Parashat Chukat D’var Torah

Parashat Chukat D’var Torah

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler

June 22-23, 2018/10 Tammuz 5778 

According to the traditional interpretation of this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Chukat, between the last word of chapter 19 and the first word of chapter 20, thirty eight years transpire when the Israelites tarried in the wilderness waiting for the old generation to pass and a new generation to arise who would possess the faith in God to enter the Promised Land. Thirty eight years amount to a blank space in the Torah, thirty eight years so utterly wasted that the Torah offers not account of them.

With this Shabbat my next to last Shabbat as Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi, concluding my thirty-eight years serving the congregation, Parashat Chukat’s thirty eight year blank-space no-account in Torah opened my eyes wide.  I cannot conclude my thirty eight years without making account for them in the annals of Temple Emanuel.

Thus I sat down and thought back through the years to recall, at least to the best of my memory, various religious services, programs and events.  Some I masterminded.  Some I helped facilitate.  Some I leave for Rabbi Locketz to claim such as Torah Growers and Visual T’fila, even if I coined the name of the former and had long advocated the implementation of video screens in our prayer spaces to enhance religious services; Rabbi Locketz indeed implemented them.  All were in coordination with professional staff, lay leaders and Temple committees, and various constituencies of Temple members.  For when and where you helped me or I helped you, or you benefited in some way, I thank you.

So, off the top of my head, without combing through all my files of committee meetings, Board minutes, lesson plans, teaching materials, personal calendars and message logs over the last thirty eight years….

Worship

  • A new Torah for Temple (see Teaching below)
  • Transition from performance style services to participatory services, especially with music and singing
  • Shabbat service every Shabbat morning in addition to every Shabbat evening
  • Menu of Shabbat evening services to suit various tastes in services and allow for creativity in Shabbat programs
  • Yizkor service on Shavuot morning when Confirmation is Shavuot evening
  • Leil Tikkun Shavuot when Confirmation is Shavuot morning*
  • Torah for Tots monthly services and programs*
  • Monthly Home Havdalah hosted by the Mahlers*
  • Sunday Morning Minyan
  • Tashlich on Rosh HaShana afternoon
  • Kabbalat Shabbat services, starting at an earlier time, originally 6 pm, now 6:30 pm. When I arrived in 1980, Shabbat services started at 8:30 pm
  • Monthly Family Shabbat service with Torah Center students participating in the service, preceded by Shabbat LaMishpacha Dinners for individual grades and then the congregation at large*
  • Special music Shabbats highlighted by Kol Emanuel, Music with the Mahlers and Diskin Music Fund programs
  • Zamarim Choir to enhance Shabbat services*
  • Lamed Vav-niks; 36 Temple members chosen to participate in regularly in Shabbat services and then to assess what the experience has meant to them
  • College Homecoming Shabbat services*
  • Kabbalah, Meditation, Chanting
  • Cancelled our own Shabbat service on April 28, 2000 so that we could attend at Beth El Congregation which had been attacked by Richard Baumhammers earlier that day
  • Impromptu Jewish community-wide service September 11, 2001. Attendance was so large that we opened the Sanctuary’s folding doors, set up additional seating in the Social Hall foyer; many people had to share a prayer book because we didn’t have enough for all in attendance
  • Flight 93 Memorial service in Shanksville, Chanukah 2001
  • Memorial and Healing Service for Jewish volunteers working to identify the remains of those who perished in the crash of USAir Flight 427, 2004

 

Teaching

  • A new Torah for Temple (see Worship above)
  • Torah Study every Shabbat morning preceding services
  • Torah and Tangents, weekly reading and discussing every word of the Torah, starting in 1985 and concluding in 2011
  • T’hillim and Tangents following Torah and Tangents, concluding in 2017
  • Monthly Downtown Lunch & Learn
  • “Midrash in the Morning”*
  • Renaming Temple’s religious school “Torah Center”
  • Family Days for Religious School families on Sundays and Shabbats
  • “Judaism for Gentiles and Inquiring Others”
  • “Life’s Long Journey: From Conception to Resurrection” What Judaism teaches about life’s many stages
  • “Jesus the Jew”
  • “The Napoleonic Sanhedrin and the Emergence of Modern Judaism”
  • Jewish Parenting Programs and programs on the spiritual development of children, along with Alice
  • “Talmud Torah Teaching Shabbats”; the “how to” of praying
  • “4,000 Years of Jewish History in 8 Hours”
  • Dor-Ways special leadership development sessions for selected members of the congregation
  • Promoted and hosted Melton Programs; at one point Temple had more members who had completed Melton than any two synagogues together in greater Pittsburgh
  • Special adult education programs featuring Dr. Ron Bronner, Rabbi Danny Schiff and various speakers and educators
  • Introduction to Judaism, History classes, the course team taught by Pittsburgh area Reform clergy
  • Taste of Judaism
  • Monthly Lunch and Lectures*
  • Member of National Association of Temple Educators and Coalition for Alternatives (now Advancements) in Jewish Education during my tenure as Temple Educator
  • Conducted National Association of Temple Administrators’ certification course when NATA convened here in Pittsburgh
  • 38 years of Temple Bulletin articles
  • 38 years of sermons, Divrei Torah and High Holy Day sermon anthologies
  • 38 years of teaching our Confirmation students
  • 38 years of helping to train our B’nei Mitzvah students
  • 38 years of teaching Torah at every Bar and Bat Mitzvah

 

