By Cindy Mindell
WATERFORD – After 35 years as spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in Waterford, Rabbi Aaron Rosenberg is retiring from the pulpit of the Reform synagogue. Rosenberg is also stepping down from his post as the part-time Jewish chaplain at Connecticut College.
A Chicago native, Rosenberg grew up on the west side of the city until age 12, when he and his family moved from the heavily Jewish Albany Park neighborhood to the suburb of Wilmette. As an undergraduate business major at Indiana University, he was active in Hillel, an interest that led him to apply to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Just in case, he also applied to law school.
“I figured I’d start rabbinic school and if, for some reason, it wasn’t right for me, I’d switch over,” he recalls. “I started Hebrew Union College and I never looked back – and I have no regrets.”
After ordination, Rosenberg served for three years as rabbi of the 100-family Temple Sholom in Springfield, Ohio, then as a clergy-member of the 2,400-family Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Cleveland. In 1980, he was hired by Temple Emanu-El and relocated with his wife Karen and their three sons to Waterford. Since 1984, Karen has filled several positions at Solomon Schechter Academy in New London, as a teacher, administrator, and head of school.
Over the past 35 years, Rosenberg has also served as a camp rabbi at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Mass., A past president of the Waterford Rotary Club, he says he has “just talked someone into succeeding” him as secretary of the Greater New London Clergy Association, where he has been active since his arrival. “The clergy group is very strong,” he says. “It meets frequently, it does a lot around the community, and I found a lot of collegiality and friendships within that group.”
He has also served as part-time Jewish chaplain at Connecticut College.
“He was hired originally by the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut to be the Jewish chaplain at Connecticut College recalls Jerry Fischer, director of the Jewish Federaton of Eastern Connecticut. The Jewish Federation and the Catholic church prevailed upon the college that they were funding the Protestant minister and it was really their responsibility to support the Jewish and Catholic clergy as well. He was then hired by the college.
Since then, says Fischer, Rosenberg has been there for students regardless of their individual needs.
“At Connecticut College, if a student – especially a woman – came to him and said, “I’ve never had a bat mitzvah; will you do a bat mitzvah for me?” he said yes,” notes Fischer.
During his Temple Emanu-El tenure, Rosenberg put a significant emphasis on youth programming, from b’nai mitzvah and confirmation to the religious school and Jewish Community High School. In the ‘90s, he coordinated an annual statewide junior youth group overnight “shul-in” that enjoyed a 10-year run.
Rosenberg has seen the ebb and flow typical of many American Jewish communities, whose 20- and 30-somethings are less apt to affiliate with a synagogue. In eastern Connecticut, where young people tend not to return after college, “the Jewish population has diminished significantly, and that has something to do with the overall trend of the Jewish population in southeastern Connecticut: it’s diminishing but it’s still thriving,” he says. “Although there are fewer people and the population has clearly aged, the synagogues and Jewish Federation are very active.”
In addition to his commitment to interfaith work, “I would like to think that this was a very good shidduch and that I continued the warm, friendly, hamish ambiance that Temple Emanu-El has always cherished,” Rosenberg says. “It was a very hands-on rabbinate: because it was a smaller congregation, I got to know people deeply and I was very involved with them.”
Rosenberg will now serve as rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El. The congregation will be led by interim rabbi Scott Saulson, currently the interim rabbi at Temple Sholom in New Milford – who, coincidentally, will be succeeded by Rosenberg’s son, Rabbi Ari Rosenberg.
“Rabbi Rosenberg is a very dedicated clergy-person – and I use this word intentionally: he’s more than a rabbi to his congregation and to our community,” says Fischer. “He was active in the Clergy Association; he was dedicated to the town of Waterford; his kids all went to the public high school. He’s been a tremendous community person – both to the Jewish community and to the general community.”