There was a passing of the torch — or in this case, the Torah — this August as beloved rabbi Bill Strongin retired from his rabbinical post after 38 years to become rabbi emeritus. He and the Jewish Congregation of New Paltz (JCNP) welcomed in Adam Cerino-Jones, who recently finished rabbinical school in Baltimore and has moved to the area with his wife to take up the mantle of rabbi.
The two rabbis sat down with Hudson Valley One at the New Paltz Jewish Community Center this past weekend and swapped stories, discussed the meaning of God, what drew them to New Paltz and what they believe it means to be a rabbi in a small town.
When Bill Strongin was growing up, his family had a small summer home near Ellenville. “There was a small community of homes and bungalows on the other side of the mountain where we spent our summers,” he said. “I became familiar with Ulster County and Sullivan County. So, when I had finished school, I saw in the rabbinical newsletter that New Paltz was looking for a rabbi. I came up here and walked into the Synagogue [on Church Street in downtown New Paltz] and smelled this scent. It wasn’t a pleasant scent, but more of a mildew smell, like those old slick paper prayer books they used to publish; and I realized that it smelled like the synagogues I had attended up here as a child. It was home.”
Rabbi Cerino-Jones concurred with the allure of the New Paltz Synagogue, which was founded in 1964. “I was tired of doing interviews when I came to New Paltz,” he said. “I was tired of talking about myself and already had some offers and had this terrible headache. But I had said I would come, so I walked into the Synagogue and the president introduced me and I went up to lead a service. I remember calling on God for help during that service, maybe because I didn’t feel well. But there is something about that sanctuary, about the enthusiasm of the congregation…”
“That’s a holy room,” said Rabbi Strongin. “You feel it the second you walk in.”
“It’s also a legacy synagogue,” said Cerino-Jones. “You don’t find true sanctuaries like this one. Most of the time, Reconstructionist congregations today are sharing space with churches.”
Headache gone, several offers on the table, Cerino-Jones surprised himself by accepting the post, when he had been offered one in Baltimore, just minutes from where his parents live and where he went to school as a kid. “We’ve been up here for two weeks and already I can feel how much quieter it is, more peaceful. I can see the stars at night. I haven’t seen the stars in ten years!”
Asked what both believe is the biggest challenge facing the JCNP congregation, Rabbi Strongin said, “The same thing that all congregations are facing: to help people understand that religion is still something that is significant — that their lives are poorer without it.”
When he first started, the congregation had 55 families. At its peak it had 140 families. “The history of membership is always up and down, and right now we’re at about 100 families,” said Strongin. “But it’s not unique to the New Paltz Synagogue; it’s across the board with all denominations. I think the only congregation that has grown in decades are the megachurches, the evangelical churches. This is the American situation.”
That said, Strongin is happy that the JCNP is as robust as it is, particularly after having to shut down in-person services and education during the pandemic. The Hebrew school is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary; there are Friday night services and Saturday morning scripture study groups, celebrations and services for high holy days and of course the baby-naming and coming-of-age rituals like bar and bat mitzvahs.
Asked what he believes the roll of rabbi should be, Cerino-Jones said, “I see it as an accompanist. If you’re walking down the road of Judaism and want to know what it means to be Jewish and to learn about Judaism, then I see myself as someone who can help accompany you along that journey.”
“It’s about being a facilitator,” added Strongin. “Reconstructionism is not about top-down where people do what the rabbi says. The last time we did that was with Moses. We’re done with that. But as rabbis, we have years and years of education and we know where to find information. So, if people are interested in discovering what it means to be a Jew or have questions about Judaism, we can help make those resources available to them.”
Cerino-Jones said that in his estimation, people too often imagine a rabbi to “just like a Christian clergyperson, but we’re not,” he said. “We’re multifaceted: ritual leaders, counselors, musicians, educators, community leaders…”
Both believe that tradition is still a critical part of Judaism, but that it doesn’t have to remain archaic or unbending. “People today claim that they have an opinion and that’s their opinion and they have a right to it; but the verb we’ve forgotten is to opine,” mused Strongin. “An opinion is just a provisional hypothesis, and then you opine and think about it and gather more information and maybe you change your mind.”
As for God, Cerino-Jones said that he is more of a “pantheist” who “believe[s] that God is everywhere. I want to help people get closer to God, but God is not static. It’s the life force.”
Speaking of life force, Cerino-Jones can’t wait to get working. “I’ve been in school for five years and I just want to start doing what I’ve been studying to do and preparing to do,” he said. “I’m so excited to start meeting with members one-on-one and to lead services and study groups and counsel and become part of the community.”
Asked what he believes has been the most rewarding part of his 38 years as a rabbi in New Paltz, Strongin said, “doing a baby-naming ceremony for someone that I did a baby-naming ceremony for, who I then went on to preside over their bat mitzvah and their wedding. That is truly the most rewarding thing I could ever imagine.”
Strongin said that, while he’s committed to providing Cerino-Jones with all the support and counsel he may want or need, he’s ready to take a back seat and let the new rabbi take center stage. “I may have an identity crisis for a year or two, but I’ll figure out who I am,” said Strongin with a laugh.
As for Cerino-Jones, he said that he knows he has “big shoes to fill. literally and figuratively,” but feels so “grateful to have the support and friendship of Rabbi Strongin. That means so much to me.”
The changing of the guard took place on August 1. To make an appointment with Rabbi Cerino-Jones, e-mail him at email@example.com. To find out about events, services and educational programs, go to the JCNP’s website at www.jewish-cong-newpaltz.org.