SOMERS, N.Y. - Fred Schwalb, born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, always thought he would like to be a rabbi. At the University of Wisconsin he majored in history and studied Semitic Languages - Hebrew and Aramaic. Like so many other people, he got sidetracked and ended up as head of the Carpet and Office Furniture Export Division of Burlington Industries.
His job involved a great deal of world-wide travel, especially to the Middle East.
I loved it, he said. It is much more interesting traveling on business than traveling as a tourist. You get to see what the society is really like.
Along the way, he married and raised a family. In 1986 he got an offer he could not refuse - from his father-in-law - and switched to commercial real estate. He is still involved in the business and they own and operate several shopping centers in Westchester.
But the sacred calling remained with him, so at the age of 51 he reorganized his life and began a six-year commitment as a commuting student to a rabbinical college near Philadelphia.
There are various strands of Judaism, Schwalb explained.
He chose Reconstructionist Judaism. There are only about 200 Reconstructionist congregations in the world. It is an offshoot from the Conservative and sees Judaism as an evolving civilization, a 4,000-year-old conversation. The emphasis is on communal discussion and decision.
He came upon the discipline in his youth through a visiting friend who told him about "an interesting congregation in Manhattan" and took him along to check it out.
When the Hebrew Congregation of Somers, one of the approximate 100 Reconstructionist congregations in North America, was searching for a new rabbi, they found Schwalb almost by sheer luck. He was still a student, but lived nearby in Croton-on-Hudson.
The Somers congregation now consists of 90 families. The number has doubled since Schwalb started. There are a large number of intermarried couples.
Every year we build a sort of booth for the Feast of Sukkot, also known as the Feast of the Tabernacles. Jewish men are not noted to be the handiest around the house and they always took forever to build that booth. One year I said, I want all the Christian men to do it.' They had it up in less than an hour.
High Holiday Services for the year 5772/2011 begin on Saturday at 6:15 p.m. See the HCS website for details.
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.