Interfaith

  • Created Temple’s Interfaith Outreach program in the 1980s, the first in Greater Pittsburgh which served as the prototype for other Reform congregations*
  • Interfaith Dialogues; many over the years, currently hosted at Westminster Church
  • Speaker at area churches: Mt. Lebanon United Methodist, Southminster, Westminster, Christ United Methodist among many others
  • Sustaining SHIM’s prominence at Temple and in the community, including participating on the Holocaust Observance planning committee and the Interfaith Thanksgiving service and promoting important SHIM activities such as their food bank and garden.
  • Jewish Chautauqua Society adjunct professor teaching Judaism in the Theology Department at Duquesne University, 1986-1990
  • Teaching at Seton Lasalle High School, 2006-2016
  • Hosting church groups at Temple, highlighted by St. Louise De Marillac sending their 6th graders here for annual visits starting in the 1980s
  • Conducting model Passover Seders for students at various church schools, highlighted by St. Anne’s
  • Clair Hospital Annual Memorial Service
  • University of Pittsburgh Medical School Annual Memorial service
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Day keynote speaker at Trinity Cathedral for the National Conference of Christians and Jews
  • Joint programing and pulpit exchange with the Ebenezer Baptist Church

 

Funds and Programs

  • The Sajowitz Endowment Fund underwriting Temple programs, NFTY and Israel scholarships
  • The Louise “Sissie” Sperling Fund subventing Temple’s operating expenses
  • Diskin Music Fund to create and enhance various music programs
  • Ettenson Annual gifts and bequests to Temple
  • Larry and Brenda Miller Caring Community Fund to assist in the good efforts of the Caring Community
  • Temple Cemetery Fund to maintain and beautify our cemetery
  • Shelly Cohen Memorial Classroom Fund to maintain our ECDC classrooms
  • Margarie Weiner Fund to support Temple’s youth programs
  • Cohn Scholarship Fund for outstanding Temple high school graduates
  • Zolot Fund providing scholarships to adults for Temple Israel Missions
  • Jacob’s Ladder Fund to support programs for healing and well being*
  • Mark Levin Memorial Scholarship Fund for Torah Center students

 

Social Action/Tikkun Olam

  • Recruited an entire busload of Temple members to demonstrate on behalf of Soviet Jewry on the Mall in Washington DC, Freedom Sunday 1987
  • Organized Temple members to serve as hosts and sponsors for Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union coming to Pittsburgh under the Passage to Freedom program
  • Mitzvah Day; 500 Temple members participated in the first Mitzvah Day in 1997 until…
  • Mitzvot Days became the subsequent and more accurate name, but participation flagged until they were dropped from Temple’s calendar*
  • On-going pipeline for SHIM activities such as food and clothing drives
  • Family Promise participants in aiding the homeless in the South Hills
  • Organized city-wide Mission to Washington following 9/11 to advocate for Israel, then the largest such Jewish Mission to DC in history; sessions with elected representatives and State Department officials
  • Organized a Temple Mission to Washington conducted by the Religious Action Center, 2012
  • Established lines of communication with the superintendents of area public school systems, both proactively and reactively, to help remediate various issues that arose
  • Cheerleading our self-motivated and dynamic Social Action Team to pursue activities ranging from crocheting caps for Cancer patients to participating in rallies and demonstrations for Tikkun Olam causes

 

Israel/Tikkun Olam

  • Organized six Temple Emanuel Missions to Israel, and guided upwards of 100 people around the places I know so well and love so much
  • Co-led a unique Jewish, Christian and Muslim interfaith Mission to Israel, 1996
  • Participated in a Union for Reform Judaism Mission to Israel, 2001
  • Participated in a Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to Israel, 2006
  • A strong voice of Israel advocacy, a sober voice of Israel criticism

 

Healing and Well Being/Tikkun Olam

  • Caring Community to respond to our members in life’s varied experiences
  • Crisis counseling coordinated by Alice after community tragedies and traumas
  • Jacob’s Ladder programs focusing on various special needs
  • Monthly Bereavement group
  • Monthly services of healing*
  • Including the Mi Sheberach prayer of healing to Shabbat evening services and the Sunday Morning Minyan
  • Torah Yoga and Hatha Yoga

 

T’fila Transitions

  • From the original Gates of Prayer to the revised (gender neutral) GOP
  • To Mishkan T’filah, including the wise decision to buy the two volume edition, separate Shabbat and Weekday/Festival prayer books, rather than the one volume edition
  • From Gates of Repentance to Mishkan HaNefesh, the first Reform synagogue in Greater Pittsburgh to adopt it for the entire congregation

 

Life Cycles

  • Hundreds of baby namings and Brit Milah
  • 300 weddings
  • 1200 b’nei mitzvah
  • 700 Confirmands
  • 950 Funerals
  • Countless tears
  • Innumerable smiles

 

Physical Plant Expansion, Improvement, Maintenance and/or Beautification

  • 1991 expansion of Temple adding bath rooms, elevator and access ramps making Temple fully ADA compliant, even though we were not required
  • 2001-2002 major expansion of Temple to alleviate “Temple moments” with the building bursting at the seams; 13,000 square feet added to the building including the Beit HaT’fila, Pollon Family Library, community room and an entire new wing with classrooms, youth lounge and WRJ Room.
  • Cooper Gardens
  • Mahler Garden
  • Holocaust Memorial Garden created by Marga Randall
  • Soodik Walkway
  • New Torah covers in the Sanctuary and Beit HaT’fila
  • Tree of Life/Paradise woodcut in the Sanctuary Ark

 

Technology

  • Introduced the first computer to Temple, and Apple ii+, part of my studies in the MSIS program at the University of Pittsburgh; the rest as they say has been a veritable explosion of information technology here at Temple
  • Shabbat Shel Home dial up access to religious services, innovative in its day
  • The Temple Bulletin had been mimeographed for years before I arrived
  • Transitioning our b’nei mitzvah recordings from cassette tapes to MP3s.
  • Video cameras in the Sanctuary and Beit HaT’fila for recording our b’nei mitzvah services
  • Overseeing the installation of sound system for the Beit HaT’fila and a new sound system for the Sanctuary
  • When will we start streaming our services?

