If life can be thought of as a series of journeys, then one is about to end and another is about to begin for Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski. After more than 12 years at the Elmont Jewish Center, Ozarowksi will be leaving Elmont to accept a position in Chicago.
Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski holds up his book To Walk in God's Ways.
Ozarowski, who will be leaving for Chicago on Feb. 8, called his departure bittersweet. "We're excited about the new professional possibility. We're pleased at being closer to our parents who live in the Midwest. But we've established some wonderful and lasting relationships in Elmont," he said. "There are just such wonderful people in Elmont and we love them dearly. I'm going to miss them."
Although Rabbi Ozarowski will be leaving the relationships he forged in Elmont, he could not turn down the offer he received to be executive director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and administrator of their rabbinical court. "It's an excellent opportunity in many ways," he said.
Before Rabbi Ozarowski left, however, members the Elmont Jewish Center honored him with a celebration that triggered a multitude of memories from the last 12 1/2 years of his life. "As the evening wore on, it hit me. This is what I've always wanted to do with my life. I never wanted to do anything else. I wanted to be a rabbi and touch people's lives, spread the Torah and bring people close to God and Judaism. God gave me the opportunity to do it in Elmont for 12 1/2 years and I'm grateful to have had such a very loving and supportive congregation," he said.
Ozarowski remembers growing up in a traditional family, although his family was not Orthodox. His father was a Holocaust survivor and his mother had escaped the ordeal. Although he went to a Jewish day school, his family members were not Sabbath observers. As a teenager, Ozarowski became an observant and a desire to share the religion with others started to burn. "My journey has brought me in many directions, but I haven't deviated from that general path since my teenage years," he said. "I think the Torah has something to say to us as Jews living in the Western World. I think the Torah has something to say to life in the Western World and tried to be the conduit or messenger for that message."
During his tenure in Elmont, Rabbi Ozarowski has witnessed the demographics of the area change in a way that affected the Elmont Jewish Center. As the community has evolved and developed, Ozarowski has seen the Jewish community diminish. "The Jewish presence in Elmont is not what it was when I came here," he said. "The demographics of Elmont have changed a lot. Both synagogues of Elmont are smaller than they used to be. Elmont could not afford to pay me full-time the last couple of years. The numbers went down and the money went down and I had to feed my family."
A year and a half ago, Rabbi Ozarowski's journey took another turn when he joined New York University Hospital as a full-time chaplain. In this capacity, Ozarowski once again took on a challenge he found to be very fulfilling. "I touch people's lives in a different sort of way," he said.
His position at NYU seemed a natural fit for Rabbi Ozarowski, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on pastoral perspectives on illness and bereavement. The dissertation is now a book entitled To Walk in God's Ways: Jewish Pastoral Perspectives on Illness and Bereavement, which has become a noted study on the topic. The position at NYU allowed him to put into effect a lot of which he had written about and comfort many in their time of need.
With his work at NYU during the week, the aspect of his work Rabbi Ozarowski has missed the most is teaching. Ozarowski always tried his best to teach religion in an interesting way. A fan of the television show Star Trek, Ozarowski once gave a seminar that related Judaism to Star Trek. "I tried to be innovative. I tried to make the Torah interesting and exciting. I would borrow from pop culture and whatever I could relate to in my people's own lives," he said.
Throughout his time in Elmont, Rabbi Ozarowski has enjoyed teaching and seeing members of the congregation grow, develop and deepen their loyalty and observance of the Jewish religion. He also found great satisfaction in being able to help people and comforting them as well as maintaining personal relationships.
For Rabbi Ozarowski, his journey through Elmont is about at its end. "It's a journey because the synagogue has deepened its relationships in traditional Judaism over the years. But, at the same time, demographics have forced certain realities upon us as the synagogue and [Jewish] community has shrunk in population. It's not just true of Elmont. It's true of a lot of Western Nassau communities. I think communities have lives the way people have lives," he said. "There still a core of people in our synagogue who are committed and they're not going anywhere."
The chance to shape and guide a major community in Chicago was too tempting. But Ozarowski will bring with him the experiences he has gained in Elmont. "I'm going to using every skill I have accumulated over the years, every experience that I've had. I will be using it in the service of the Chicago Rabinnical Council," he said.
Although Rabbi Ozarowski may be moving, he is not saying goodbye forever to those he grew close to in Elmont. The community will always be known to him as the place he raised four children and where his faith continued to grow.