Livingston–For people “of a certain age,” the idea of high-fiving your rabbi is simply unfathomable. Rabbis are men to be respected and exalted, not people to whom one can send silly-face selfies. Rabbi Samuel Klibanoff, of Congregation Etz Chaim, gladly breaks that outdated mold and proves that bonding and respect can and should go hand in hand. To him, bonding with the children of the synagogue is what being a rabbi is all about. Fortunately and happily, the children agree. To them, being able to “hang with your rabbi” equals respect.
Rabbi Klibanoff is passionate about outreach and the idea that there are no “extra Jews.” He strongly believes that in order to thrive, a community’s focus must be on the needs of the congregation’s children from the earliest of ages. He also fiercely believes in the necessity of “inreach” before outreach, while recognizing the vital importance of both. He understands that his congregants are not stereotypically Modern Orthodox, and strives to meet their ever-changing religious needs. He wants people to be “excited and positive about their Judaism” and feels that there truly is a way to teach yiddishkeit to help people love the religion.
The shul’s future looks bright, with 11 new families joining this past year, Rabbi Klibanoff’s first full year at its helm. He views leading this congregation as a tremendous opportunity to be a model for other synagogues.
“Shul should be a place where Modern Orthodoxy can thrive and people, regardless of their Jewish background, are all together,” said Klibanoff. He views the synagogue as sharing the theme of Cheers–a place where “everybody knows your name.” People can immediately get involved and start contributing in a meaningful way, and that makes a difference in their level of commitment to the shul.
Rabbi Klibanoff knows that continuing to grow the shul will be a long uphill battle, partly given its location and lack of nearby accessible housing options, but he is excited about the prospect. Congregants do not expect him to be the Messiah, he knows, “they merely want to be inspired and led, not pushed.” That is something he has proven he can do well.
Rabbi Klibanoff came to Etz Chaim about a year and a half ago, after spending 11 years as the rabbi at the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach, where he contributed to exponentially growing the congregation and with whose congregants he continues to maintain a close relationship. Prior to his position in Atlantic Beach, he was the part-time rabbi for five years at Congregation Ahavat Torah in Parsippany. He has now taken his rabbinic experience to Etz Chaim and is excited to see his vision beginning to be realized.
Rabbi Klibanoff credits much of his success to, not his “‘better half,’ but the whole thing,” as he graciously refers to his wife, Dr. Sarah Klibanoff, an optometrist. She has proven that anything can be accomplished with a great deal of love and effort. While holding a job in New York City, she is also actively involved in raising the couple’s five daughters. She is a tremendous role model, not just for their children, but for all the children in the congregation.
The concept of “inreach,” getting the current members on board, has been tremendously successful thus far, but Rabbi Klibanoff knows that the next step will be outreach. All the while, however, he maintains his focus on the children, our next generation. “If we don’t win the kids, what do we have?”
He knows that there is a very small window of opportunity in which to win over the children, and he works hard to take advantage of that window before it slams shut. In large part because of his engaging personality and laid-back nature, the children appear to take to him, and respect him, readily. In fact, he just accompanied the family of one of the shul’s bar mitzvah boys, and the entire seventh grade class at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, on a whirlwind four-day bar mitzvah trip to Israel, where he forged bonds with many of the children that he is confident will never be broken. He plans to build on these bonds to ensure the continued involvement of these children and their peers in the synagogue with the ultimate goal being their firm commitment to the future of K’lal Yisroel.
By Jill Kirsch