Category Archives: Torah

Stories of how Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein taught or inspired study; dedications to study or teach holy texts in his honor.

A Rabbi for Life

Dear Rabbi Orenstein,

So sorry to come late to the party, but I’m grateful to add my voice.  It’s only the rarest of rabbis who not only follows you as you grow up, and officiates at your wedding, but also continues to visit you well into your professional career—in Indiana, no less!  What a great honor it has been to learn from you at Beth El and beyond: from being called up to do Ein Keloheinu through Adon Olam, to learning how to sit through a sermon, to learning how to understand a sermon, to learning how to give a drash, to being humbled by my rabbi reading my first book, to watching with patience as I cajole my infant daughter into sitting through Shabbat dinner.  To this there is no equal.

With warmest wishes—

Judah Cohen.


By: Judah Cohen

“God Lives” Jehiel

Dear “God Lives” Jehiel,

I’m sorry that I couldn’t attend the celebration in your honor but I did want you to know that I think of you, often. I remember when we first met, when you took the assistanship at Temple Israel, Great Neck. I believe that I was an undergraduate at that time in the Joint Program. I enjoyed inviting you to speak with my Hebrew High School students and having you as a friend and mentor in the old Youth House. I also remember Sylvia, fondly, from those days.
Later, when I had my  own congregation in Toms River, I enjoyed seeing you at NJ- RA meetings. I particularly remember how impressed I was when visiting your synagogue, Beth El, in South Orange. It was obvious from just a visit what an enjoyable, meaningful  and vibrant Jewish experience  you had created for the community. Now, I have a further connection:
 Our daughter, Leah, recently moved to South Orange and is a member of Beth El. Though she has seen you at the synagogue, I don’t  know that she has ever identified herself to you. She is the more “reticent” of our kids. She teaches Kindergarten at Golda Och and attends services regularly on shabbat and often during the week.
Incidentally, knowing of your devotion to Schechter schools, I’m also proud to tell you that our son-in-law, Joshua Rabin, who was at Beth El a couple of years ago working on Synaplex, I believe,  is rabbi of the Schechter school in Nassau County. His wife, our daughter Yael, is interning at Schechter in Manhattan. She is a rabbinical student at JTS.
Two of our 3 granddaughters will be starting Schechter in Westchester next year. Their father, Eytan is now a rabbi in Mahopac. His wife, Rebecca is Assistant Dean at JTS. 
In short, like you, we, too, have “children in the family business.”  You have done so much for so many and continue to inspire us.
Warm good wishes and Mazel Tov on the celebration. May you continue to have much nachas both from your immediate family and the Jewish Family which you have inspired for generations and continue to inspire, now, despite your illness.
B’vracha raba,

By: Rabbi Reuven Hammerman

You will always be our rabbi

Dear Rabbi Orenstein, 

Today is the day of your bday celebration, and I’ve been thinking about what to say to you for weeks. There is so much that fills my mind and my heart, and although words cannot do you justice, it is a joyous responsibility to represent my family in speaking to you. My first memory is attending schul during one of the high holidays. My children were in the childrens’ service, and I had the opportunity to sit as an adult and listen and pray. It was a fairly quiet, mostly adult, room. You, Rabbi, were speaking, delivering your sermon, I believe. I don’t remember what you were saying, in content, but I so remember what you said, in humanity. The air was suddenly pierced by a child crying, and your sermon was interrupted. The perpetrating child was being carried out by an embarrassed parent. You stopped your sermon, looked at the family, and said “Please stay here with us and your child. Your child was just making music to accompany my words. I appreciate the interaction.” That said it all for me.

I remember studying with you, Rabbi, and other young mothers. It was a chance for us to get together and bond and use our brains in learning. Always relevant, always inspiring. The coffee and tea and sweets were a chance for us to socialize with our Rabbi and hear about your tennis games. I remember a field trip into NYC with you, Rabbi, and our same ladies group. Again, I don’t remember where we were going, in content, but I do remember what you said, in wisdom. We had lunch in a NYC diner. I asked how you could eat in a non-kosher establishment. You said that it makes you think about being Jewish and the point is less the strictness of the kashrut and more the thinking about being Jewish and what that means for each of us and how we each negotiate our Jewish journey through life. You and Sylvia housed my Orthodox cousin (and her boyfriend) so that in the spirit of Shalom Bayit (conservative mixed seating and women to the Torah was difficult for them, but if they could walk to schul…), they could attend my son’s Bar Mitzvah.

 There was my own adult Bat Mitzvah and learning with the Rabbi and the Bnai Mitzvah of David and Michael. Warmth and wisdom. The cherishing of the children. Life cycle memories. You personally promised to make my receiving The Get efficient and painless. I resisted, but you knew I wanted to remarry in the Conservative tradition. So much empathy for my distress. And then my remarriage to Harvey. You made the day so special. You said under the Chuppa that you had to admit you came from “the bride’s side” — the 50 plus year old bride. You made me feel so young and so special. You were family. And I will never forget your travel to NYC to sit with David following the loss of his girlfriend. You talked with him about life and grief the way only a beloved uncle could approach and be heard.
Your were already unfortunately in the early grips of your illness for the marriage of Michael and Pam. But Pam’s parents remember sitting in your living room meeting you for the first time and connecting with you over conversion and family. They adored you, as we all did. And when Michael confessed to you that he had anxiety about a tic and not being able to stand still under the Chuppa, you said to him “I will also have trouble standing still. We will move about together.” And you married our children, standing there with your cane, a little less strong on your feet, your big voice just a little softer, but the words and the wisdom and the love oh so loud. And you made the day for us, warm and special. Thank you from the bottom of all our hearts.
Daivd and Erika, Michael and Pam, Pam’s parents Gail and Bennett, Harvey and I wish you a happy birthday and peace and love as you are surrounded by those who love you, honor you, and care for you.

 With love, Sue (Horowitz)

By: Sue Horowitz

Our Guiding Light

Dear Rabbi Orenstein,

You have always been the special guiding light for our family. From the first time that I heard you over twenty years ago, I have always been mesmerized to listen to you speak or teach, regardless of the subject. Always your messages were fascinating with gems of knowledge along with a strong dose of compassion, sprinkled throughout with humor. There is no one like you. Our entire family cherishes you and we were so fortunate to have all three of our children bar or bat mitzvahed under your care and guidance. We pray for you daily and wish you a wonderful birthday.

Bob, Ligaya, Aviva, Ari, and Alexandra

By: Woog Family

Understanding the Scriptures

Dear Rabbi Orenstein:

I’ve never called you Jehiel.  I never dared.  I’ve always been in awe of you.  For me you represent the path to Jewish knowledge through intelligence and study.  Before we had our first lesson you told me to study the first six lines of Genesis.  I never told you but I spent a whole month reading everything I could find on those six lines.  When I study with you I use every bit of intelligence I can find to understand the lesson.  You know so much and I try to understand all I can. 

But being in awe of you hasn’t kept me from fighting tooth and nail when I disagree.  I like to think that I’m following the example of the great scholars, arguing exhaustively just to understand.  Not caring who was right but what was right.  Just to know what the scriptures really say.  Your knowledge is exhaustive but I’ve understood a good deal of it.  When I thank you at the end of each lesson you always say that I taught you.  How I taught you I don’t know but I’m grateful that you’ve had the humility to receive whatever I had to offer.

What you’ve offered me is an appreciation for the brilliance of the Jewish scriptures.  You know things I never would have guessed — Hebrew puns, internal rhymes and letter repetition leading to the next verse.  I’m sure I haven’t understood all the subtleties but I’ve come to appreciate the genius that has gone into these texts.  I believe that’s your most enduring gift to me: an appreciation for how wonderful the scriptures really are.  That may be just the beginning but I’m grateful for the start.  Thank you again and again.