 

Special Events or Celebrations

  • Temple’s Double Chai 36th Anniversary
  • Temple’s 50th anniversary year featuring Temple’s “Alumni Rabbis” Harold Silver, Jon Stein and Jim Bleiberg
  • Israel’s 50th anniversary when we turned the Social Hall into Jerusalem’s Old City where we ate a Middle Eastern Shabbat dinner in our “Shuk” and then celebrated Shabbat and Israel Independence Day at our “Kotel” constructed, painted and decorated by Temple members to look amazingly like the actual Kotel

 

Fundraising and Financial

  • Capital Campaign 1991-1992, solicited and secured lead gifts
  • Capital Campaign 2001-2002, solicited and secured lead gifts
  • Capital Campaign 2013-2017, solicited and secured lead gifts

 

Temple Long Range Planning Committees

  • Joshua Mission I, 1998-2000
  • Joshua Mission II, 2007-2008

 

Community

  • Secured a $1 million contribution to the Jewish Federation
  • Secured a $25,000 contribution to SHIM
  • Served on the Jewish Federation’s 1984 Demographic Survey committee
  • Served on the search committee for the Educator to lead the Agency for Jewish Learning
  • Jewish Family and Children’s Service Board member
  • United Mental Health Board member

 

Rabbinic Organizations

  • Founder of the Greater Pittsburgh Reform Rabbis’ group, 1986
  • Chair of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Fellowship, 1986-87
  • Resolutions Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis
  • Israel Committee of the CCAR
  • Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America

 

Special Endeavors

  • Journal of Judaism; publication of Temple members’ various expressions of how they have lived as Jews and what Judaism means to them.
  • Cheshbon HaNefesh, “Surveys of the Soul” to gather information about Temple member’s Jewish knowledge, beliefs and observances; a treasure trove of who and what we are*
  • Emanuelites to integrate new, young Temple members into Temple life*
  • Made a photographic log of Temple’s 2001-2002 construction and expansion project

There’s likely more, but I just can’t quite recall all of them.  Time to retire!

 

* Examples of something we instituted but ultimately fell by the wayside, whatever the reasons may have been

 

 

 

 

Summer, Shabbat, S’mores and More!

Last Shabbat we gathered in Bird Park for a “welcome to summer” picnic and service. It was a beautiful evening in a beautiful place, surrounded by friends of all ages. For many of us, it was truly the start of summer break – a perfect way to begin the ‘lazy days of summer.’ Running through the park, sharing a meal, talking to each other as the the evening cooled and the busyness of the week faded… Shabbat, and the sense of calm that it brings descended as we prayed together – led in worship by Rabbi Mahler, Rabbi Locketz and Rebecca Schwartz. We were inspired through singing songs and sharing the spirit of Shabbat with each other. Thank you to Rebecca for a powerful message about the work that needs to be done within a community; and for reminding us that we should all be proud of our contributions to it.

After the service, it was time for s’mores….what could be better than that?!?!?!

 

Join us for our next Service in Bird Park on Friday, September 7th. We will once again come together for a picnic dinner at 5:45 pm followed by a brief Shabbat service at 6:30 pm. And of course there will be S’mores….yum!

Mark your calendars; be sure not to miss it!

Focus group and survey results

The SRSC would like to thank everyone that attended a focus group and/or completed the survey for your input. In all, there were 212 congregants that responded to the survey and over 100 congregants participated in neighborhood focus groups. The information gathered from this survey is consistent with the thoughts shared at the neighborhood focus group meetings.

The following presentation summarizes some of what we have learned from this survey, including primary goals for Temple, top five qualities desired for our next Rabbi, and other pertinent information related to our search for the next settled Rabbi. It can be viewed online at: SRSC Survey Presentation.

We appreciate everyone’s input.  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the committee at rabbisearch@templeemanuelpgh.org.

Remarks at Retirement Gala

Remarks at Retirement Gala

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler

June 3, 2018/20 Sivan 5778

            Before I offer my prepared remarks I must note that I had hoped to have the opportunity to express my gratitude personally and directly to everyone who has come this evening.  Try as I may, I managed to do so with only perhaps half of you.  To the other half, please accept my regret but more important please accept my gratitude that you have come this evening.

            How well I remember that Dr. Solomon Freehof described the rabbinate as a “happy profession.”

            For weeks after I sent the letter announcing my retirement to the congregation, my mind wandered back and back again to when I first  decided to become a rabbi.  Every remembrance was a happy remembrance about a happy decision.  I also recalled how happy I was when I was accepted to rabbinic school.  I trust that my all of my clergy colleagues here this evening felt the same elation when they were accepted to seminary, as we all felt elation greater still when we were ordained.

            Tomorrow, I will mark the fortieth anniversary of my ordination, so this evening I have the perfect vantage to confirm the accuracy of Dr. Freehof’s description.

            Temple members should remember that I’ve been pondering such a notion for the past forty-five years, ever since I dreamed a dream in Jerusalem shortly after I arrived for my first year of rabbinic school in the summer of 1973. The dream ended with me an old man getting ready to go to festivities at my synagogue on the occasion of my retirement. In the dream, my mood is pensive and kvetchy, but with me are three sons sitting in my bedroom, joking with me and lifting my spirits.  Of course when I had this dream in 1973, I had no sons nor daughters, but I did have Alice.

