Rabbi Sanford Olshansky
Rabbi Sanford (Sandy) Olshansky is the product of a dysfunctional Jewish background. His European-born, Yiddish-speaking parents, z”l, were both raised in Orthodox homes. The Judaism of his mother’s family was joyous and loving and she embraced it. The Judaism of his father’s family was dogmatic and heavy-handed. Sandy’s father, uncle and aunts all rebelled. Sandy’s father used to complain that if his mother educated him too much about Judaism he might want to become a rabbi!
Sandy grew up in Detroit, MI, and attended Conservative afternoon religious schools through 11th grade. He attended Hebrew speaking camps, participated in the National Bible Contest and was active in a synagogue youth group. However, due to his parents’ opposing attitudes about Judaism, Sandy grew up conflicted – loving Torah and Jewish traditions but eating trayfe and working on Shabbat in a retail electronics store.
Sandy studied physics at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio, where he joined a Jewish fraternity, SAM. There he met and fell in love with Marilyn Landau, the lab partner of some of his pledge brothers. They married right out of college and have been together for 39 years. Sandy and Marilyn began married life in Detroit, where he rejoined the electronics chain that he worked for as a teenager, rising to Vice President of Marketing, while earning an MBA at the University of Detroit.
Although he attended occasional Hillel services with Marilyn, Sandy drifted away from Judaism in college. One winter Marilyn handed him a copy of The Source, by James Michener, and insisted that he read it. From Michener’s vivid depiction of Jewish history, Sandy became enthralled with the miracle of Jewish survival, which is the basis of his religious belief to this day. He and Marilyn joined Detroit’s leading Conservative synagogue, Shaarey Zedek and began attending Shabbat morning services.
In 1979, Sandy and Marilyn moved to Baltimore, where he worked for a publicly-owned electronics manufacturer and they joined Conservative synagogue Chizuk Amuno. The best thing that happened to them in Baltimore was the birth of their son, Elliot. Upon moving to Long Island, in 1984, they enrolled Elliot in preschool at a Reform temple, North Shore Synagogue, and discovered that its rabbi, Daniel Fogel, was the son of one of Sandy’s father’s business contacts in Detroit. They joined North Shore, where Sandy became a trustee and chairman of the religious school committee.
In 2000, after moving to Westchester County, Sandy and Marilyn joined Pleasantville Community Synagogue (PCS), a highly participatory, independent congregation that had grown from a neighborhood association. Its charismatic rabbi, Mark Sameth, had been a song writer/arranger until age 40. At PCS, Sandy became a regular Torah and haftarah reader, gabbai and bar/bat mitzvah coach and began writing original haftarah introductions. He found growing fulfillment in his increasing involvement in ritual.
One Shabbat morning, in 2007, Sandy asked Rabbi Sameth about following in his footsteps as a “second career” rabbi. Rabbi Sameth referred him immediately to AJR. Since 2008, Sandy has served as rabbinic intern to Rabbi Kenneth Emert at independent Temple Beth Rishon, in Wyckoff, NJ, leading services, preaching frequently and teaching adult Bible study. He has also served as director of the temple’s Hebrew School since 2009. Rabbi Emert has been a wonderful mentor.
Sandy’s main motivation for becoming a rabbi is his concern about the lack of Jewish engagement on the part of many American Jews. He would like to show some of today’s Jewish parents, many of whom were alienated from Judaism by their childhood experiences, how our faith and traditions can be a beautiful and meaningful part of their lives. Moreover, he would like to help inspire the next generation of Jews to be more engaged with Judaism and to find more meaning in it than their parents have.