Rabbi Tuvia Teldon is sitting at a table in his Commack backyard performing an important — and mildly hazardous — task to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Teldon, 64, the family patriarch, is using a knife to peel horseradish roots. Chunks of the pungent vegetable will be the bitter herbs for the ritual seder feast celebrated on Passover, which began the evening of April 22.
“I do this outside so my eyes don’t tear up,” Teldon explains. Rabbi Mendel Teldon, 37, of Commack, Tuvia’s eldest son, sits next to his father and starts peeling horseradish roots, too.
Family reunions are a tradition in Jewish households during Passover, and last week, it was a reason for the entire family to gather again in Commack. Including Tuvia, his sons and son-in-law, , there are six rabbis in the family, and for the Teldon “boys,” helping to prepare special Passover foods from scratch is not only a tradition, it is also a form of “father-son bonding” with a highly influential dad, Mendel says.
On the first night of Passover, the Teldons’ dining room tables were extended, covered with white tablecloths, and set with plates and wine for the seder. In this family, the eight-day celebration of Passover is also an occasion to honor the father and mother who, by example, led all five children to enter the clergy in one way or another.
“I think there was a brief moment I wanted to be a shortstop for the Mets,” jokes Mendel, the first to follow his father as a religious leader. Instead of batting practice, he began practicing his parents’ message of “the beauties of Judaism” by commuting in the sixth grade to a yeshiva in Far Rockaway, Queens. He was ordained in 2003 and for the past dozen years has been the spiritual leader at the Chabad of Mid-Suffolk in Commack, the congregation led by his father for 20 years, from 1984 to 2004.
Among the other brothers, Levi, 31, is a rabbi at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life and Learning in San Antonio, Texas, and Moshe, 29, is a rabbi and program director at Chabad of Wilmette — Center for Jewish Life and Learning, an Orthodox congregation north of Chicago. Zalman, 35, studied for the rabbinate but decided to go into business.
The Teldons’ daughter, 24-year-old Chanie, traveled from Brooklyn to help her mother cook traditional dishes. Her husband, Rabbi Yossi Kamman, 24, is the managing editor of Chabad Magazine. The journal covers the history, culture and customs of Chabad, a major movement within mainstream Judaism, started in Ukraine and Russia in the late 1700s. It was originally based in the Russian town of Lubavitch, Kamman says. “Chabad and Lubavitch are used interchangeably to refer to the movement,” he says. Chanie says her parents’ example was “something that I found beautiful and I wanted my home and family to be that way as well.”
Although having multiple rabbis in the same family is not unusual in centers of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, such as Brooklyn, it’s rare on Long Island, says Tuvia Teldon, who as chief Chabad-Lubavitch representative on Long Island, oversees 45 rabbis and their wives at 32 Chabad centers from the Five Towns area to the East End.
The Teldons’ full house of rabbis is less a coincidence than a testament to the nurturing philosophy of their parents, say the Teldon children. Growing up in Commack, where the family has lived since the early 1980s, they played baseball in the big backyard, using trees for bases, and rode bikes in the local park. They remember many guests and lively conversations about Judaism around the dinner table. Their studies took them to yeshivas in Florida, Michigan and Israel and on summer travels to far-off places; to work on Jewish outreach in Alaska, Germany and Russia.
If you asked Moshe, when he was a child, what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have answered, “a rabbi,” he says. “I don’t ever remember not wanting to be a rabbi, I think I always aspired to that. It was something that was such a beautiful model that my parents set. I think the priorities they set for us are that you can lead a very fulfilling and rich lifestyle, not necessarily rich monetarily, but something a lot more enriching.”
Levi says he was always impressed by his father’s “absolute commitment and dedication to the Jewish people, and sharing of Jewish wisdom. Every Friday night and holiday we’d have friends and guests from all walks of Jewish observance. Seeing people who weren’t religious come back again and again and really loving the experience of a Shabbat [the Jewish Sabbath] dinner table and Jewish knowledge and wisdom — I think that planted seeds in our minds.”
Inside, Chaya, the Teldon family matriarch, is leading meal preparation in a special kitchen used only on Passover. Four seder meals — two at the beginning of the holiday and two at the end — would be prepared in what used to be a garage, and was also the synagogue when the family first moved here.
She’s bought enough food to feed her extended family, including 80 pounds of chopped meat, 100 pounds of potatoes, 30 dozen eggs, 30 gefilte fish loaves and 46 pounds of hand-baked matzos.
She says in the Orthodox community, having more than one rabbi son is not that unusual. “When I get together with my friends I’m on a chat group with thousands of other rabbis’ wives, and everybody can say, ‘my son, the rabbi’,” she says. “Many kids get their ordination and then they go into business, but they have that under their belts.”
Zalman, for instance, currently works in Internet retail. As he helps prepare pineapple-mango sorbet for the Passover meal, he says his parents and brothers are an inspiration to him. “My older brothers are all great examples . . . my parents have a love of Judaism that makes it relevant to us.”
Chaya, 62, who is the principal of The Jewish Academy in Commack, a day school she founded with her husband, says, “We have a blast. My boys are very, very funny, and they have beautiful voices, so the singing by the [Passover] table is almost otherworldly.”
Observing the preparations going on around him, and joining in the occasional banter among his sons, Tuvia Teldon gets in his own wisecrack. “Maybe we can get a reality show,” he says, as some of the 28 family members including children and grandchildren pose for pictures.
His back story might actually qualify for a “Real Rabbis” series. Raised in a family that practiced Reform Judaism, he rarely went to temple. “We went for the high holidays when growing up, like regular American Jews, three times a year.” His father, Gerald Teldon, now 91 and living in Mexico, was a vice president for a St. Louis uniform corporation. Tuvia decided to become the first rabbi in his family at age 20, after going to a yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey.
He feels honored that his children chose to follow in his footsteps. “You hope that they are going to be inspired by it, and be on the same frequency that you are, seeing the beauty of Judaism and the beauty of teaching Torah,” says Tuvia, a grandfather of nine boys and seven girls, ages 6 months to preteen. “And thank God, it resonated with them.”