After nearly a half-century as a rabbi on Long Island, Steven Moss is winding down his career.
And to mark the turning point, he is going somewhere he has never been, a place that he believes is fundamental to Jewish history — a Nazi death camp.
On Friday, the 71-year-old Moss will stand at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than a million Jews died during the Holocaust, before he sets off on a 60-mile bicycle ride that ends at the Jewish Community Center of Krakow.
The daylong journey draws hundreds from around the world who want to celebrate the resurgence of Jewish life in Poland.
“One place I feel I need to go as a Jew, as a rabbi, is to Eastern Europe and to pay my respects at the concentration camps at Auschwitz and others,” said Moss.
“Seventy years ago this entire Jewish community was murdered by the Nazis, exterminated,” he said. “And now you see what’s going on. It’s wonderful.”
Moss has served almost 48 years at B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, making him the longest-serving rabbi at the same temple in Suffolk County. He also is chairman of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, founder of the Suffolk County Anti-Bias Task Force and a chaplain to the Suffolk County Police Department.
Some who know Moss aren't surprised he is marking his retirement with the ride.
“Finding these kinds of passionate ways to serve the Jewish people even all around the world is exactly what I would expect from a rabbi like him,” said Rabbi Aaron Benson of the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson. “He sees his profession as a calling, and you can’t really retire from a calling.”
The "Ride for the Living" is the centerpiece of four days of activities that include a private guided tour of Auschwitz, the largest Shabbat dinner in postwar Krakow, and visits to all seven synagogues in the city’s Jewish quarter.
An Englishman, Robert Desmond, is the driving force behind the ride. Desmond pedaled 1,350 miles from London to Auschwitz, visiting World War II sites of liberation along the way. Later, he decided the ride shouldn't have ended at a place of loss, but at a place of hope — the JCC Krakow.
Moss estimates the ride will take about five hours, and he considers himself an avid cyclist ready for the challenge. During a four-month stay in Florida over the winter, he racked up 1,600 miles — pedaling 20 to 40 miles a day.
In the five years that Desmond has asked others to join him, the number of riders has grown from some 15 to nearly 300. Every rider is being asked to raise at least $900 to benefit the JCC Krakow; Moss has donations totaling $4,200 and is still collecting funds.
The community center serves as a focal point of Jewish life in Krakow, offering social, educational and community-oriented services; fostering Polish-Jewish relations; and welcoming hundreds of thousands of tourists — many of them Jewish.
Accompanying Moss to Poland is friend Paul Haines, who is also 71 and Jewish. Haines, of East Moriches, won't be making the ride for health reasons but is raising funds for the community center. He'll spend part of the day touring a factory owned by German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved scores of Jews during World War II by giving them jobs.
At the Oakdale synagogue, Moss is being succeeded by Rabbi Jessica Rosenthal. He will serve part-time as rabbi emeritus and in emeritus positions with the police and human rights commission.
For Moss, the ride is special to him both personally and professionally.
“This really is a very special way of observing this transition moment in my own life," he said. "It is really an observance of my people’s past — obviously the Holocaust — but also our people’s future.”