Appointment of Interim Rabbi

Temple Emanuel of South Hills’ Board of Trustees is pleased to announce the appointment of Rabbi Donald Rossoff, D.D., R.J.E., as interim senior rabbi of the South Hills Reform congregation. Rabbi Rossoff’s contract was approved at a congregational meeting on Sunday, February 11, 2018.

Rabbi Rossoff will begin his year-long tenure at Temple Emanuel on July 1, 2018. Outgoing Senior Rabbi Mark Mahler, who has served the congregation for 38 years, will retire June 30, 2018.

Board President David Weisberg is pleased that the congregation approved Rabbi Rossoff’s contract and is looking forward to the future. “Rabbi Rossoff will serve as a bridge for our congregation, from the strong foundation that Rabbi Mahler helped build to a future where we can continue to flourish,” he says.

Over the next several months, Temple Emanuel will begin searching for a settled rabbi and Rabbi Rossoff’s experience assisting synagogues in transition will prove invaluable.

“The Interim Search Committee has no doubt we found the right person in Rabbi Rossoff, and we are thrilled he will be joining us,” says Search Committee Chair Michelle Markowitz. “His experience and demeanor made him the ideal choice to lead us through this important transition.”

Rabbi Rossoff will move to the South Hills with his wife Francine, a registered nurse. The couple has four adult children: Marc, Jenna. Ilana and Nathaniel. He is excited about working at Temple Emanuel and understands the particular role of an interim rabbi. “I will walk with and guide this sacred community on a journey that will take them through the loss they will feel from Rabbi Mahler’s retirement and on to the visioning of the future they would choose for themselves,” he says. “It has been a joy and a privilege to walk that journey with three other congregations and I am excited about the opportunity to join with Temple Emanuel on the journey that lies ahead for them.”

Rabbi Rossoff served as interim rabbi at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lake, NJ (2017-18), Temple Beth Am in Framingham, MA (2016-17), and the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL (2015-16). He also served as senior rabbi of Temple B’Nia Or in Morristown, NJ from 1990-2015. Additionally, he authored the children’s book, “A Perfect Prayer.”

Officiating at Funerals

“Thank You Shabbat Three”

January 12, 2018/26 Tevet, 5778

When Life has Met Death

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler

This Shabbat we continue with my Thank You Shabbats, this evening for the people whose loved one’s funeral I officiated at. As a prelude to my thanks and to offer them fully, heartfully and soulfully, I begin with four personal reflections.

First. When I was accepted to rabbinic school at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the dean asked to meet with me. Our conversation was brief but to the point. The dean said to me, “Mark, being a rabbi is a difficult job. On any given day, you’ll have to deal with different emotionally charged situations. You may officiate at a funeral in the morning, then a wedding in the afternoon and then a Shiva minyan in the evening.” Waving his hand in front of his face to emphasize his point, the dean then said, “In these situations, what you have to do is change the mask.”

The dean was correct. Being a rabbi can be an extremely difficult job, fraught with emotionally charged situations. But the dean was also wrong, at least for me. I wasn’t about to contest his well-intentioned advice, but even as a young man just accepted to rabbinic school, I knew that I could never be a rabbi who merely “changes the mask.”

…Which leads to the second reflection. During my first two years as a rabbi, we lived in an apartment in suburban Philadelphia. One morning as I was walking into the building, I exchanged greetings with a neighbor, a young surgeon who was walking out. I said to him, “Off to the operating room?” He answered, “Yes, I’m going to slash for cash!” I replied, “I don’t think you want your patients to hear that.” He said, “Of course not, but I’m sure that you reach a point as a rabbi that you’re emotionally detached, for example, when officiating at a funeral becomes routine.” “Oh no,” I replied, “I have to give my heart in every circumstance.”

Now almost forty years a rabbi, on the days when I had a funeral in the morning, a wedding in the afternoon, and a Shiva minyan in the evening, as well as during the ups and downs on any given day, I have done my best to give my heart.

Third. It wasn’t easy. Years ago while visiting us in Pittsburgh, my sister Jackie observed, “Every time the phone rings in this house, the tension goes up.” The explanation is simple. So many times when the phone has rung over the years, it is a congregant or a funeral home calling for the saddest of all possible reasons.

Fourth. In fact at times it has been extremely difficult. Alice was invited to speak when Temple honored me on the occasion of my twenty-fifth year at Temple. She and I didn’t discuss beforehand what she could or should say. No need: no one knows me better, no one loves me more. Something she said struck deep: “With every death in the congregation, Mark dies a little bit.”

