After 36 years, Temple Sinai rabbis retire but will continue to

SARATOGA SPRINGS – Rabbis Jonathan Rubenstein and Linda Motzkin believe spiritual and physical sustenance are intertwined — one cannot be realized without the other.

And for 36 years, the husband-and-wife team has served Temple Sinai with this holistic approach – baking bread and desserts for congregants and charity and meticulously scribing a Torah for a new, yet-to-be established congregation — all the while modeling, practicing and teaching the tenets of Judaism. Their devotion to the once fledgling congregation has nurtured it to its current state of 190 families. But now, the rabbis, the first known married couple to share the leadership role at a synagogue, will retire.

“Our work in the community is important and it’s always been important,” said Motzkin who is 63. “But there is an awareness of our own mortality and vulnerability. The pace of life, in this moment, might not be the best.”

Jerry Silverman, the president of the temple, said even though the rabbis plan to stay in the community,  their retirement is like “losing Ma and Pa.”

“They are synonymous with the temple,” Silverman said. “It’s hard to overstate what they have meant to Temple Sinai.”

That has been echoed by others. Sandra Welter, who was president at the time that Rubenstein and Motzkin were hired in 1986, called them a gift whose “lasting legacy is the life they have led in our presence.” Selma Harwood, one of the synagogue’s founding members, said she “admires them tremendously” for their “warmth and how they relate to people.” 

And for Rubenstein, who is 73, and Motzkin the feeling is mutual because this was their first and only congregation. They met and married as rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. By the time they were ordained in June 1986, they were looking for a post they could share at one synagogue so that they could concentrate on raising their first born, Ruhi, who was still a baby.

“We were clear we didn’t want separate congregations,” Motzkin said. “If I had one synagogue and my husband had another synagogue, there wouldn’t be one family synagogue. I wanted to have a spiritual home for the family.”

They expected to stay just a year or two, like most rabbis do. Instead, Motzkin, who is from Los Angeles, and Rubenstein, who is from Westport, Conn., stayed, becoming entrenched in community. In addition to their duties at the synagogue, they served as chaplains: Motzkin at Skidmore College and Rubenstein at Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility and Four Winds Hospital, and sat on boards including Saratoga Hospital and Wellspring. They also became involved in community groups like MLK Saratoga and New York State Interfaith Power and Light. And through the years, the congregation grew.

By 1997, the congregation was outgrowing their home in a historic home on Broadway. Thus, the couple oversaw the construction of a new wing of the synagogue. They also were able to hire staff for the first time including a part-time temple administrator and a director and teachers at the Hebrew school. 

“The growth was attributable of all the things that make up a community,” Motzkin said. “Part of it is the leadership, but it’s also the membership, the participants and the energy that people put into it.”

They also emphasized green living, insisting the temple only used reusable dishes rather than paper or plastic and only landscaped with native plants. They also introduced new music and interjected new theology, psychology and ethics into their sermons.

The biggest change, however, for the rabbis and the congregation came after the two went on sabbatical in 2001 in the rainforest of Costa Rica. The trip resulted in their spiritual practices known as Bread and Torah, which has a guiding principle from Mishna: “Without bread, there is no Torah; without Torah there is no bread.”

During their stay in Central America, Motzkin was working on four adult Hebrew language textbooks. Unable to get bread for the Sabbath, Rubenstein started baking challah. 

Once they returned to Saratoga Springs, Rubenstein continued his practice of baking breads, bagels, granola and cookies – which he sells, with all proceeds going to charity. He also bakes goods to offer up as gifts to those in need, including the city’s homeless. 

On a recent Friday, Rubenstein was in the Slice of Heaven kitchen at Temple Sinai, brushing loaves of challah with flaxseed and water and scooping out granola into bags to distribute. He was also keeping an eye on a batch of chocolate chip cookies baking in the synagogue’s commercial oven. 

Motzkin, on the other hand, was introduced to an Orthodox scribe who offered to train her in the art of scribing a Torah, which she explained, must only be hand done. This was a unique proposal as the job has traditionally been reserved for men. She remains as only one of 13 women in the world who are scribes or soferets. 

Even rarer is her process. Most scribes buy their supplies. Motzkin makes them. The process includes collecting deer hides, scrapping off the meat, then the hair and then stretching the hide. Once dried, she sands the hide smooth to make parchment.

Motzkin also collects turkey feathers as her quills to write out the five books of the Torah on the parchment. Volunteers then triple check her work, ensuring the Torah that she is scribing, is perfect. She has no intention of keeping the Torah. Once it’s complete, sewn together and rolled onto scrolls, she will donate it to a new synagogue.

The practice of baking and scribing has sent Rubenstein and Motzkin around the globe to offer workshops in their art. It’s something that they will continue to do in retirement. 

Welter said Temple Sinai members feel fortunate to have had the rabbis for so long. At the time of their hire, the congregation only hired one other rabbi before, who left within months. She also said the salary the synagogue offered in 1986 was “laughable.” She remembers the telephone interview with them well.

“These two rabbis were exactly right for Temple Sinai:  warm, welcoming, ‘Hamish’ – a Yiddish word meaning cozy, homelike, casual. (They were also) very, very smart,” she said. “We thought, ‘We will never get them.  They are rock star rabbis.’”

But Rubenstein said Temple Sinai was perfect.

“What make it so appealing to us was that it fit our intentions,” Rubenstein said. “The way we wanted to do the job and live.”

It’s worked out well for all with Motzkin saying they are blessed that the community has “had remarkably little contention.”

While internally all has remained largely peaceful, Rubenstein acknowledges the world at large is changing and anti-Semitism is a growing threat to  Jewish communities everywhere.

“We are very concerned about our congregation,” Rubenstein said. “We are taking precautionary measures. … It’s very alarming. Leaders should speak out forcefully against it. It’s not something in the past that doesn’t present a real danger.”

Welter echoed the concern saying that the synagogue had to increase security in the building and has met with police.

“The rabbis have kept an open dialogue with all of the faith leaders in the area, and the police hold the rabbis in high regard because if their openness to dialogue and problem solving together,” she said.

Despite outside pressures and the rabbis retiring, the work of the synagogue will go on. For now, Silverman said, Temple Sinai will rely on student Rabbi Jesse Epstein who is in his third year at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City – as the interim rabbi. He also said that the synagogue has also formed a search committee to make recommendations. 

“With change comes opportunity,” Silverman said. “It’s bittersweet. I will obviously miss them.”

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