            While getting ready to come here this evening, I asked my sons Ari and Moshe and my future son by marriage Ed to sit down on my bed and pose for photographs. I then asked my daughters, Shani and Shira and my daughter by marriage Lacey to join them for more photographs. Here I must add that I love the expression, “son or daughter by marriage,” an expression I learned from Rabbi Bill Sajowitz, of blessed memory, especially here at Temple Emanuel.  Alice and my sister Jackie then joined in the photographs.  Altogether it was a happy prelude to this evening’s Gala.

            Temple members may also remember that this dream began at a party in Weehawken, New Jersey, hosted by a Genie who said to me, “Mark, you will have everything you want in life.”  Such an extravagant promise stunned me.  “Everything?” I asked.  “Everything,” the Genie replied.  He then dipped a cup in a punch bowl, handed it to me and said, “Drink this.”  I drank.  Suddenly I was that old man in his bedroom getting ready for festivities in honor of his retirement, pensive and kvetchy, with three sons sitting on his bed, lifting his spirits.

            When I awoke that morning in Jerusalem, the dream perplexed me.  If indeed I would have everything I wanted, why was I pensive and kvetchy at the end of the dream?

            The Talmud teaches that just as there is no wheat without chaff, so too there is no dream without nonsense.  This evening, I believe that I can separate the wheat from the chaff of this dream.

            First, I am not nearly as old in reality as this dream portended.  Indeed, one of the great blessings of my forty years in the rabbinate has been my remarkable good health.  Thank God.  In this regard, Dr. Freehof was right.  Yet perhaps the Genie was also right that a long life awaits me.

            Second, forty-five years after dreaming this dream, I’ve realized so much of what the dream foretold, and more.  A beautiful wife, with beautiful children – daughters as well as sons – with grandchildren the cherry on top.  And more.  Thirty-eight years at a congregation I was proud and honored to serve.  Good friends and respected colleagues here and across the community.  And much more….

            The God of our people, who is ever-present, under the Chupa with bride and groom, manifest in the mutual endeavors of professional staff and lay leaders, in the naches we all shared in Temple’s amazing children, and in the comfort we found when many of you and I walked together through the valley of the shadow of death.  The imminent God, the shepherd God, happily proves Dr. Freehof and the Genie right. And still more….

            The God heaven and earth, the transcendent God, the indescribably awesome God, now proves the wisdom of Rabbi Ely Pilchik, who first guided my application to rabbinic school and then installed me as Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in 1985.  When he was president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Pilchik gave a presentation on “Finding Religious Awe in the Rabbinate.”  Rabbi Pilchik began, “Each time I must speak to the Jewish people, I am gripped by the sense of awe that nowhere is God more present than in the presence of the Jewish people before whom I stand.  This sense of awe overwhelms and humbles me.”

            In the history of the Jewish people, who stood in the presence of God more than Moses?  Who had to speak to the Jewish people with greater urgency and surely more lastingly? Therefore who knew this sense of overwhelming awe better than Moses?  No wonder that yesterday’s Torah portion described him, v’ha-ish Moshe anav me’od, “And this man Moses was very humble, more so than any other man on earth.”

            Dr. Freehof and the Genie were right: the rabbinate is a happy and fulfilling profession.

            Rabbi Pilchik and Moses were also right: The rabbinate is also deeply humbling, perhaps more so than any other profession on the face of the earth.

            Every time I had to speak to the Jewish people or about the Jewish people, I was gripped by a sense of overwhelming awe.  …Never more so than this evening.  So I have done my best to muster these grateful and humble words.

            Thank you to our lay leaders who impressed upon me that this evening is indeed important to them as well as to me.

            Thank you to everyone who participated in this evening’s program, starting with M.C. and past president Mel Vatz, colleague and friend Rabbi Danny Schiff, so many Temple presidents, and dear Temple member Deb Levy for the time and effort you devoted to preparing and the appreciation and affection you’ve given me.

            Thank you to Susan Hommel, and to everyone who helped you plan and put together this evening.  Please understand that if I cannot name all of you by name, it is because this committee was very good at keeping me as far away from this loop as I should have been.

            To our professional staff and our support staff for whatever assistance you offered in making this evening, thank you.  Since I also thanked our superb support staff  in detail in my May Temple Bulletin article, I look forward to offering further thanks to Temple’s professional staff – Rabbi Locketz, Leslie Hoffman and Iris Harlan – at next Sunday’s annual congregational meeting.

            Thank you to dear friends, rabbinic and clergy colleagues and Jewish professionals who have come from across greater Pittsburgh.

            Thank you to our “surprise guest” Dale Gonyea.  When he entertained us in 2015, I was so impressed with his talent, wit and creativity, that I told him I hope we can bring him back sometime in the future.  How wonderful that this evening became that occasion.

            Thank you to beloved family who have traveled from far and wide.

            Thank you to all the well-wishers who expressed their regret to me that they could not be here this evening.

            Thank you to every one who is part of this wonderful congregation, but most especially thank all of you for coming to this singular and memorable evening in my life.

            Finally, thank God for holding off the rain until everyone could get here safe and dry.

In Honor of Our ECDC Teachers

May 8 is National Teacher Appreciation Day. As with each special occasion and holiday at ECDC we start with the question of how best to celebrate.

The question is of national importance. In recent weeks we have seen state-wide strikes of teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Across the country hundreds of school districts are underfunded resulting in deteriorating facilities, a lack of resources, and poorly paid teachers. The cover story of the January 9, 2018 issue of the New York Times Magazine focused on the plight of early childhood educators in an article entitled “Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid the Least?”

