In the first version of what he wanted to do with his life, Rabbi Gary Gans was laser focused on becoming the first Jewish president of the United States.
It was the 1960s, a time of social and political upheaval and great possibilities. As an idealistic teen, Gans aligned with the “Be Clean for Gene” (McCarthy) campaign while strategizing his path from Northeast High School in Philadelphia to the White House.
But then, in 1968, his first trip to Israel with USY altered the course, setting him in the direction of rabbinic school and leading him to Cong. Beth Tikvah, where he has been the Conservative Marlton synagogue’s spiritual leader since 1981.
“More formative for me than even politics was Israel,” explained Gans. “The trip began my life-long connection with living in and being part of the Israel experience.”
Although he jokingly calls a 1969 stay on a kibbutz as his “Bernie Sanders experience,” a reference to the Vermont senator’s kibbutz experience, it seemed to have the opposite effect. Gans did stick to his political science major, but the Rutgers University undergraduate abandoned presidential aspirations. Instead of interning with politicians, he spent summers leading teen groups on Israel trips and even managed to finish out his senior-year courses at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
This was just the start. There was a year in Israel as a Reconstructionist rabbinical student and dozens of congregational trips, most of them in the company of CBT teenagers. Seeing Israel through the eyes of those who grew up in the congregation was always an incredible experience, he said.
As Gans recalled highlights of his tenure at CBT, he noted that the trips are simply too numerous to count. The task would be nearly as impossible as tabulating the number of Shabbats, festivals and life-cycle events he has officiated for generations of families over 35 rich years.
Yet, the innumerable heritage tours, simchas and sad occasions have been on his mind these days as he and the congregation prepare to both celebrate his long tenure and to transition to a new phase in the synagogue’s history.
This summer, Gans will move into his new role as rabbi emeritus. Rabbi Nathan Weiner, CBT’s educational director, takes on fulltime responsibilities following his ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA.
To be clear, Gans said, he is not “retiring” per se. He could not even imagine separating from the congregation’s 200-plus families. They’re more like relatives to him, his wife Ilene Schneider, also a rabbi, and his two sons, Natan, 27, and Ari, 22, who were born into the congregation. As the synagogue’s first and, until now, only fulltime rabbi, he had a strong hand in building the synagogue’s character as a traditional yet informal shul that was ahead of its time in giving men and women equal access to the bimah.
“I will be retiring to, not from,” Gans explained. “I call it ‘active emeritus,’ I will still be an official staff person but I’ll be becoming part time.”
He said he would continue leading some holiday and Shabbat services, performing life-cycle rituals and running adult education classes. However, taking a page from Schneider, who has been writing rabbinic murder-mystery books since retiring as coordinator of Jewish hospice and spiritual support counselor for Samaritan Hospice, Marlton, he will pursue other interests as well. A licensed therapist, he plans to expand his practice while continuing on as a police chaplain for the Evesham police department. In addition, he will allow his very serious genealogy hobby to take up more time.
When Gans came to the synagogue fresh from rabbinical school, CBT was a converted 1950s farmhouse surrounded by fields.
“It was an adjustment,” he said. “It was so quiet. There were no street people. It wasn’t even suburban, it was rural.”
From a 40-50 family congregation in one small building, CBT grew as Marlton and surrounding towns developed. Still, the congregation never aspired to join the ranks of larger area synagogues.
“We will always be the small shul,” he said. “It gives us a sense of connectedness with our families, the family of families and our extended clan here that some people really prefer. That’s what’s kept me here too–my link with the families.”
Nancy Horowitz, a longtime member who became the president during Gans’ first year, said their young rabbi and CBT grew up together.
“The congregation’s longevity is a tribute to Rabbi Gans’ inspiration, dedication and motivation for the last 35 years,” she said. “It has always warmed my heart to hear Rabbi Gans say that even if he were not our rabbi, ours is the congregation that he and his family would have chosen to join.”
A champagne brunch celebrating Gans’ 35 years of leadership and dedication to CBT will take place on May 22 at 11 a.m. at the Mansion in Voorhees.
For more information, contact the synagogue at (856) 983-8090. s