Indeed, sometimes it has been crushing. For each of your loved ones whom I buried, I mourned in my own way, with personal rituals to navigate this difficult emotional terrain.

I always touched the coffin and bid a personal farewell.

For anyone who ever wondered why I always drive myself to the funeral and the cemetery rather than by a funeral home’s limousine, a limousine was once late to pick me up, which then made me late for the funeral. Once was too often.

Over the many years, en route to the cemetery the only music I’ve listened to is Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune, which for me sounds the perfect harmony of the beauty of this world with the mystery of the next world. Otherwise I listen to the news or turn off the radio altogether. Jewish tradition insists that the overall mood of L’vaiyat HaMet, “Accompanying the Dead” be solemn. Kalut Rosh, “Light headedness,” is explicitly discouraged. When people have joked with me at the cemetery, I am always uncomfortable but always polite.

O how I’ve worried each time pall bearers bear their burden at the cemetery. Every pall bearer is unnerved by how heavy any coffin is. Pittsburgh’s hilly cemeteries and frequent inclement weather render their burden even more daunting. As I lead the pall bearers to the grave, while reciting the traditional liturgy, I am quick to point out potential hazards: a muddy patch here, uneven ground there, or slippery artificial ground cover leading to the grave. Then comes their moment of truth when they must mount the planks on either side of the grave – the narrow flexible planks that spring under the weight of each step – in order to place their burden safely on the two narrow straps of the lowering device.

As the coffin is lowered, I recite the traditional Tziduk HaDin, Psalm 49, referring to God as a “Rock,” a poetic image as the coffin descends into the earth. I also watch the little bolt on the lowering device that spins around as the coffin descends. The little bolt stops spinning when the coffin comes to rest at the bottom of the grave. As I watch the bolt spin and then stop, I meditate on the simple yet profound fact that this human body had been in constant motion from the moment it was created at conception. Even after death it continued its unique journey to the funeral home, often to Temple and then to the cemetery. But having arrived now at the bottom of the grave, it has come to eternal rest. How appropriate that we identify this finale with “Rest in peace.”

I also observe a personal Shiva for your loved ones. For many of them, I had been praying for their healing daily for weeks, for months and sometimes for even years. I guesstimate that on any given day, I pray for fifty people or more, having memorized their names alphabetically. Memory then has no “delete” key. After people on my prayer list have died, force of habit keeps me reciting their name in the daily prayer for healing. Each time I do, the pain of their loss resurfaces. It generally takes me a week – Shiva – to remember to forget. Sometimes longer. And sometimes even after years, I remember a name during the prayer for healing that I had once prayed for years ago.

 

Moments of reflection such as this Shabbat evening demand an honest question. Could I have done better? The honest answer for me, and for everyone with at least a modicum of humility, is “Of course,” but I was always trying to do my best, to give my heart. However I thank you for making me feel that my best efforts were always more than good enough.

For your words of gratitude, I thank you. Given your grief, please know that I never counted on encomiums. Therefore I appreciated them all the more when you expressed them.

I thank you for your expressions of gratitude that my words in memory of your loved ones were indeed fitting tributes to their memory that you so cherish.

Everyone grieves differently, some effusively and emotionally, some stoically and privately. Sometimes it has been difficult for me to discern exactly how close I should come or how distant I should remain. If I erred in judgment, I thank you for your forgiveness.

No less is this true for dying as well as death. Sometimes I am greeted in the time leading up to death as a source of strength. Other times, I am spurned as death’s herald. Here too it has been difficult to discern which impact in particular I will have upon people, merely by my presence. Again, if I erred in judgment, I thank you for your forgiveness.

Sometimes your loved one’s funeral was quickly followed by someone else’s loved one’s funeral. Over the years, on average I’ve officiated at twenty-five funerals annually. Dying and death are never spread out smoothly at two or so per month. Often they have been preceded by vigils in the hospital, in hospice or in the home which also require my attention, to give my heart. If you understood these pastoral demands upon me, I thank you.

All funerals are sad, but some are tragic. These especially required me to give my heart. And such are the funerals that broke my heart. But they never shook my faith in God.

A final reflection….