The situation for early childhood teachers is severe, as early childhood programs generally receive no state or federal financial assistance. Schools for children under six years of age – whether for-profit or non-profit – are funded largely in form of tuition payments by parents. Tuition fees prohibit access to early education for a significant percentage of children.  Yet research studies show that the most critical brain development occurs from 0 to 6 and that high-quality early education offers children a good start in social, emotional and cognitive development that provides a life-long foundation.

At Temple Emanuel we take seriously the issues of quality education and teacher compensation. Over the past five years the Congregation has approved expense budgets that included increases in hourly rates along with compensation for additional weekly teacher preparation and meeting time. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh plays a leadership role in setting high standards and in contributing with grant support. ECDC teachers have expressed that these measures make a significant impact in achieving high quality and professionalism. ECDC teachers actively engage in learning and dialogue about relevant topics including child development, educational philosophy, curriculum and behavior. We greatly appreciate Temple Emanuel for supporting these improvements and are proud of our teachers for approaching their roles with unwavering dedication.

Let us recognize that:

1) Temple Emanuel has championed improvements in teacher compensation, and

2) Early Childhood Education remains one of the most under compensated professions in the United States

Each year Temple Emanuel devotes a special Simchat Limud – Joy of Learning – Shabbat service in honor of teachers. This year the service will be held at 6:30 pm on May 4. Let us truly celebrate teachers on May 4 and throughout the year by advocating for local and national measures that improve teacher compensation.

Congregational Survey

We are excited to be representing the congregation as the Settled Rabbi Search Committee. Our goal is to find a rabbi that best meets our needs as a congregation. As promised, we will be looking for your input into what that person should be like. To that end, we invite all members who are currently in the 6th grade of Torah Center or older to participate in this survey. Our hope is the survey, in conjunction with the focus groups that are scheduled to take place throughout the rest of April and May, will provide the information we need to represent the wants and needs of the entire congregation during this search. Please click the link below to participate. You may also forward this to anyone in your household who meets the criteria above.

We ask that all responses be completed by Monday, May 14 at midnight.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/PCCK5VY

If you’d prefer to fill out a paper copy of the survey, please feel free to pick up one from the Temple office.

Thank you in advance for your feedback and we look forward to hearing from you.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the the committee at rabbisearch@templeemanuelpgh.org.

 

The Leader of Synagogue Leaders

Thank You Shabbat 7

April 20, 2018/6 Iyar 5778

 Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler

The Leader of Synagogue Leaders

 

            Revisit with me three memorable meetings of our Board of Trustees.

            May 22, 1980 is the first.  Temple’s rabbinic search committee had unanimously recommended to the Board of Trustees that I be appointed Temple’s new assistant rabbi.    The Board then had to give their approval, contingent on the Board interviewing me.  My memory of that interview will always be vivid.

            First, it was not as rigorous as I was prepared for.  The person who asked me the most questions by far was the president of Temple’s youth group, Ron Wolfson.  It struck me as more than interesting.  There is an axiom in show business that an entertainer never wants to follow a kids’ act. I wondered if the same axiom holds true for synagogue business.  In light of today’s nationwide student walkout, kids taking the lead is sometimes a good thing.  Sometimes, no doubt, but most of the time?  Still, the most memorable moment of that interview was an exchange I had with past president, Irv Levine.

            Irv asked me what are some of the topics that I speak about in sermons.  My eyes lit up.  It seemed that Irv had thrown me the proverbial fast ball down the middle.  I answered that I had recently given a sermon entitled “The Synagogue and the Super Bowl.”  The Steelers had just won their fourth Super Bowl the previous January, and here I now stood in this acclaimed “City of Champions,” offering a sermon title that was sure to be a home run.  Irv then responded, “Tell us what you said.”  Irv’s fastball down the middle suddenly turned into a curveball. Clearly Irv was asking me to give the sermon then and there, in effect to audition me before the Board.  But I knew what I didn’t know if Irv knew. Such a request was, and I understand still is, explicitly forbidden in the rules of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations.  It was an awkward moment.  If I had then invoked this rule, it might have made Irv look ignorant or made myself look condescending to the Board.  So I did what people sometimes do to diffuse a tense moment: I tried a little humor.  I said, “One of the nice things about changing pulpits is I get to reuse sermons I’ve already given.”  I thought people would laugh.  No one did. That was the nadir of my interview with the Board of Trustees.  But no harm done.  As the minutes of that Board meeting duly record, the Board unanimously approved me. And the rest, as they say, is history.

            This was also a fitting introduction for me to Irv Levine.  Irv’s follow up question was shrewd.  Irv had a repertoire of pitches, from the swing and miss curveball to the high and inside fastball.  He threw all of them out of his love for Temple and his conviction that he had Temple’s best interests at heart.

            I made it a point to get to know all the past presidents of Temple.  All of them shared that same love for Temple and the conviction that they had Temple’s best interests at heart.  Some of them were often around and easy to get to know, for example Dave Cohen, Temple’s first David Cohen president, who regularly attended Shabbat services with his wife Edith.  Following the service, Dave was in his element shmoozing with everyone at the Oneg Shabbat.  Irv and Millie Rosenberg also were frequent attenders at Shabbat services.  Also Norman and Jean Gordon, and Jack and Ruth London, who were united by family ties as well as their love for Temple. My first years here were Peter Cooper’s final years spent in a nursing home, but his wife Charlotte carried on here as a volunteer until her 100th birthday.

            I also made it point to have an occasional lunch with certain past presidents, to seek their counsel and share concerns: Jack London, Rip Isaacs, Dean Hirschfield and Bob Shapiro.

            With the exception of Dave and Edith Cohen who passed away after they had relocated to California, and Bob and Sophie Shapiro who thankfully live on in their new residence at Country Meadows, I officiated at the funeral for every one of these past presidents, and their spouses too.  I did my very best to honor all of them in death as they honored Temple with their love and commitment in life.

