Congregation Beth El is a living legacy to its rabbi of 35 years, Jehiel Orenstein, z’l, who passed away in 2013. This is evident from Rabbi Orenstein’s own words: “My goal in becoming spiritual leader of Beth El was to create a large, loving family, Jewishly-knowledgeable, and dedicated to actively pursuing mitzvot.”
That Beth El continues to practice what Rabbi Orenstein preached is just one testament to his deeply-influential life. He reached out beyond the synagogue to build friendships with clergy of other faiths, co-founding the annual South Orange Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance, and serving as president of the Maplewood-South Orange Clergy Association and chaplain of the New Jersey State Police. Rabbi Orenstein was also president of the Rabbinical Assembly of New Jersey.
He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1961 and received the Lawrence Prager award for outstanding scholarship in medieval Hebrew literature. The Seminary awarded Rabbi Orenstein a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1987. After 3-1/2 decades at Beth El’s pulpit, in 2005 Jehiel Orenstein became Rabbi Emeritus of Beth El.
Congregants had deep admiration for Rabbi Orenstein’s wisdom, wit and humility. From the Rabbi’s remembrances, it’s clear the respect was mutual: “Looking back, I realize that I had the rare privilege of teaching Torah in a congregation that practiced regular acts of loving-kindness. I really felt a bit guilty for being paid for work that I would have chosen to do for the sheer joy of it.”