pristine.”

Spiegel had a brother who made the movie “The Bridge on the River Quai” under the name S. P. Eagle. (Say it out loud and you’ll hear the family name.) Both brothers had a flair for the dramatic. When Shalom Spiegel finished a lecture, he would turn off the light swith a flourish and exit the classroom. The students would sit in the dark for a few moments –  still and taking it all in.

6 Responses to His Life

  1. Dear Rabbi Orenstein: You touched me deeply and profoundly with your teachings, your humor, your life examples. May you be surrounded by love for your birthday celebration, and forever more.

    Roz Diamond, member
    Congregation Beth El

  2. Dear Rabbi, I echo your last sentence. I am privileged to know you, and will never forget your teachings — your philosophy of life, your approach to spirituality, the way you invite people to a more spiritual life, lived with kindness and humility. It always amazed me how your sermons resonated with me and reached my soul. Every single one! With Love and Appreciation, Lonye

  3. Dear Jehiel,
    I was inspired by your bio. I know now why you are so special; you have had a life full of uplifting experiences and people who have inspired you…Heschel, of course, but also Sylvia, your talented children, and a diverse group of teachers along the way. I knew you were a great chess player, rabbi, chaplain , teacher, father, grandpa, husband, BUT I didn’t know the many ways that formed , created (can’t think of the correct word) you. Now I know. Best wishes on your birthday.
    Frank & I send you our love.
    Karen

  4. Fran Reibman-Myers

    Although you are not here, you are in my heart and I know you can hear me. You cried with me when my father passed away. You helped my son to become a man and take his place in the community. You built Beth El and touched thousands of lives. You inspired me to study Talmud and become a Rabbi. It has been my honor and privilege to know and your family.
    Z’L’

    Fran Reibman Myers

  5. Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene

    I was fortunate to have Rabbi Orenstein as my student at the weekly Talmud class that I conducted for several years at Beth El. It was primarily a class for rabbis but several others joined our group. He always had something to contribute and I enjoyed our dialogues. He was bright, articulate, never tardy and a gracious host. This Renaissance man will be missed. Yehay zikhro barukh.

    Wally Greene

  6. Lev D. Zilbermints

    Dear Orenstein Family,

    I was shocked to read in the Jewish News of Rabbi Orenstein’s untimely passing on May 5, 2013. The news came to me in a copy of the newspaper I read yesterday. Equally shocking was the discovery that the Rabbi had ALS. I heard he was ill, but never imagined it to be ALS. In fact, when I last saw Rabbi Orenstein in 2011, he appeared perfectly fine to me. We played some chess and talked about various things. That was the last time I saw him.

    Rabbi Orenstein and my family goes back many years, into the late 1970s/early 1980s. My family arrived from Russia in 1975. We lived in Irvington between 1975 – 1979. Back then, it was a different town, with two movie theaters (there are none now) , a wealthy suburb. I did my bar mitzva in the early 1980s, at Congregation Beth El. Rabbi Orenstein officiated. We had over 300 people as I recall. Prior to bar mitzvah, I had to memorize the blessings and the readings in Hebrew!

    Over the years, Rabbi Orenstein and I kept in touch. We would meet at his home and play chess, talk about Jewish affairs, politics, my college studies. He would give very wise advice, urging me to get ahead in life.

    I speak on the behalf of the entire Zilbermints -Raskin – Gurdon family when I say that we are all going to miss him deeply. We will cherish his memory and strive to persevere in life and make great successes. Our condolences and deepest sympathies to Sylvia and the entire Orenstein Family.

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