            Iz Rudoy was the president who first offered me the job here while the two of us stood at the railing on the overlook platform on Grandview Avenue on Mt. Washington.  High above the sweeping Pittsburgh panorama, Izzy said to me, “Rabbi, we’d like you and your family to come to Pittsburgh. We’d like you to be our rabbi. And if you refuse, I’m going to throw you off this platform.”  It was the offer I couldn’t refuse.  Izzy died last November.  I officiated at his funeral too.

            Shirley Bleiberg, the first woman to serve as Temple’s president, was the first president I served when I came in 1980.  With her son Jim then studying to be a rabbi, I also became a surrogate son to Shirley, all the more so with Shirley’s husband Mel and I celebrating our birthdays on the same date.  When Shirley died almost two years ago, I did not officiate at her funeral in Florida, but I did compose a eulogy, my heartfelt words of fond remembrance, which her grandson by marriage, a rabbi, read at Shirley’s funeral.

            A final amazing factor uniting all of these presidents is that each one of them was blessed with long life, the lion’s share into their 90s.  The youngest among them was Izzy Rudoy who passed away at an age that exceeded the Bible’s standard of four score years by another three years. According to biblical theology, the great length of days of these Temple presidents is a measure of their righteousness. And according to modern medical studies, their great length of days can be directly attributed to their involvement in a house of worship.

            Which takes me to December 14, 2016, the second Board meeting we revisit.

            Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of the Board’s silence that greeted my reading the letter I sent out that morning informing the congregation of my decision to retire come this July 1.  But I knew very well what I myself realized that evening, a realization that lingered for weeks thereafter.  I found myself thinking back to when I was a young man and I decided to become a rabbi. Reflecting back upon that moment in 2016, the decision I had made in 1972 filled me with happiness.  Of course, the years following that decision did not always fill me with happiness, but the decision itself was a happy one.  And whatever challenges I faced in following through on that decision never once made me regret that decision.

            Let me cite only one of those challenges, a lesser one at that, but none the less a challenge.  It is not unique to synagogue life, but it is a challenge that I experienced and we shared mutually.

            In preparing this sermon, I tried to find out when a Board of Trustees became part of a synagogue’s structure.  I found nothing.  In general, a Board of Trustees ensures the perpetuation of an organization, above and beyond any individual.  This structure is therefore especially well suited for the transition, with its inherent challenges, that Temple Emanuel now faces.  But there is another challenge in the synagogue structure that a rabbi and the Board of Trustees face, on the one hand together, but on the other hand from totally different perspectives.  How shall I put it?

            When I told my parents that I had decided to become a rabbi, they said, “Mark, if you become a rabbi you’ll have five-hundred bosses telling you what to do.”  This was not borne out in fact.  No, a rabbi does not have five-hundred bosses, but he or she may likely have five hundred members who sometime, somewhere and somehow have a definite opinion about how the rabbi should be a rabbi.  Invariably they express their opinion by a frequently employed method of communication called “triangulation.”  They offer their opinion to the people who are closer in fact to being the rabbi’s boss: the Board of Trustees.

            On this Shabbat more than any other Shabbat, when the Torah portions, Tazria-Metzora, address the human fault and frailty of gossip, this dynamic must be called what it too easily and too often becomes.  In the meantime, if a rabbi is like the rabbi I’ve tried to be over the last forty years, we’re doing our best, 24/6 & 1/2, to be the best rabbi we can  be. Herein lies a potential disconnect.

            Parents are familiar with the proposition that they are only as happy as their least happy child. A similar proposition may apply to Boards of Trustees, that they are only as happy as their least happy Temple member.  For certain, the same applies to rabbis, which has been one challenge I sometimes experienced at Temple Emanuel for these thirty-eight years.  Whenever we addressed your challenges and mine together these thirty-eight years made me appreciate all the more the happy decision I made to become a rabbi.

            In truth, a healthy synagogue has two bosses: 1a and 1b, the president and the rabbi rotating between 1a and 1b, depending on the circumstances.  But the healthiest of synagogues have only one boss.

            Now the third and final Board meeting.

            On January 18, 1984, one month after Rabbi Sajowitz announced his retirement eighteen months hence, I was interviewed by Temple’s Board of Trustees to succeed Rabbi Sajowitz. The Board peppered me with questions about my vision for Temple’s future.  That we revisit this meeting this evening more than thirty-four years later indicates that the Board was well satisfied with my answers.  Tonight I do not recall a particular question asked by Jack London, but I do recall my answer.  I said, “I do not have a new Torah to teach.  But I do have Torah to teach as it has been taught and learned and followed by the Jewish people for the last twenty-five hundred years, and I promise to carry on that sacred tradition for as long as I serve as rabbi of this congregation.”

            So this evening, I thank all of you who have helped me fulfill this vision by your service on Temple’s Board of Trustees.  And I especially thank the fourteen presidents with whom I served and with whom I led – starting with Shirley Bleiberg of blessed memory, then Ted Goldberg, Marc Silverman who served for four years during the major transition in rabbis, then Nancy Berkowitz who served for four years during the capital campaign and building expansion of 1990-91, then Marty Katz, Bonnie Cossrow, Alan Ross who served for four years creating the capital campaign and building expansion of 2001-02, then Betty Jo Hirschfield, Mel Vatz, David Cohen, Joan Rothaus who served for four years because, although many were able, no one else was then willing to take on the task of the presidency, then Lynn Richards, Eric Bernstein, Dan Rothschild, and now David Weisberg who, in a time when Temple faces another rabbinic transition, will serve for four years. All of you understood that a synagogue and the Jewish people have only one boss whom we all serve together: God.