When I was a young man first considering becoming a rabbi, I was inspired by several people, most of all by the rabbi who became my rabbinic mentor and who installed me here as Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in 1985, Rabbi Ely Pilchik of blessed memory. When I first met Rabbi Pilchik in 1972, among his many virtues, his eyes fascinated me. He had eyes like Albert Einstein: eyes that had seen eternity. I wanted to have those same eyes. I wanted to glimpse eternity. Little did I appreciate then exactly how one earns these eyes. Many decades later, I look at myself in the mirror, I see these eyes, and I understand what it has taken to earn them.

Indeed I have glimpsed eternity again and again:

Each time my phone has rung with the saddest of all possible news.

Each time we met thereafter and you’ve told me your loved one’s life story.

Each time I have written the eulogy honoring your loved one’s memory.

Each time I officiated at your loved one’s funeral.

Each time I have led the pall bearers with their heavy burden to the grave.

Each time I have watched that little bolt stop spinning.

Each time we tossed dirt into the grave.

Each time that we recited Kaddish together.

Each time that we have tried to make sense of life in light of death.

Each time that we pondered immortality’s unfathomable possibility measured against mortality’s inescapable reality.

Thank you.

I thank you for extending your hand and heart to me. I thank you for the trust you gave to me. I thank you for taking my hand. I thank you for touching my heart with yours.

 

URJ Biennial: A Teen Perspective

We’ve heard what the URJ Biennial was like from Temple President David Weisberg and VP Michelle Markowitz, but adults weren’t the only ones who attended. Temple member Rebecca Schwartz, a junior at Mt. Lebanon Senior High School, shares her experience:

I often say that it takes two meetings to bring someone into your life: At the first meeting, you get to know someone; at the second meeting, you realize how much you missed them. For me the Biennial was first and foremost a chance to reconnect with the friends I met this summer at the URJ Kutz camp. Honestly, had I just been trapped in the teen lounge with them for the entire Biennial, it would have been enjoyable.

However, we weren’t trapped. For the first time, teens were fully integrated into the adult programming for Biennial. It was amazing; my friends and I were often the youngest ones in the room. We studied the entirety of Genesis chapter 37, learned about environmental activism, and attended an amazing workshop about the relationship between Judaism and Science. (If you have ever had a conversation with me, you can bet I enjoyed that workshop.)

The most amazing part of the conference was the services (yes, even the three hour Saturday morning service complete with a 40 minute sermon). All the teens sat together on the balcony. It is hard to describe how it feels to pray in a room of 6,000. The prayers echoed and resounded across the room. We even got to lead Havdallah on stage with Dan Nichols.

It was so amazing to be at the Biennial, running through the hallways with my friends to chase various Jewish musicians, waking my friends up super early to go to services, and taking nine flights of stairs in high heels because we were so full of energy that we didn’t want to wait for the elevator. Biennial was the first time I realized that adults could be just as into Judaism as teens. It was awesome.

Rebecca (second from right) and friends at the URJ Biennial. Josh Nelson, a Jewish musician, is on the far left.

Jewish Disneyland

Temple Vice President Michelle Markowitz was part of the Temple contingent that attended the URJ Biennial. Like President David Weisberg, this was her first time attending. David shared his thoughts with us; now it’s Michelle’s turn:

I had heard someone describe Biennial as “Jewish Disneyland.” After being there, I feel like that was a pretty accurate description. Everybody was happy to be there and excited about the future of Reform Judaism, both here in the United States and in Israel.

There were so many things that stood out for me. The diversity within our movement is truly inspiring, and the efforts made to include all people, regardless of sexual orientation, disability, or race, and engage in “audacious hospitality” was a common thread that ran through Biennial. The worship also stood out for me, not just because of sheer numbers – I’ve never prayed with 5,500 people before – but mostly because it was joyous, spiritual, and familiar all at the same time.

While I learned many things, the one that stands out in my mind was the focus of the Reform Movement both historically and today on issues of social justice. According to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, “if  the Judaism we offer our young people doesn’t speak to the great moral issues of the day, it won’t speak to them.” With all that goes on in the world, I’d love to see how we can utilize Temple Emanuel to discuss and even act on these great moral issues.

Reflections on the URJ Biennial

Temple President David Weisberg attended his first URJ Biennial last week. “[It was] unbelievable being with 5500+ fellow Jews from all across North America,” he says.

Weisberg was part of a Temple Emanuel contingent that traveled to Boston, Mass. for the opportunity to learn, share, and help shape the future of the Reform Movement. He shares more about his experience:

Q: What did you think it would be like, and what was it really like?

