Suffolk Closeup: A Rabbi Resigns

Karl Grossman

A central figure in the realms of social justice and religious life in Suffolk County, Rabbi Dr. Steven Moss, for 28 years the chairperson of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, is retiring.

Not only has Rabbi Moss led the commission but he is co-chair of the Suffolk County Anti-Bias Task Force, and over his 25 years with the county task force has gone from town to town in Suffolk successfully working for the establishment of town anti-bias task forces. Further, he is chairperson of the Suffolk County Community College-based Center for Human Understanding and Social Justice featuring the Holocaust Collection. And he is director and founder of STOP/BIAS, an educational program for bias/hate crime offenders.

He has spoken at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor about these activities along with the laws in Suffolk prohibiting discrimination.

Rabbi Moss served three terms as president of the Suffolk County Board of Rabbis. And he holds the rank of Chief of Chaplains with the Suffolk County Police Department and been a department chaplain since 1986.

Since 1972, he has been the rabbi at B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale and thus is the longest-serving synagogue rabbi in Suffolk County.

He will become rabbi emeritus at B’nai Israel upon his retirement in July. He is involved in “redefining” his many other positions. For example, he will step down as chair of the Center for Human Understanding and Social Justice, but will remain a member of its board.

He would like “to remain involved” in activities here but is “aware of the responsibility anyone has as a chair.” At B’nai Israel, “when needed by any congregant I will come back,” he said. He notes his long and deep connection with the families of the congregation. “I named the current president and bar mitzvahed him.” When a teacher or doctor retires, she or he “can’t continue, but a rabbi is always a rabbi.” He also bar mitzvahed now U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, whose district includes Sag Harbor, his family members of the congregation.

Rabbi Moss and his wife, Judy, will be spending part of the year in Florida and part at their home in Holbrook.

The retirement of Rabbi Moss—although he still will be involved in some of his many activities—represents an incalculable loss for Suffolk County. Nevertheless, his many decades of service have been a huge gift to this county and its people.

I know Rabbi Moss well. He was our family’s rabbi when we lived in Sayville. My wife, Janet, and I became friends with Rabbi Moss and Judy, a teacher. I’ll never forget when they first came to our house and he spoke about how, in addition to being the rabbi at B’nai Israel, he ministered to cancer patients—including children with terminal cancer—in New York City. What a commitment to humanity that reflected. He mentioned last week that he was a chaplain for the New York Board of Rabbis working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center from 1970 to 2000 and “the longest-serving chaplain” for the board.

I recall vividly 1973 and the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, when it looked like Israel could be destroyed, Rabbi Moss giving a sermon at B’nai Israel providing comfort and wisdom to a synagogue full of frightened congregants.

He will be moving to “the next stage in my life—moving to a different spiritual stage in my life.” He will be translating a 17thCentury book “on death and dying” out of the mystical teachings of Judaism of the Kabbalah, writing a book on his spiritual encounters with God, and a history of “the anti-bias task force” activity in Suffolk County.

Rabbi Moss is an avid cyclist and on June 18 will embark on a 60-mile ride from the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland to Krakow, a center of Jewish life before the Holocaust. Also, he will visit Vilna in Poland where in the 19thCentury “my grandmother’s grandfather served as a rabbi.”

Raised in Belle Harbor in the Rockaways, he was “always interested in Jewish spirituality and religion.” Indeed, at his home synagogue, he recalled, he gave a sermon when he was 11. At 12, he wrote to the graduate school for rabbis and cantors, Hebrew Union College, asking for admittance to study to be a rabbi. He was advised that he needed to graduate college first. And he did, at NYU, and then when he arrived at Hebrew Union there was “an amazing thing at the interview—they had my letter.”

His involvement in social justice, he said, derives from “a rabbi’s role and the role of the Jewish community and Jewish people that we must be inclusive, that God is in every human being, that we are all equal before God. And everyone in the community, every person, has an equal role.”

His Temple B’nai Israel is a success story in Suffolk. “When I came in 1972, 50 families were members. Now there are 400.” A spiritual success story, too, is Rabbi Steven Moss.