            Now I ask everyone to please to rise.  I invite members of Temple’s Board past and present to form a line, starting with Temple presidents before the Ark.  As you pass the Torah from one to another, I thank all of you for helping me pass the Torah in teaching, learning and following Torah for the past thirty-eight years.

Neighborhood focus groups

Focus On the Future

As the search for a new settled Rabbi at Temple Emanuel has started, we are looking for your input. For this reason, we invite all congregants (over the age of 12) to participate in a focus group in your neighborhood!* At these focus groups, a member of the Settled Rabbi Search Committee will facilitate a structured discussion about Temple’s future. You will be receiving a personal invitation by email and phone; but in the meanwhile, please mark your calendars and plan to attend one of the following:

Crafton/Carnegie/Bridgeville/McDonald/Oakdale – At the home of Stacy and Jared Tafeen on Sunday, May 6 at 4 p.m.

Peters Township/Washington, PA – At the home of Adit and Oded Green on Sunday, May 6 at 7 p.m.

Downtown Pittsburgh/East End/ Mt. Washington – At the home of Meredith and Dave Cohen on Sunday, May 6 at 7 p.m.

Sewickley/Coraopolis/Imperial/Robinson – Hosted by Sandee Connors-Rowe at the Anchor & Anvil Coffee Shop in Coraopolis on Thursday, May 10 at 10 a.m.

Nevillewood Area – At the home of Irene Luchinsky on Monday, May 14 at 7 p.m.

Bethel Park/South Park/Whitehall/Pleasant Hills – At the home of Robin and Steve Hausman on Sunday, May 20 at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Dormont/Brookline – At the home of Mary Cothran on Sunday, May 27 at 2 p.m.

Mt. Lebanon (15216)/Greentree – At the home of Rikki Hommel and David Weisberg on Sunday, May 6 at 4 p.m.

Mt. Lebanon (15228 and 15234) – Three Options:

At the home of Claire and Mel Vatz on Wednesday, May 16 at 7 p.m.

At the home of Sarah and David Levinthal on Tuesday, May 8 at 7 p.m.

At the home of Lori and Dan Rothschild on Tuesday, May 15 at 7 p.m.

Mt. Lebanon (Cedarhurst Area)/Scott Township – Two Options:

At the home of Beth and Matt Schwartz on Monday, May 7 at 7 p.m.

At the home of Pauli and Jason Green on Thursday, May 24 at 7 p.m.

Mt. Lebanon (Virginia Manor) – At the home of Rita and Stuart Zolot on Wednesday, May 2 at 7 p.m.

Upper St. Clair – Three Options:

Hosted by Rob Goodman at the Upper St. Clair Rec Center on Monday, May 14 at 7 p.m.

At the home of Susan and Richard Hommel on Thursday, May 17 at 11 a.m.

At the home of Georgia Kent on Sunday, May 27 at 2 p.m.

In addition to these focus groups, the following will be held at Temple and are open to all congregants over the age of 12:

  1. Sunday, May 6 at 10 a.m.
  2. Wednesday, May 23 at 7 p.m.

*Note:  In conjunction with these focus groups, we request that all congregants over the age of 12 also complete the anonymous Settled Rabbi Search survey, which will be distributed via email. A paper version will also be available at Temple Emanuel’s office.

Nothing Beats Sharing A Good Story

One of our focal points in the Torah Center this year has been building community – looking for opportunities for students of all ages to learn and grow together.

This past Sunday, the 5th grade class joined the Kindergarten students for story time in the Sifriyah (the library). This was the third time they have joined classes during this school year to read Jewish books together. Sometimes the 5th graders read the books, and sometimes, our newest readers like to show off what they can do! Is there anything better than sharing a good story?!

 

One Soul Residing in Two Bodies

Thank You Shabbat Six

April 13, 2018/30 Nisan, 5778

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler 

One Soul Residing in Two Bodies

 

            The list is long of famous people we know simply by their first name.  Elvis and LeBron, Madonna and Beyonce, Ringo and Yoko are a few of the many.  But how many of us know Lucy?  All of us should.

            Lucy is our great grandmother, with “great” repeated to whatever mathematical power that goes back 3.2 million years ago.  Her official bionomenclature name is Australopithecus afarensis.  However, she was given her name “Lucy” by the paleoanthropologists who discovered her bones in Ethiopia in 1974.  Where did they came up with her name?  From the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”  Every person on earth, now approaching 8 billion in number, is descended from Lucy.

            The question I asked myself recently is what about Louie, our great grandfather to whatever mathematical power that goes back 3.2 million years ago?  I’ve named him Louie not only for its assonance with Lucy, but also in the same Baby Boomer spirit, for the frat party classic “Louie, Louie.”  Science is silent on the question of Louie’s identity and whereabouts, but the Torah has a well known answer, a single name known far better and far longer than Elvis, etc.: Adam.

            Yet, for the Torah, this answer is far from sufficient.  The Torah explains exactly why: “It is not good for the man – Adam – to be alone.”  God then promised to make for Adam an “Azer Knegdo.”  This Hebrew term is found nowhere else in the Torah or the entire Bible. As unique as it, it also has challenged and confounded generations of commentators and translators.  English translations vary: a “fitting helper,” a “helper corresponding to him,” or two translations that elude my comprehension, a “help meet,” and a “helper over against him.”

            Regarding the word “Azer,“ “helper,” the Torah is not – repeat not– offering a job description for a domestic employee.  God Himself is called “Ezrat Yisrael”, The “Helper of Israel!”  “Azer” is an expression of esteem.

