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Rabbi Marc Gellman, Jewish half of 'God Squad,' to retire from LI synagogue

Rabbi March Gellman prepares for a Shabbat ceremony

Rabbi March Gellman prepares for a Shabbat ceremony with 2-year-olds in the Temple Beth Torah synagogue in Melville, May 16, 2014. Credit: Johnny Milano

Rabbi Marc Gellman, who as the Jewish half of "The God Squad" with Msgr. Tom Hartman helped advance interfaith understanding nationwide, is retiring from the Melville synagogue he has headed for 33 years.

Gellman, who turned 67 on Saturday, will retain some connections to Temple Beth Torah, though he may be moving to Los Angeles to be closer to his daughter and grandchildren, he said. He officially steps down June 30, and a gala send-off at the synagogue is planned June 1.

"It feels right, it feels exciting and it also feels hard," said Gellman, sporting one of his trademark bow ties. "This is a time of enormously complex emotions."

The rabbi, who regularly appeared with Hartman on nationally broadcast television and radio shows such as "Good Morning America" and "Imus in the Morning," will continue to preach at Temple Beth Torah for some high holy days, such as Yom Kippur. He also will serve as a "rabbinical scholar," offering periodic weekend courses.

Rabbi Susie Moskowitz, who has served as his No. 2 for 18 years, will succeed him as head of the synagogue.

"That's by far long enough to sit on the on-deck circle," Gellman said. "She deserves the chance to bat cleanup."

A dynamic duo

Gellman, who cracked the jokes, and Hartman, the Catholic priest who played the straight man, made up a dynamic duo that brought serious talk of religion to the masses for a quarter-century as "The God Squad."

They were best friends, and they bridged the gap between faiths by finding common ground -- often in an entertaining, down-to-earth way.

Their television program started on Cablevision in 1987 and a decade later moved to Telecare, the Catholic cable station. The rabbi and the priest soared to stardom as the program became syndicated and reached 15 million homes a week.

At the height of "The God Squad's" popularity in the late 1990s, Gellman said, they made up to 150 speeches a year at churches, charities and other institutions all over the country.

Part of their success was that "we were able to make complicated things simple," Gellman said, and part of it was their message.

"We know enough about how we are different, and we don't know enough about how we are all the same," he said. "We weren't saying we were the same. Neither Tom nor I wanted vanilla religion. But what we did believe was there was a danger to tribalism."

Devastating illness

Their show hit turbulence about a decade ago after Hartman was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He made his condition public in 2003, and by 2007 the pair filmed their final show.

That year, Gellman had to take sole control of a syndicated column the two started writing in 2002 for Newsday and other newspapers. About the time "The God Squad" program ended, Hartman stepped down as head of Telecare.

The TV show did not go on with substitutes. "It is disappointing . . . there wasn't anyone really to whom we could pass the baton," Gellman said. "For some reason, a priest and a rabbi who are best friends is still a unique situation."

He said it has been devastating to watch the once vibrant Hartman decline. Hartman, 67, no longer can speak and is in a Uniondale nursing home.

The co-winner with Hartman of a Peabody Award for the HBO film "How Do You Spell God?" Gellman said the greatest honor he has received is being Hartman's best friend.

Jean Kelly, executive director of The INN soup kitchen in Hempstead, who knows both men well, said even though Hartman has a vast array of friends, he and Gellman "were blood brothers."

"They had that same spirit and that whole love of being of service," Kelly said. "It was almost like two superstars came together but didn't overpower each other."

Ties to LI will remain

As Gellman retires, he may be spending some time in Florida, where he has a large following in the Palm Beach area. The rabbi plans to continue writing his "God Squad" column, which appears in Newsday.

He said he will never lose touch with Long Island -- and with Hartman, whom he still visits regularly.

"What's hard now is I don't know what to pray for," Gellman said. "I know that it is a spiritually generous thing to pray that he be released from his suffering and that God take him. But in truth I can't really pray that prayer. I still love him too much even now to let him go."

So "I pray for him to be healed and I pray for him to be released," he said. "They are totally contradictory prayers and I can't harmonize them."

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