Father-son rabbis become colleagues

Reform Rabbi Jerry David (left) of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill and his son, Reform Rabbi Ben David of Temple Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel play with Ben's son, Elijah, 2. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Reform Rabbi Jerry David (left) of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill and his son, Reform Rabbi Ben David of Temple Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel play with Ben's son, Elijah, 2. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 14, 2012

When Rabbi Jerry David wanted to practice his sermons, back when he was still relatively new in his role at Cherry Hill's Temple Emanuel, he always had one willing audience member. His firstborn son, Ben, then a toddler, would sit quietly and listen to his dad, seemingly engaged.

Jerry David, now 38 years into his pulpit, describes how Ben would then walk around the house muttering "Blah, blah, blah."

"I optimistically took that to mean that he liked my sermons," his father said.

While that may be a generous interpretation, something evidently did take for his son. He, too, became a rabbi, ordained in 2004, 30 years after his father's 1974 ordination.

And now, the father and son will reach a new milestone — and a first for the region. Starting July 1, Ben, who has been the associate rabbi at Temple Sinai in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., for the last seven years, will become senior rabbi at a Reform congregation five miles from his father's synagogue with a very similar name.

So it will be Rabbi Jerry David of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill and Rabbi Ben David of Temple Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel. While some might assume this sets the stage for dueling clergy, this father-son pair have a healthy dose of respect and realism when it comes to their future as colleagues. There will be challenges (inevitable with two rabbis with the same name in same-sounding, nearby temples) and opportunities (like reviewing and discussing each other's sermons).

"People will want to compare us," says Ben. "And I'm entering a rabbinic community where my father has been for nearly 40 years now."

But the goal, Ben said, is not to emulate his father. And Jerry doesn't want to crowd his son.

"Most of all, I want to give Ben the space to develop and grow in his rabbinate, to be his own person. I want him to live the culture of his congregation, to meet the congregation where it is and to grow with it."

So it's not a contest to attract the most congregants, to be the most popular, Ben says. "My father is so well-known, and so well-respected. But we both understand very deeply that we're not in competition with one another. No loving father and son ever would be."

But this story doesn't start here, or even when Ben last year submitted his resumé, which synagogue president Ari Levine says "captivated" Temple Adath Emanu-El's search committee.

It started in 1939, when the seeds for Jerry's curiosity and passion for Judaism were planted. That's when Jerry's parents fled Nazi Germany — many other relatives and friends did not survive — and ultimately settled in Cincinnati.

"My home was first and foremost a home of Holocaust survivors," he says. "I can remember that by the age of about 5, I was asking my mother why I didn't have grandparents like my friends did. When she told me the truth — that the Nazis killed them — I was stunned. I then wanted to know where they were buried — and then why they weren't actually buried."

Yet when he was growing up, Jerry's family was not observant. They joined a Reform synagogue only at his insistence — this after a mortifying visit to a friend's synagogue where Jerry held the prayer book upside down.

"I was a Jew, my grandparents had died because they were Jews, and I didn't have the vaguest idea of what to do in a synagogue."

He became such an ardent student that by the time of his bar mitzvah, his rabbi — and mentor — told the congregation that they were probably witnessing the performance of a future rabbi.

Jerry eventually went to the University of Cincinnati, majored in psychology, and then headed for Hebrew Union College. "This is definitely what I was meant to do," he says.

The draw to be a rabbi was equally strong for the younger David, who once heard a professor in rabbinical school say, "Unless you have to become a rabbi, you shouldn't."

And Ben knew he had to. He was also driven by his great-grandparents' legacy. "So much of who I am can be traced to that history," he said. "I have that consciousness with me all the time. None of us would have been here if Hitler had his way."

By the time he was 8, he had started thinking about becoming a rabbi "and by 19, I was sure," says Ben, who saw close-up what that meant in terms of lifestyle.

"A lot has been written about the travails of being a ‘rabbi's kid,' and it was, at times, challenging. I certainly had to get accustomed to people approaching my dad wherever we were. It's a very public life."

So nobody had to caution Ben, an English major and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Muhlenberg College, that for a pulpit rabbi, days meld into nights, and personal plans often yield to the needs of others. Plus, his 14 summers spent at Camp Harlam in the Poconos — where he found Judaism, the outdoors, and his future wife, Lisa, at age 11 — deepened his commitment.

These independent experiences are all the more reason why he wants to establish his own name and reputation in the community in which he grew up — and at least live in a different town than his parents. He and Lisa decided to move their family (daughter, Noa, 4; son, Elijah, 2, and one on the way) to Mount Laurel.

"Any concern we had that people might confuse father and son, and therefore conflate our two congregations, was quickly dispelled," said Levine. "Rabbi Ben David is his own man with his own approach. He is, quite simply, the right rabbi for us."

Ben's future congregation is smaller — about 480 families and still growing since a move from Willingboro, where it was established in 1959, to Mount Laurel in 1997.

Jerry's has about 1,000 families, and has a long history in Cherry Hill, where it was founded in 1950 as the town's first Reform congregation. It, too, has moved, but only from one end of Cherry Hill to the other.

The greatest frustration, it seems, will be the men's schedule conflicts.

"As much as I want to see Ben in action, the reality, and irony, is that we're in action at the same time. We work the same hours!"

But at least one thing is certain: For father and son, being back together in Eagles country is a major bonus.

"Long Island was not the best place for a devout fan of the Birds," says Ben. "Now, two rabbis can cheer for them together. Who knows? It may even help the cause."

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