            Where the term “Azer Knegdo” gets tricky is with the second word, “Knegdo”; hence the confounding various translations.  If we are confused, we should appreciate that God also was apparently confused.  God needed two tries to remedy Adam’s aloneness. God’s first try was to give Adam all the cattle, the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field for Adam to name. This first try failed.  God’s second try succeeded precisely because Adam had to give up a part of himself to eliminate his aloneness, a part from deep within himself.  God cast a deep sleep upon Adam and took one of Adam’s ribs, then fashioned it into a woman and brought her to Adam.  Adam welcomed her with “This one at last is bone of my bone” – indeed she was literally – “and flesh of my flesh.  This one shall be called ‘Woman’ for from man she was taken.”  The Torah text then declares, “Hence a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.”

            Thereafter Adam gave a proper name to the woman.  Dollars to doughnuts, many more people on earth recognize her name than Lucy’s name: Eve, “Chava,” in the original Hebrew, meaning “the mother of all life.”  Paired with Adam, they likely are humankind’s most famous single names.

            According to the Midrash, God did not merely bring Eve to Adam, God officiated at their marriage, with the ministering angels serving as witness and then rejoicing with the bride and groom.  From all of the above, we might learn the following.

            First, nothing bespeaks the fact that we are created in God’s image more than the notion that is not good for us to be alone.  This is reason why God created us in the first place: it was not good for God to be alone.  God wanted to love something, someone, who could love God in return.  The creation story in Genesis Chapter one, rises day upon day until God fulfills this need, this fundamental desire to love and to be loved, in the creation of man and woman.  In turn, as Martin Buber so beautifully described in “I and Thou,” when we acknowledge one another’s existence in deep meaningful relationship, we also experience a finite part of the Infinite One dwelling in each of us. Buber would also teach that such connection can and should be sought in any relationship, but every human relationship began with Adam and Eve.  The father and mother of all life were also the first husband and wife.  Today we have several definitions of deep and committed relationships, any one of which can fulfill this intrinsic need that is both human and divine.  However we may define them today, they all began with Adam and Eve.  To our traditional commentators, they were one soul dwelling in two bodies, and so the commentators maintained for every couple whose love is sanctified in God’s Name.

            Second, Adam and Eve were also the first parents.  Given the tragic fate of their two sons, Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve may not have been the best parents.  Neither were Adam and Eve role models for reciprocating God’s love.  God gave them one simple command to keep as the expression of their love for God.  Keeping this one command was all it took for them to remain happy ever after in the Garden of Eden.  They blew it. Banished from paradise, Adam and Eve experienced many of the woes too familiar in our world.  But they always had each other.  And herein lies the real meaning of “Azer Knegdo.”

            An anecdote and analogy….

            With my retirement now seventy-seven days away, I will acknowledge something to you that I would only acknowledge to you seventy-seven days from retirement.  I’m getting older.

            The other night, Alice and I were out to dinner together, and we were talking about our undeniable signs of aging.  I then offered an analogy that describes our relationship and what Alice has meant to me, not only at this point in my life but throughout our many years together, soon to be forty-four years of marriage and counting.  I likened my life to a sail boat with myself the captain at the helm. The winds of life range from gentle, to steady and strong, to turbulent and torrential.  The seas of life range from calm to tsunami.  But Alice is always there as the keel that runs deep into the waters, the ballast that always steadies the boat whatever the conditions.  This may not be a literal translation of “Azer Knegdo,” but to me it captures the essence of its meaning and its importance.   Moreover as Alice is the “Azer Knegdo,” the keel, the ballast in my life, I am the “Azer Knegdo,” the keel, the ballast in hers.

            And so I speak now especially to those of you who have come tonight in response to my invitation to the many brides and grooms for whom I officiated at their wedding ceremony. When we first met to discuss your love and marriage, especially if you were a young bride and groom, I am certain that I said that I hope you discover what I have discovered, that the longer you are together the deeper your love will grow.  Such is the gift of being one another’s “Azer Knegdo.”  If so, Mazal Tov!

            I also want you to appreciate that as I combed through the Temple directory looking for all the members for whom I officiated, I found any number whose marriage ended sadly between Scylla and Charybdis, which is Greek mythology’s equivalent of the devil and the deep blue sea.  That you safely traversed the occasional straits that challenge every life also merits a hearty Mazal Tov!

            Next, I want to thank you for having me be a part of that most sacred and incomparable moment in your life.  At the same time, I must confess that I approached every wedding with the burden of the highest expectations, stressed with the anticipation that I will be standing with you as God stood at Adam and Eve’s wedding, and this moment must be one of the happiest moments in your life, if not the happiest.  Please know that I always strived to make it so.  And please know that I was deeply gratified by your kind expressions of gratitude for the ceremony that I had led you through, as well as the kind comments I received afterwards from your families and friends in attendance.  Thank you for making me feel that my burden and my striving ultimately measured up to your highest and happiest expectations.

            Before I conclude, I must tell you a little story that tickled me.  In a way, who knows wedding ceremonies better than photographers and videographers? Over the years, many have told me that my wedding ceremonies are the best.  I’ve been to too many weddings over the years where other rabbis have officiated to accept such a compliment at face value.  However, several years ago, one photographer asked me if I would officiate at his daughter’s wedding because he believes my ceremonies are so beautiful.  The funny thing that tickled me: Neither the photographer, nor his daughter, nor her groom were Jewish.  I accepted this invitation as a compliment … but because I am a rabbi, not a justice of the peace, I declined to officiate.

            From Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Judaism’s message regarding love and marriage is loud and clear.  It is God’s gift to you and your incomparable gift to each other. Mazal Tov!  And thank you for inviting me to be the rabbi who launched you on your loving voyage.