A: I was hopeful that I would be able to learn and further deepen my understanding of best practices across the Reform Movement. The Biennial was that plus more, including being able to meet with fellow congregational presidents and learn from them.

Q: What stands out for you?

A: The worship experiences at Biennial were like nothing I had ever experienced. For Shabbat services, singing the Sh’ma and having multiple Torahs cycle through the crowd of 5500+ was spectacular. Our prayers — along with the cantors and choirs singing — were uplifting and ultimately touched my soul.

Q: What are some things you learned?

A: Interestingly, I learned that there are a lot of Temple Emanuel (or Emanuel-El) across North America. I met congregants from other Emanuels in Toronto, Montreal, Dallas, New York, San Jose, and Hawaii. On a more serious note, I learned that we at Temple Emanuel have a lot of positives going for us. I also learned that there are steps we can take to build on the great foundation we’ve already established as we move into the future.

The next Biennial is in Chicago, Illinois on December 11-15, 2019. Perhaps you’ll join us?

Our Year of Change Begins

The New Year. Football. Hockey. Baseball.

What a fabulous time of year. Autumn is upon us. Leaves are changing. Cool air is sweeping through Greater Pittsburgh as warm thoughts pass through our heads while we think about the year ahead.

The High Holidays have now passed. The field is open as we plan for what lies ahead this upcoming year. Just as the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates all want for this year to better than last, we all can work hard to make that happen in our own lives. This is true for all aspects – personally, professionally and of course our relationship with Judaism and with Temple Emanuel.

Athletes prepare for their seasons with hard work, discipline and diligence. They practice, focus and perform whenever the ball is kicked off, the first puck is dropped or the first pitch is thrown. Of course, not everything can be controlled in the game, but the key is preparation and determination.

I am proud to say that the Board of Trustees is in that same mindset here at Temple Emanuel. We are motivated. We have taken steps to make this year a great year. Each Officer, Trustee and committee chair has agreed to step up his or her game. Why? To become better. Better individuals, a better synagogue and ultimately a better community. It serves us well not only now but also into the future.

Our planning is in process for a Celebration year. We are honoring both Temple Emanuel and Rabbi Mahler, recognizing all that he has given to us through the years. Please plan to attend the upcoming events as opportunities to honor and commemorate.

We also are in the process of planning our next steps after Rabbi Mahler retires and becomes Rabbi Emeritus beginning July 2018. We have a strong Interim Rabbi Search Committee who will assist in identifying our Interim Rabbi for the July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019 year. The, a year from now, we will have a Settled Rabbi Search Committee who will assist in our next search for a Senior Rabbi who will begin July 1, 2019.   Many of you have participated in the congregational survey that was emailed in September 2017. Thank you. There will be additional opportunities for the congregation to have input as we continue our journey.

The groundwork has been laid for us to succeed. Let’s enjoy our community, have spiritual fulfillment and a grand Jewish experience. Let’s ride the energy as we continue to build those connections and a stronger community. Who knows – maybe it will result in a Super Bowl, Stanley Cup or World Series championship. We all can dare to dream, right?

David Weisberg, President

 

Relating to Abraham

Board member David Rullo gave the following D’var Torah at our November board meeting:

“Go away from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”

This Torah verse has always been special to me. I’m sure I’m not alone and that Jews across the world feel the same. It’s one of the foundational verses. It speaks to me in a very real way because it is the story of the first convert. As we all know, Abraham was not Jewish when God called him, Abraham wasn’t even his name. Interestingly, there is no mention of why Abram was chosen. We know that Noah “walked with God,” there are no notes about Abram. Instead, we are told his lineage and nothing more. Clearly, at least in my estimation, it is more important to be willing to go away from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that God will show you than to be a part of a particular bloodline or have special qualifications. The story continues…God creates a covenant with Abraham and gives him the responsibility of creating a nation and enacting the first rituals this new nation uses to distinguish itself from the other cultures surrounding it.

I have never given much merit to coincidence or the idea that things happen for a reason. This week though I may have to reconsider my skepticism. It was almost four years to the day that Kim and I attended our first “Taste of Judaism” course at Temple Emanuel on November 5, 2012. Almost four years ago to the day that I started a journey that would radically change my life and the life of my entire family. Almost four years ago to the day that I literally went away from my “land,” “my birthplace,” the home of my father and like Abraham, began the process of converting to Judaism.

