Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – January, 2013

18 years at Ahavas Israel seems like a long time until you compare it with Cantor Stuart’s 36 years. I am honored and grateful that the congregation gave such a wonderful tribute to Stuart and me last month. Actually, the 18 years have flown by – I remember driving into Grand Rapids from Minneapolis for the first time, on Sunday, July 31, 1994. I remember rounding the hill by Lake Michigan Drive and the Zoo, and seeing the skyline of downtown – and then stopping at a pay phone because we couldn’t find the way to Rhonda Reider and Mike Halprin’s home for dinner. I remember meeting Judy Joseph, among other members of the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning minyans that week. And I remember getting a phone call from a young woman named Marni Holtzman, who had recently graduated from the University of Michigan and was headed to Jerusalem to study at Pardes – she wanted to know if I had an extra Hebrew dictionary that she could borrow (I did). I thought about all of this and more during the tribute event that Marni,  Rhonda, and Judy (and other people too numerous to name) worked so many hours to plan.

I remember unrolling sleeping bags in our bedroom that first night, because the moving van from New York wouldn’t arrive for another week. I remember eagerly showing up for work the next morning and waiting in the parking lot for Tom Greenwald and Suzanne Doten to arrive, because I didn’t have keys to the building. I remember speaking to Noah and Jon Droski that first Shabbat on the occasion of the celebration of their B’nai Mitzvah. I don’t remember what I said, given that I hardly knew them – but I taught 7th grade that year, so I got to know them, as well as Andy Strate, Noah Rymer, Joseph Knape, and Jana Neil, quite well. Arlene Loby was the principal of the three day a week religious school and Phil Loby was the chair of the Board of Education. Fred Meyerson was the chair of the Ritual committee. Stuart Rapaport was on his second go-around as President.

I begin writing my sermons on a Mac Classic, with its nine inch monochrome screen. I spoke about Building Community, Prayer, Ethical Wills, and Experiencing Loss. I used email to share sermons and thoughts and questions with other rabbis, but relatively few people in the synagogue had email, so I answered many more phone calls than I do today.

Rabbi Alan Alpert of Muskegon, now the senior congregational rabbi of West Michigan (perhaps of the East side as well), convened a meeting of all of the non-Detroit rabbis. Rabbi Lewis and I drove to the first one together, in Lansing. Except for Rabbi Alpert and Rabbi Spivak of Kalamazoo, none of the other communities represented, Bay City/Saganaw/Midland, Flint, Benton Harbor, Lansing/East Lansing, and Jackson, have the same rabbi now as they did then; many of them no longer have rabbis; some of the congregations no longer exist. In this era of Jewish life, survival alone is an accomplishment.

Congregation Ahavas Israel has survived (as have I) and more. We have re-envisioned what it means to be a synagogue in the 21st century. We have stronger partnerships with the Federation and with Temple Emanuel than we did 18 years ago. We have lost some committees and groups (such as the board of Education and Sisterhood), but gained or renamed others (the United Jewish School Board, the Religious Life committee, and a social committee, to name a few). We will continue to change and evolve in order to fulfill the needs of the portion of the population in Grand Rapids which is seeking traditional Torah based Judaism in a modern framework.  People who seek to understand and practice a Torah centered life while also fully participating in a modern egalitarian world look to us to provide a serious and supportive Jewish community. It has been my honor and privilege and pleasure to be with you for the past 18 years, and I look forward to many more years into the future.

Some people are curious about the variety of things that I do, in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • • I concluded my seven session Talmud class, teaching the beginning of the tractate of Sanhedrin, about the structure of the Jewish civil and criminal court system.
  • • We have been storing many boxes of old religious books for burial, so I planned and led a geniza book burial ceremony for the United Jewish School/Community. On the same Day as the book burial ceremony, Temple Emanuel and Ahavas Israel held a communal day of Learning in conjunction with a Global Day of Jewish Learning sponsored by Jewish Federation of North America. I taught some of the laws relating of the proper disposal of written materials with God’s name.
  • • I convened a Beit Din (Court of three Rabbis) to supervise a conversion at the Mikvah in West Bloomfield.
  • • I do not do many tours of the synagogue (Shirley Kleiman is our expert tour guide), but I led a tour for my daughter’s friend’s 4th – 6th grade Catholic Church youth group.
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