I have spent all but four years of my fifty as a rabbi of Temple Israel in Memphis.
I met my wife, Jeanne, fifty years ago at Temple Israel. Our three sons grew up in Memphis and became b’nai mitzvah at Temple Israel. Our granddaughters became b’not mitzvah there, and a grandson is to become bar mitzvah there next Sukkot. My whole life turned on coming to Memphis in1964.
In the spring of 1959, I had finished two years of pre-rabbinic classes at HUC and the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Samuel Sandmel z”l called me in and suggested that I could start the rabbinic program the next fall a year early. As a result, in 1964, I was ordained a year ahead of schedule. Rabbi James Wax z”l and Temple Israel of Memphis needed an assistant rabbi. In that summer of racial turmoil in the South including the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, I came to the South.
Welcome to the rest of my life!!
I have been blessed beyond any dreams with my rabbinate. At Temple Israel, I had the challenge and the privilege of orchestrating our transition from a great and historic Classical Reform congregation of the old school to a proud and historic congregation in the mainstream of Reform Judaism. Because I was blessed with a receptive and trusting congregation, the stresses and conflicts that so often accompany that transition were minimal for us.
Thirty years ago, I gave a sermon calling on people to cook for, to drive for, to visit, and to care for other members in time of crisis. I called it God’s Unfinished Business, a reference to our not knowing why bad things happen, focusing instead on what is demanded of us. Hundreds of volunteers have continued that program of gemilut chasadim member to member for three decades. That is one of the proudest achievements of my rabbinate, precisely because it has become part of the lives of so many laypersons as both volunteers and beneficiaries.
My goal for a temple staff was always this: When one of us does well, everyone scheps nachas. For the most part, that has been true with the talented clergy and staff I have worked with. That neshama at Temple Israel was shared by our lay leadership: never adversaries, they have always been true and real partners and friends in the years of my rabbinate and beyond.
Most of my rabbinate was spent in a very large congregation. I am grateful that, nonetheless, I could be “someone’s rabbi.” I could not be what my father z”l was called at his funeral, “a member ex-officio of every family in the community,” but some of my greatest rabbinic moments were being included as a member of a family whether sitting with a couple discussing their coming marriage or sharing with the bereaved after they had suffered a loss.
Not only did the people of Temple Israel welcome me fifty years ago; so, too, did a whole region of Southern Jewry, because Temple Israel is a hub for many small Jewish communities in the South. A highlight of my rabbinate was serving as a long-time rabbinic advisor of SoFTY (now NFTY Southern) and being part of the very beginnings of the Henry S. Jacobs Camp where Jeanne and I still spend an occasional summer week on staff. Our grandchildren, now third generation campers, have joined the many for whom HSJ has been a second Jewish home for over forty years. Since I retired in 2000, I have had the special opportunity to serve Congregation Adath Israel in Cleveland MS monthly and for the yamim noraim. The community there, Jewish and beyond, has become part and parcel of Jeanne’s and my life.
My opportunities to serve our Conference, our movement and my colleagues have been many and wonderfully gratifying. Even in the work of our Ethics Committee or the Commission on Rabbinic-Congregational Relations where we encounter some of the difficult times for rabbis, I found satisfaction in the lay persons who support and work with us, as well as the great mass of colleagues who are overwhelmingly dedicated to our mission. Of course, the honor of being president of the CCAR is a highlight of my rabbinic years, and I prize that honor even as it carried burdens and responsibilities I did not always anticipate.
In my community, I have had the opportunity to teach Judaism for twenty-five years at Rhodes College, to chair the local NCCJ, and to chair the board of Family Service as well as that of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, the largest single social service agency in West Tennessee. I have had the chance to share with able and dedicated clergy from all faiths, going back even to the Sanitation Strike of 1968 which led to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To be a rabbi in Memphis in that April and since carries its own sadness but its own mandate and mission.
Finally, the best thing that happened to me in my rabbinate was showing up for work one day in the summer of 1964, hearing a typewriter hesitatingly clicking in an office that should have been empty, and finding a lifelong love in Jeanne. In these fifty years, we have been joined by three sons, Jeffrey, David and Michael; their three wives, Rona, Shara and, most recently, Lindsey; and three grandchildren, Caroline, Madeline and Nathaniel.
I can only wish for our children and grandchildren and for all my colleagues what I feel at this anniversary. As is said of Abraham, I can say, “Va’Adonai beirach et-Tzvi bakol – Adonai has blessed me in every way.”