Unlike Abraham however, I was fortunate enough to find a supportive community that helped with my journey. From that first Taste of Judaism course until today, Rabbi Mahler has always been available to answer questions and offer advice. Rabbi Locketz was one of the rabbis on my Bet Din and has been happy to answer question when I’ve approached her. I joined Temple’s Torah Study group shortly after that first of Taste of Judaism class and the weekly attendees became a network of friends who were only too happy to assist or teach when I reached out to them. My Jewish identity was established and cemented here at Temple Emanuel and now, because of what I’ve learned and experienced my Jewish identity reaches far beyond Temple and indeed allows me to influence the lives of Jews throughout Pittsburgh.

It is remarkable to me that in just four short years I have not only found a spiritual home but have also been accepted as a member and indeed, when the situation calls for it, a leader. I look around the room and am able to point to three other converts that sit on this diverse board. Temple is surely an open and welcoming place to allow four strangers to come into their community and rise through the ranks of leadership.

I have been incredibly blessed through my association with both Temple Emanuel and the Judaism I now call my own. I serve on this board as a way to say thanks to the spiritual home I found four years ago. My hope is that I can find connections over the next few years that will make Temple even stronger than it was when I tentatively walked through those doors four years ago unsure that this would even be a direction I wanted to pursue.

Rabbi Rick Jacob, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, speaks of Abraham in his weekly “On the Other Hand” podcast. He notes that Abraham is not perfect and makes mistakes. He is simply an ordinary person who had the courage to do what God asked him to do. In the end he hopes we can all, like Abraham, “Go forth and be a blessing.” It is my sincere hope that in my own way I can fulfill his hope here at Temple.

 

 

Need help paying college tuition?

The Central Scholarship and Loan Referral Service (CSLRS) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh coordinates the efforts of a group of organizations, agencies and scholarship endowment funds that provide scholarships to local Jewish students enrolled in an accredited institution of higher education.

The goal of CSLRS is to provide financial support to as many deserving students in our community as possible. Demonstrated financial need is a primary criterion in evaluating applicants. Financial information is considered along with other pertinent facts such as family size and number of children/siblings in college.

While they generally do not assist students with family incomes in excess of $110,000 or who have investable assets of more than $250,000, exceptions may be made when there are extenuating family circumstances, at the discretion of the CSLRS committee.

DEADLINE FOR FILING AN APPLICATION IS FEBRUARY 9, 2017

For more information, go to: www.centralscholarship.org

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An Israeli view of the American election

Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh scholar Rabbi Dr. Danny Schiff returned to Temple Emanuel Wednesday, October 26. He presented “An Israeli View of the American Election” before a crowd of 70+ audience members from the South Hills.

Rabbi Schiff started out by speaking of his long history with Temple Emanuel. He made mention of the fact that Temple is the very first synagogue in the South Hills he ever spoke at and that he was very anxious to begin this series of Fall/Winter South Hills engagements back at Temple.

He began the lecture by explaining that Israeli Jews are almost the exact opposite of American Jews. According to a Pew study, 55 percent of Israeli Jews consider themselves to be centrist and 37 percent conservatives while just 19 percent of American Jews label themselves conservative.

schiff-3 Although he left opinions to those in attendance, Rabbi Schiff pointed out that “Israelis want to have predictability, certainty and stability in a very unstable part of the world.” He then cited a CNN poll which stated that 42 percent of Israelis support Clinton; 24 percent support Trump and the rest are undecided. This discrepancy, given the strong conservative leanings in Israel, can be attributed to the fact that most don’t see Trump as predictable or stable.

The rabbi spoke for 45 minutes and then took questions from the audience. At the conclusion, Rabbi Mark Mahler thanked Rabbi Schiff for his presentation and said Temple hoped to bring him back in the Spring to discuss the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War.

schiff-and-mahler

The next speaker to visit Temple will be Rabbi Gershom Sizomu as part of the South Hills Torah Weekend, November 18-19. Rabbi Sizomu is from Uganda, where he serves the Abayudava community and is a member of the Ugandan parliament. He will speak at Temple Friday night, Beth El Congregation Saturday morning, The South Hills JCC Saturday night, and will return to both Beth El and Temple for programs at the religious schools as part of the Global Day of Jewish Learning. Rabbi Sizomu is being brought to the South Hills through a grant from South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh.