By John Burton
RUMSON – It’s a busy time for Rabbi Jeff Sultar with the coming of the Jewish High Holy Days and his recent appointment as rabbi for Congregation B’nai Israel.
“It’s a little bit like the first two weeks in April for a tax accountant,” Sultar said of his preparation for services and undertaking the role as the spiritual leader for the congregation.
As Rosh Hashana approaches at sundown Sunday, Sept. 16, and with Yom Kippur beginning at sundown Monday, Sept. 25, Sultar finds himself spending a lot of time writing and fine-tuning sermons, preparing for services and addressing the logistics of what has to be done. “It is the most spiritually intense time of the year as well,” as the faithful evaluate past acts, ask for forgiveness and look to do better, at a time when families come together.
It is a demanding but rewarding and fulfilling time “because being Jewish informs everything that I do, the way I see the world” with his religion providing a guidance “to what matters most.”
Sultar, 50, had been serving for the past year as interim rabbi for Congregation B’nai Israel, 171 Ridge Road. The conservative synagogue’s board recently decided, after a search for a permanent rabbi, to offer him the position for a three-year term.
During the search process, “it became clear that Rabbi Sultar had all the qualities we were looking for,” said Francine Semaya, the synagogue’s president, in a prepared statement about the appointment.
Sultar, who grew up in Connecticut, said he’s had a diverse background doing a number of different things before being ordained in 1996, after studying at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa. Since then he has served with congregations in Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York and Connecticut. Along the way he was the campus rabbi at a college preparatory boarding school and worked at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
His trek toward his spiritual and religious calling was unconventional, he suspected, growing up Jewish “but not really thinking much about the religious side of things.”
What brought it home for him, he explained, was a 16,000-mile and 27-month-long bike journey around the country following his graduation from Williams College with a degree in English and environmental studies. As he traveled, he worked for food and lodging and wound up spending time working on an Amish farm. The connection members of that group had with each other, their faith and the community had a profound effect on him.
“My religious identity became important to me at that time,” he recalled.
“When I left, I realized I’d never experienced such a strong sense of both community and also of living a life that was inspired by religion and a lot of integrity.”
His journey has now taken him to Rumson and his Fair Haven home, a short walk from the synagogue.
Congregation B’nai Israel counts about 300 families from Monmouth County as members and has a religious pre-K-12 school with more than 150 students, Sultar said.
His role – in a large part – is being the leader of that community, conducting religious services, pastoral duties, teaching and serving the needs of all of those members.
“A big piece of it is being a presence with people at the most important times in their lives,” he said.
The synagogue has a mix of longtime members – about 50 who have been members for more than 50 years – and with a strong growing presence of younger members. That bodes well for Congregation B’nai Israel and its future, as the synagogue has plans to celebrate its 90th anniversary this year, he said.
“There’s a great energy in this synagogue that we’re building on,” he said.