About Shammai

There are at least two good reasons why some people travel from the other end of Bergen County to spend Shabbat at Temple Israel Community Center, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in Cliffside Park, NJ:

Because Shammai Engelmayer is its rabbi, and because of the ruach (spirit) he creates.

For a traditional rabbi (he is 100% the product of the yeshivah world), Shammai is about as untraditional as they come (who else would try to create the world’s first Conservative egalitarian chasidishe shtiebel?). He is down-to-earth and accessible, and actually believes other people know more about certain subjects than he does.

That is certainly the approach he takes to Torah study, which is why our group has been studying together, week in and week out, for nearly ten years.

What makes Shammai so different and so open is due, in part, to who he is.

Shammai Engelmayer wears several hats. He is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center; he writes an award-winning column for the local Jewish weekly newspaper The Jewish Standard, in which he discusses current issues through the prism of Jewish law; he is a popular adult Jewish education teacher in New Jersey’s Bergen and Passaic counties; and he is the newly appointed editor of Judaism: A quarterly journal of Jewish life and thought.

Although Shammai was ordained in 1967, he chose not to assume a pulpit or go into teaching. Instead, he became a journalist and, almost as quickly, an editor with a major supplementary news service, the North American Newspaper Alliance, at the time a division of the Bell-McClure Syndicate. He was 23 at the time. At age 24, he was handed a concurrent assignment, becoming the first editor of the late Jack Anderson’s Washington Merry-Go-Round column. In 1970, at 25, he became the youngest syndicate editor in history to that time when he took over as editor of NANA, a position he held for the next decade alongside his Washington Merry-Go-Round responsibilities. For most of that time, NANA and the Washington Merry-Go-Round column were services of United Feature Syndicate, which had bought out the old Bell-McClure.

During this time, Shammai played a role in Anderson’s winning of the Pulitzer Prize and was himself nominated three times for the award. In 1975, he won the Washington Journalism Center’s Thomas L. Stokes Award for National Reporting.

The mid-1980s found Shammai as executive editor of the New York weekly newspaper The Jewish Week. Here, too, he garnered awards for his work, and continues to do so as a columnist for the Jewish Standard.

For a while after the Jewish Week, Shammai was the communications director for the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. It was while at the Seminary that he began teaching adult Jewish education courses, which eventually led him to the pulpit.

Shammai is the author of eight books, most on secular topics, and is working on two more at the moment.

He has three children and 10 grandchildren.

Shammai and his wife, the journalist Marilyn Henry, live in Teaneck, New Jersey.