Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.
BOSTON – Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger, spiritual leader of Congregation Kadima-Toras Moshe in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, steps down this week from the position he has held for the last 39 years.
A New York native ordained at Yeshiva University, Halbfinger, 70, initially came to Massachusetts for his first pulpit in North Adams, in the western part of the state. After sojourns in Quebec City and Lawrence, Mass., the rabbi in the mid-1960s brought his family to Brighton where they have been ever since.
“I like Massachusetts,” Halbfinger told The Jewish Advocate on Tuesday. “As the children got older, we decided we wanted to come to the big city. My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Soloveichik, was in the Boston area, and I wanted to be close to him.”
Once the Halbfingers settled in Brighton, it was not long before the rabbi became an important part of the synagogue, and in turn the synagogue became an important part of the community. Halbfinger noted that Kadima-Toras Moshe has been instrumental in causes ranging from Jewish education to affordable housing.
“Our synagogue has been a catalyst. A number of schools had their beginning in our shul,” he said. “Our synagogue was active in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry before it got big.”
“Our synagogue and our partners built the first ecumenical housing in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Along with four churches, we built the Charlesview Apartments, recognizing the tremendous need for housing for moderate income families.”
Housing and elder care have remained central issues for the community, and it is clear from listening to Halbfinger discuss those issues that they are passions of his as well.
Bringing communities together is also a recurrent theme in Halbfinger’s career. In his years at Kadima-Toras Moshe, he was instrumental in the growth of the congregation to its current size of nearly 200 families.
“We reach out to the community,” he said, “to the Russian community, the traditional Jewish community, all the residents in our area.”
Halbfinger looks back on the changes in his synagogue with pride. “Our shul has flourished a great deal in the last 15 years,” he said. “When I came, I was the youngest person; now I’m one of the oldest.”
Although Halbfinger will become rabbi emeritus at his synagogue, this is hardly the first retirement of his career, nor is it likely to be the last. For 30 years, Halbfinger served as a chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital, stepping down from that post three years ago.
For the foreseeable future, he plans to retain his position as executive director of the Vaad Harabonim (Rabbinical Council) of Massachusetts, where he participates in the Kashruth Commission and the Rabbinic Court.
“Since I have another position,” he said, “[my retirement] gives me the opportunity for more time with my family, and weekends free to travel. It’s an opening to another phase of endeavor.”
Halbfinger hints at what this next phase of his career may entail. “I’m trying to develop a new people-to-people program,” he said. “I want to create better relationships with people, which has always been a rabbi’s job, but this will be more formalized.”
Halbfinger also looks to expanding the role of the Vaad Harabonim. “We’d like to expand the Bet Din [Rabbinic Court], reaching out to more people, more communities. We now service mostly Massachusetts, but we’ll try to service all of New England.”