Rabbi marks 40th year at Oakdale temple

Rabbi Steven Moss has been at the same Rabbi Steven Moss has been at the same synagogue for over 40 years -- which may be a record in Suffolk County. He is marking the occasion this week. Moss is also the long-time head of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission. (Nov. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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Steven Moss knew he wanted to be a rabbi from such an early age that he applied to a seminary when he was 12.

The seminary politely turned him down, but when he showed up eight years later to apply again, they still had the letter on file.

This week, Moss is marking his 40th anniversary as rabbi at the B'nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale. No rabbi currently serving in Suffolk County has remained in the same pulpit for as long, said David Newman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island, a Syosset-based nonprofit.

To mark the occasion, Moss and his congregants including State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) held a special Oneg -- or reception -- after the synagogue's weekly Shabbat service Friday night. More than 350 people, including elected officials, attended the service, Moss said.

Moss, 64, of Holbrook, is also the longtime chairman of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission and a chaplain to Suffolk's police department, where he holds the rank of deputy chief.

He attributes his longevity at B'nai Israel -- which he has overseen since he was assigned there in 1972 as a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Manhattan -- partly to flexibility. "Being a rabbi is like a marriage, you have to be able to adjust to each other," compromising when needed, he said.

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But others also credit Moss' skill set.

"A lot of it is his personality," said Rabbi Joseph S. Topek, director of the Stony Brook University Hillel center for Jewish life for 30 years. "He's compassionate. He's kind. He has excellent pastoral skills. He's an extremely hard worker. As a rabbi, he's got it all."

Zeldin, 32, who was bar mitzvahed by Moss as a boy, said, "I look at him as a community leader, an inspiration, a teacher. He has an amazing ability to connect with everyone."

Moss said he ended up at B'nai Israel not for the grandest of reasons: It seemed like an easier place to get to from New York City than points north on Friday afternoons, when he picked up his wife, Judy, from her job as a public schoolteacher in Brooklyn.

But he has fallen in love with the synagogue, which has allowed him wide berth to pursue outside interests, including his work against bigotry. In the early 1990s, Moss founded the Suffolk County Anti-Bias Task Force and then went on to help found similar task forces throughout the county that today serve as local chapters of the countywide organization.

He is also the director and founder of STOPBIAS, an educational program for bias/hate crimes offenders.

Moss said he has dedicated much of his life to fighting discrimination because his family upbringing and his faith instructed him that all people are created equal. The Torah, the Jewish Bible, teaches us that "no one should stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds," he said.

He recalled an incident years ago when an African-American man told him he was driving around lost, looking for a meeting in Suffolk County, and was struck with a panic attack because he feared police would stop him on suspicion of looking for a house to rob.

"How horrible that is, to feel like that," Moss said. "No one should have to be afraid like that."

Meanwhile, his synagogue is thriving. It has grown from 50 families and 25 students in its Hebrew school when he arrived in 1972, to 500 families and 240 students today. He estimates that he has performed 2,000 bar and bat mitzvahs.

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Moss is uncertain when he will retire. Last year, the synagogue eliminated a clause in his contract calling on him to step down at 65.

"Right now I still have too much I want to do," he said. "God has given me a mission and who knows how long it will take to complete."

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