New Jewish Renewal Community in New Jersey

Reb Deb Smith and husband Neil Smith; photo courtesty Deb Smith
Reb Deb Smith and husband Neil Smith; photo courtesty Deb Smith

by Johanna Ginsberg
NJJN Staff Writer

July 10, 2013

Reprinted (with permission of Reb Deb Smith) from New Jersey Jewish News

Barbara and Don Meltz of Byram, in Sussex County, have finally found the Jewish community that meets their needs.

“The first time I went to a service on a Friday night, I immediately felt so connected to the group of people,” said Barbara in a recent phone conversation. “It was the first time in 40 years I came out of services not feeling tired, trying to stay awake during a boring sermon.

“Finally, I don’t feel like an onlooker because everyone is involved,” she continued. “Everyone gets sucked into participation. It feels so good and, for me, so right. I come out of Friday night services infused with spirituality and a feeling of contentment.”

Meltz was describing Or HaLev, a new havura led by Deb Smith, or Reb Deb, a rabbinical student at ALEPH — Alliance for Jewish Renewal, based in Philadelphia. The havura meets in Mount Arlington on the first Friday of each month for a service that follows the order of a typical kabalat Shabbat and includes singing, chanting, drumming, as well as original meditations and blessings that Smith has written and that she is preparing for publication in book form.

But it’s the teaching that is Reb Deb’s passion. “Every service has a teaching component in addition to my d’var Torah. At least one aspect of the liturgy is explained and expanded on. Also, we realize that not every person in our community is comfortable with Hebrew. With some prayers, rather than go straight from start to finish, we concentrate on a phrase or two and delve into its meaning,” she said.

Smith, who lives in Long Valley with her husband, Neil, is also a social worker and family therapist and, as she put it, “a seeker.”

Many people who come to Smith’s services are also seekers, she said. “They are looking for a way to meaningfully connect with God.”

As Meltz explained, “In the last eight to 10 years of my life, I’ve felt more spiritually connected. If you have this feeling, you become a more ethical and moral person. It’s something bigger, and Reb Deb is tapping into that.”

Fran and Jerry Dyller of Mount Arlington belonged to a nearby Reform temple, where they met Smith while singing in a choir. They were early participants and supporters when Smith started a study and prayer group in her home.

As more people joined them, they started rotating homes. In February, as membership climbed past 40, they rented the clubhouse at Seasons Glen, the 55-and-over Mt. Arlington community where the Dyllers live.

The Dyllers had “happily” belonged to their previous congregation, until the rabbi retired.

They never connected with the new rabbi and, Fran said, they “never felt like going to services. We never had the feeling of spirituality we have with Deb. She is about as passionate a spiritual leader as I’ve ever met, and we’ve belonged to many temples.”

Smith never set out to be a rabbi. She describes herself as a one-time “drive-through” Jewish mother who would drop off her two daughters (now 25 and 32) at religious school at Temple Hatikvah in Flanders, where they belonged at that time, and then head out. When the synagogue’s then new rabbi, Judith Edelstein, invited Smith to have an aliya at services to commemorate her father’s yahrt­zeit, her answer was, “We don’t do shul.” But her husband, she recalled, said, “‘Deb, she’s new. Let’s support her.’ I couldn’t read the siddur. I didn’t know any of the prayers. She gave me a transliteration and said, ‘If you come every week, you’ll learn.’ So I came every Friday and Saturday for seven years.”

That’s when she became a seeker. “I felt I couldn’t hold my own in a conversation as a Jew,” Smith said. When she went to pick up her kids at religious school, she got the other children to teach her the Hebrew alphabet. At 47, she had an adult bat mitzva and wore a tallit for the first time, which was such a deep experience that she wrote a book about it. Eventually, she said, the rabbi told her she belonged in rabbinical school.

That seemed too big a leap at the time, but still, “I felt the call,” she said. Soon she quit her job at Rutgers University and stopped taking on new clients in her private practice. In 2001, she came to the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany and found a job as an educator at what was then the Jewish Education Association of MetroWest, which she held for seven years. She also served, on the Aidekman campus, as spiritual leader for the Lester Senior Housing Community and as program director for a senior learning program offered by United Jewish Communities of Metro West, now Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

Later, she got a rabbinical certificate from the New York-based Rabbinical Seminary International, but realized it was not sufficiently rigorous to be recognized by the larger Jewish community. “I never told anyone,” said Smith. “I knew it was so out of the box, and I didn’t want to disrupt my career” in the Jewish world. Eventually, though, she did take on the title of “Reb Deb,” as an acknowledgement to herself that she did, in fact, receive smicha. She later earned a master’s degree in Jewish studies from Gratz College, and became interested in the Jewish Renewal movement.

The nondenominational ALEPH rabbinic program offers a combination of retreats and distance learning based on the principles of its founder, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Affiliated congregations strive to be spiritual, egalitarian, creative, and participatory.

Smith views Renewal as “a pathway, a philosophy, a gateway into Judaism.” It suits her well, she said. “I was never looking to be a deep Talmud scholar. I’m interested in outreach. I’m looking to bring in people who are lost communally, wandering in eastern religions, not finding what they want.”

Or HaLev now numbers about 54 people, and few, least of all Reb Deb, want it to grow much larger. “I don’t want to become so large that I cannot interact with every person and know everyone’s name, and be there,” she said. “I don’t want to be the rabbi of a large congregation, and we are not a challenge to traditional congregations in that way.

“We just want to serve the needs of people on a journey, people looking for spirituality, looking for something different, something to experiment with. The challenge is to keep going and move forward, attracting spiritual seekers and help them gain a more meaningful pathway to God.”