Peter B

By: Peter Barnett

What a rabbi should be

Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein is the paradigm of what a Rabbi should be.  He is a man of exceptional intelligence, wit and wisdom with great sensitivity and compassion.  Rabbi Orenstein has the most extraordinary sense of his self-worth, which makes him the perfect pulpit Rabbi.  A man of such self-confidence and such a sense of the love and respect Congregation Beth El has for him that he could always comfortably welcome the best voices and the best scholars to share his bema.  And he shared his bema with pride, respect and love because of his love for his congregation.

Happy birthday Rabbi.

With love, admiration and respect.

Marion and Murray Mohl


A Rav & Mensch

Yom Huledet Samaeach to a man who has served his congregation, his community, and God as a Rav and as a Mensch. He has taught me to be a better person and rabbi.

By: Rabbi Mark Mallach

Our Brilliant Teacher

Dear Jehiel,

    I am so very sorry that I will not be able to attend the event of the year — an extraordinary party for an extraordinary man.   My thoughts and wishes will be with you and Sylvia.  There is no one I would rather celebrate and I do celebrate you everytime I think of you.
   I have so much to be grateful for in the many years you have been my rabbi, teacher, friends, and I have loved you for your kindness, sincerity, compassion, humor, modesty and goodness.
   I miss you leading our Sisterhood Bible Class which had evolved into a class of learning how to live using the Bible as a springboard for the most fascinating discussions.  We were a diverse crew — ranging from zero knowledge to quite advanced students.  How to thank you for never humiliating us for foolish questions, for making us feel comfortable discussing profound ideas.  We had many a laugh — not at anyone but sharing a naive or comical remark.  We aired problems and gave each other advice.  And we learned a lot — from you our brilliant teacher.
   Thank you for making Tuesday morning the highlight of my week.
   And most of all – Happy Birthday!
    Love, Hattie

By: Hattie Segal

Moses’ children

On Shabbat Parshat Yitro, Marianne Sender spoke to our minyan about something she learned from R. Jehiel in the adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah class she attended with him a number of years ago.  She recounted that she asked him: Whatever happened to Moses’ children?  Jehiel told her that there was nothing in the Torah about what kind of people they became.  He observed, in passing, that the children of great leaders do not always become themselves great leaders or distinguish themselves in any way, possibly because the demands of the public role distract from the involvement of the leader in the home.  Marianne went on to speak about Moses as a family man and what can fairly be inferred from the text on that point. 

Afterwards I found myself dwelling further on what she had reported: Jehiel’s observation that great leaders do not always produce great children.  I found myself reflecting that R. Jehiel himself, while he has been intensely involved as a leader of the community, nevertheless has also produced three very distinguished and wonderful children.  In this, of course, he was assisted by Sylvia (joke! understatement!), but there is no doubt in my mind that whatever the demands of the community, Jehiel has been a very involved father to his children.  I was always amazed to observe how he drew out his children (and later his grandchildren) at the Shabbat table, how he took their ideas so seriously and encouraged them to ponder difficult questions.  He listened closely to what they said, and probed and questioned further, without ever telling them what the “right” answer was, and he often used their insights in his sermons–much to their mortification, I believe.  And of course there was the extraordinary example, set by both Jehiel and Sylvia, of service to the community and of menschlichkeit in action.  They must have done something right, because they have produced three amazing children, who are not only intellectually gifted but also very good-hearted, caring people, committed to the betterment of the community, each in his or her own unique way. 

By: Nikki Pusin


One year ago we celebrated Jehiel’s 76th birthday at Beth El in South Orange.  The sanctuary was filled to capacity, and everyone had nice things to say about Jehiel.  We were all feeling quite warm and fuzzy by the time Jehiel himself went up for an aliyah.  And of course, being on the bimah, he had to speak.
    “I just want to express my deep –” he paused a moment “– disappointment in the committee that organized this celebration.”
    He paused while we all cackled.
    “This is supposed to be a warm, caring, inclusive congregation, open to everyone,” he continued, looking out over the thousands of people present.  “And yet I see the committee has invited only my best friends.”
    And that’s how, in the space of about thirty seconds, he had us laughing, crying and loving him.  Virtuouso!

By: Nikki Pusin