The Rockin' Rabbi
Meet Rabbi Leonard Garner, GSJS ‘15
When Rabbi Leonard Garner retired after a four-decade-long career in healthcare as a Medicaid specialist, he decided that what he really wanted to do was study Jewish history.
"It was always on my bucket list,” said the Staten-Island native.
So, the next month, he enrolled in the Graduate School of Jewish Studies (GSJS) to receive his master’s in Jewish Studies. His major concentration? Jewish religious movements in Poland in the 18th century, specifically the evolution of the Hasidim and Misnagdim.
He had become interested in the history of Hasidim quite a number of years ago, thanks to famed Jewish musician R’ Shlomo Carlebach.
“Reb Shlomo’s teachings opened up a whole new world to me. Now, whenever I study parsha, Hasidus opens my eyes to the inner depths of the Chumash, the Torah. That’s how I became observant, actually,” says Rabbi Garner—who also studied in Sh’or Yashuv Yeshiva for several years and ended up receiving smicha from Reb Shlomo.
In addition to earning his degree in Jewish Studies to fulfill his “own personal satisfaction and enrichment,” Rabbi Garner also wanted the master’s so he could use it as a tool for more effective kiruv. As someone who’s been informally active in community outreach since the 90s (he’s active in the Hillel at the College of Staten Island; he teaches weekly Jewish classes for retirees at his local JCC; and for the past fifteen years, he and his wife have been hosting a weekly Sunday morning radio show called “The Rockin’ Rabbi” on WSIA.FM, where he plays Jewish music and gives over divrei Torah), Rabbi Garner wanted to “study Jewish history so I could someday teach it.”
“They’re intertwined, Jewish religion and history, which is why I saw the degree as a great vehicle for outreach…Connect people with their past, and while doing so, you can then reach them on different levels, like Torah and Mitzvot.”
Currently, Rabbi Garner is happy teaching several Jewish history classes at the JCC every week. (“I guess you can say that I pretty much cover a whole gamut of ages, when it comes to kiruv—from eighteen-year-old college kids to retirees at the JCC!”) As to his future plans, he says he may like to work as an adjunct professor in Jewish history on a college campus somewhere down the road.
“The future is open to me," he says.