Rabbi Dr. Barry Dov Schwartz is retiring after 37 as...

Rabbi Dr. Barry Dov Schwartz is retiring after 37 as Rabbi of Temple B'nai Sholom in Rockville Centre. (June 6, 2010) Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

The world exists on three principles: learning, doing, and leaving your message.

If not now, when?

When Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz's answering machine picks up, you'll hear a shorthand form of an ancient rabbinic philosophy - drolly paired with instructions on proceeding in our technological world.

As the longest-serving spiritual leader in the Village of Rockville Centre, Schwartz, 69, is retiring this week after 37 years at Temple B'nai Sholom, a Conservative shul, or synagogue.

Few rabbis achieve such longevity, said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. "To be in a congregation that long, you have to have the ability to grow with each other," he says. "You have to learn to accommodate to diverse needs."

 

A St. Pat's Day attraction

Indeed. During the past 37 years, Schwartz has been learning, and doing - and leaving his message.

"Rabbi Schwartz has a unique way of acknowledging how important humor is in the life of a believer," says Msgr. Frank Caldwell, pastor of St. Martha's Roman Catholic parish in Uniondale. At the annual St. Patrick's Day dinner sponsored by Mercy Medical Center, where Schwartz has sat on the board since 1987, "he's the speaker everyone always looks forward to the most," Caldwell says.

"They always call me Rabbi McSchwartz," the rabbi jokes.

A Vietnam-era chaplain in the Air Force, Schwartz was a rabbi in Perth Amboy, N.J., when he met his wife, Sonia, now a teacher at a Jewish day school in Kew Gardens Hills. They married on July 4, 1970.

The couple came to Temple B'nai Sholom in August 1973. During his inaugural High Holidays that fall, he had to throw out his sermon and speak extemporaneously: Israel had been attacked in what became known as the Yom Kippur War.

Temple members Joel and Leslie Greenberg, organizers of a tribute to the Schwartzes on Tuesday at which they expect more than 500 people, became close to the couple after going on one of the rabbi's many congregational trips to Israel. The Greenbergs took their sons, Adam and David. Schwartz still occasionally calls David - now 30 and living in Austin, Texas - just to see how he's doing.

In the early days of his rabbinate, Schwartz says, "you did have people more committed to synagogue life then than now." Of life on Long Island now, he says, "There are so many things that compete - sports and athletics. Religion suffers."

 

A changing congregation

In the '70s, about 600 families belonged to the temple; now there are perhaps "280 or 290," says Barry Hochhauser, the board's immediate past president. Like other temples on Long Island and elsewhere, B'nai Sholom and Congregation Beth David in nearby Lynbrook, with about 125 families, are negotiating a merger. Hochhauser says a letter of intent has been signed by the boards of both congregations and he's optimistic the merger will take place by summer's end. Rabbi Howard Diamond of Beth David will succeed Schwartz.

"The next rabbi is going to have a difficult time filling his shoes," Hochhauser says.

Schwartz's spiritual leadership extends far beyond the synagogue. Caldwell says he has played a major role in establishing "Jewish-Catholic dialogue and mutual respect" - so much so that Rockville Centre's Molloy College, a Catholic institution, awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree at its May commencement, one of a number of doctorates he holds, both earned and honorary. Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre plans to speak at Schwartz's going-away fete.

In 2005, the Schwartzes were in a small group that met with an ailing Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. They've traveled to Cuba on a personal humanitarian mission, and he's sponsored seminars with Muslims to foster understanding.

Schwartz says he treasures his longtime chaplaincy for the Nassau County Police Department, as well as its Shomrim Society, a Jewish officers group - whose president, Lt. Saul Roth, says Schwartz's counsel has changed lives, including his.

"When my children were sick, he was in touch with me and my wife," Roth says. "We felt he was right there for us - more than our own rabbi."

Schwartz's kindness has resonated through the years. Actress Sharon Stone flew him to Los Angeles recently, twice - first to comfort her father-in-law, a former congregant at Schwartz's first synagogue in New Jersey who was dying of pancreatic cancer - and, later, to officiate at his funeral.

"He really knows what people are all about," says Sonia Schwartz, 61. "He has a sixth sense about people, to know what they're thinking and feeling."

Schwartz says he doesn't expect to see his grown children - Avi, Jonathan and Tamar - even more in retirement because spending time with them always has been a priority. "That's why I made my study where I did, on the first floor, so I would always be right there when they were growing up," he says. "I never put them second. I was able to do both - I never put my job second, either."

Even as he retires from the temple, Schwartz says he plans to keep up his other interests, including being Jewish chaplain at Adelphi University in Garden City. "I always liked being a rabbi," he says. "What a rabbi does is certainly not routine. I guess it's a blessing, but I have no idea where the day goes."

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