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Paul Kushner dies; rabbi in Bellmore and Merrick was 81

Kushner helped lead synagogues on the East Coast for more than 50 years. He also served as president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis.

Rabbi Paul Kushner, seen in 2007, was a

Rabbi Paul Kushner, seen in 2007, was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Photo Credit: Newsday/Bill Davis

Paul Kushner, a past president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis and a longtime rabbi of Reform Jewish synagogues in Bellmore and Merrick, has died. He was 81.

Kushner died April 2 at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill from cardiac arrest due to chronic renal disease, according to his widow, Shoshana Kushner.

For more than 50 years, Kushner helped lead synagogues on the East Coast, taught secular college and at a Roman Catholic seminary, discussed Jewish news on television and talk radio, guest-wrote Newsday's “Asking the Clergy” column — and never forgave Walter O'Malley for moving Kushner's beloved Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. 

Ronald N. Brown memorialized Kushner last Thursday from the pulpit the two once shared as co-rabbis, explaining how the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel each believed that storytelling has been key to the Jewish people's survival, and that Kushner relished telling stories.

“Paul Kushner, the rabbi, the scholar, and yes, the storyteller, bridged both worlds, with one hand he reached out to God and with the other, embraced people,” read the eulogy delivered by Brown, whose congregation, Temple Beth Am of Merrick, was merged with Kushner’s, Congregation Shaarei Shalom of Bellmore, about a decade ago.

Longtime congregant Jerry Glassman of Bellmore, who as president of Shaarei Shalom originally helped recruit Kushner, recounted some of what Kushner taught, including “treat people as individuals and not as machines and not as objects,” a lesson delivered via a story about the rabbi's time in Israel.

The two synagogues merged because of Shaarei Shalom's dwindling membership and an aging synagogue population, said Glassman, 85, a retired New York City schools superintendent. Kushner officiated at his daughters' bat mitzvahs and one of their weddings.

While 93 percent of Jews born during the Greatest Generation identify as Jewish by religion, just 68 percent of millennials do so, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2013, which found that the number of those who call themselves religiously Jewish has declined with each generation.

Kushner, an avid baseball fan, often wore a Dodgers sweatshirt or cap in informal settings; he would often joke that O'Malley was one of the "worst tyrants in world history," Glassman said.

In his religious roles, Kushner also served as the North American director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and associate director of the UJA-Federation, where he co-wrote “Jewish Ethno-Psychiatry.”

Paul Richard Kushner was born June 17, 1937, at Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side. His parents were Julius Kushner, owner of a children’s book publisher, and Sarah Hartman Kushner, a Hebrew-school teacher and homemaker. His parents were originally from Lithuania.

The family grew up on Montgomery Street in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, worshipping at the Brooklyn Jewish Center on Eastern Parkway. His father was the congregation president, and his mother served as president of the sisterhood, its women’s club.

Paul Kushner told New York Magazine in 2007 that he grew up so close to Ebbets Field that he could hear the crowd from his living room. He said he cried when the team left for Los Angeles, in 1957.

“The Brooklyn that I know and loved isn’t there anymore,” he said.

Kushner graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in 1954, Columbia University in 1958 with a philosophy degree and the Jewish Theological Seminary the same year.

He met Roslyn Schachter in Jerusalem in 1959, while he was studying at Hebrew University and she was attending the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad. The two married in December 1960, she said in an interview for this account of his life. She is also known by her Hebrew name, Shoshana. New York City’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordained him in 1963.

Before being hired on Long Island, Kushner served as a rabbi in Florence, South Carolina, and Aberdeen, Maryland; as an auxiliary chaplain at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds Army facility; and as a rabbi at congregations in Kendall Park, New Jersey, and Brooklyn.

He came to work on the Island when he was hired as a part-time rabbi in 1973 at East Bay Reform Temple, which later changed its name to Shaarei Shalom, and the family moved to Bellmore when he became full-time rabbi there in 1984, his widow said. He later took emeritus status at the merged congregation.

In addition to his wife, Kushner is survived by an older brother, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner of Canton, Massachusetts; children Shlomo Kushner-Dowen of Nottingham, England; Rabbi Haviva Horvitz of Cincinnati; Yisrael “Izzy” Kushner of Closter, New Jersey; Uriel Kushner of Portland, Oregon; Shai Kushner of Maplewood, New Jersey; 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

The funeral was April 4 at Beth Am, the congregation he once helped lead. Rabbi Brown and their successor, Mickey Baum, helped officiate. Burial was at Montefiore Cemetery in Springfield Gardens, Queens. Shiva ended Wednesday.

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