31 March 2014
A helping hand to those in need.
A lover of books.
He dreamed of his people's redemption
And dedicated himself to this day and night.
These are the favorite of the lines from the acrostic poem my great-grandfather wrote about himself, had painted on to ceramic and attached to his gravestone, which still sits in a cemetery on the South Side of Milwaukee.
Chaim Siegel, an immigrant to Wisconsin from Kopel, Minsk, Belarus in 1899, was by family legend a "rabbinical student" who instead ended up working in business in Milwaukee's center city, not far from the Golda Meir School at 3rd and Walnut.
When I did a college tour in February with my daughter, we rolled through town and pulled up to the school to take a look. It's where my grandmother was educated to be an American; it was from there that Goldie Myerson picked her up for babysitting; and it remains a symbol of our family's roots in both Minsk and Milwaukee--roots that are now deeply planted in my own kids' lives, so that they will one day tell the stories of where they origins.
Chaim Siegel never became the rabbi he had hoped to be but nevertheless he founded two synagogues was president of the Mizrachi Zionists, a small but meaningful contribution to the building and eventual founding of the Jewish state. Perhaps more important than his erstwhile desire to fulfill his service as a rabbi, he was a Jew who always showed up.
When I decided to become a rabbi, the great-grandfather I never met was foremost on my mind. Honoring his memory, exercising the privilege of Jewish leadership that perhaps economic circumstance prevented him from fulfilling, pushed me forward to Israel, rabbinic school and service. My life's work, solidified while saying Kaddish for my own father back in 1983, was alloyed to his.
Alloys, as far as the characteristics of metal are concerned, are generally stronger and more durable than the simpler, pure metals from which they are made. And the rabbinic career I wrought for myself these last thirty years has been one such mixture of sorts--sacred text and political activism; popular culture and deep spiritual traditions; deeply American and proudly Zionist. I have always strived to give life to the many dimensions of what it is to be a Jew in our age. And have, consequently, taught others to do the same.
Our lives are mixed up with each other, aren't they?
Since announcing my departure from the pulpit rabbinate of CBE last week, some people have asked me questions about my motivations for making this shift in my career. Will you stop being Jewish? Are you no longer a rabbi? And, the most often asked, will you do my funeral?
My Jewish soul is alloyed to wiry body. They are inextricably bound. I will forever read and teach and talk and argue and laugh about the many-faceted aspects of the improbable and inspiring reality of the Jewish people. As I told my Shabbat morning Torah study class, I will always teach.
As for being a rabbi, I'll say that with great pride I plan on remaining a rabbi; and am both fascinated and inspired by the notion of what it will mean to me to carry my rabbinic service out to the greater citizenship of my hometown here in Brooklyn. Wherever I land professionally in a little over a year from now, I may very well not retain the title of rabbi, but it doesn't mean that the work won't fundamentally be about service, learning, and the ethical and moral dimensions to what it is to live in community.
Just as Simeon the Righteous taught the "world stands on three things: Learning, Service, and Deeds of Loving Kindness," I see the rabbinic dimension at play in whatever I'll do because I know that equally central to the next professional chapter of my career will be that great sage's wisdom as well.
The ancient prophets were quite clear that the Jew was to be ethically attuned to both the particular aspects of his Jewish soul as well as the universal calls to serve others. I always have and always will take that prophetic mandate seriously.
Rabbi Tarfon, another great sage, comes to mind as well. "The day is short, the work is great, the workers are idle, the reward is great, and the Master of the House is pressing!" I have always felt this way about work at CBE, with Brooklyn Jews and with the Bronfman Center before that; and I will take this teaching with me out into the greater world. Tarfon also reminds us that while "we are not obliged to complete the work, neither are we free to evade it."
Having had the incredible privilege to serve for fourteen years at CBE (1993-98 & 2006-15) I humbly accept that the work inside the synagogue community is never done. I am also enormously hopeful that the next Senior Rabbi will bring her own or his own set of skills and unique commitments that will carry the work of Torah, Service and Deeds of Lovingkindness onward still.
In the meantime, let's agree that the most important aspect of who we are as a people is made manifest in showing up: To make a Minyan or to teach the Alef-Bet; to feed the hungry or house the homeless; to welcome those not born Jewish into our People; to speak out against injustice and to illuminate the sublime pathways of the inner spirit of human striving for the Divine; to see ourselves as one people--in Israel, America and throughout the world; and to also see ourselves as One People--humanity, bound by our aspirations to live lives of goodness and peace.
26 March 2014
March 26, 2014
To the Beloved Members of our CBE Community:
It is with mixed emotion and after much soul searching that I am writing this letter to inform you that I do not intend to pursue a fourth contractual agreement as Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim. I am taking the step of informing you now since the general guidelines of the Central Conference of American Rabbis recommends that synagogues undergo a 15-18 month search process for Rabbinic Placement.
With my contract set to expire on June 30, 2015, this affords the synagogue a wide berth in developing a plan for succession.
Additionally, as our synagogue community navigates a temporary fiscal challenge, I remain committed to helping partner with you and the leadership over the next 15 months in order to strengthen our finances for the near and distant future.
Much thinking has gone into this decision, taking me back reflectively over a lifetime of service since my youth in Wisconsin, through college, on to rabbinical school and into the pulpit. At a critical stage in my life, at age 20, I made the decision to focus specifically on Jewish service. Inspired by my own great-grandparents commitment to Tradition and Israel, I found particular meaning in the centuries of Jewish texts and wisdom that animate our moral and ethical life as a people. From Hillel at UW and NYU to Brooklyn Jews and CBE, I have found the work to be exceptionally inspiring and rewarding. Lifelong friendships, mentorships, intellectual and political battles “for the Sake of Heaven” have animated every step of the journey.
Last year, the combination of watching our community’s response to Hurricane Sandy as well as the fortuitous and inevitable rite of passage of turning 50, I began to explore the idea of moving beyond strictly Jewish service and contemplate seriously the idea of serving disadvantaged communities broadly throughout New York City. The issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, education, and violence remain central to my own concerns as a citizen of New York. And so as I thought of another chapter to my professional life, I became increasingly inspired by the opportunity to serve communities in need in Brooklyn and beyond.
I don’t know where this will lead and there is still much time to decide what that next professional step will be, but I can assure you that Rachel and I, along with Audrey, Lois and Minna, will remain devoted members of the CBE community for years to come. My Jewish soul will have a special place here at CBE in Brooklyn (and of course in Israel) but I am ready to move on to new challenges in my career.
What a privilege it has been to serve this historic Congregation.
I am enormously proud of our achievements together at CBE and grateful to the Congregation and its members for the opportunity to serve and share my vision for Jewish life in the 21st century.
Together we have:
- Grown the Synagogue membership from 500 to more than 1000 families
- Hired the most gifted and talented recent graduates of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion--Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, Cantor Joshua Breitzer, and Rabbi Marc Katz--to bring a revitalized commitment to Judaism in the 21st century
- Replaced and repaved the Temple House Roof
- Reinvented the Religious School as Yachad, an innovative Jewish family education program centered on Shabbat
- Created a dual-language Hebrew immersion program in our ECC
- Integrated Brooklyn Jews into the fabric of CBE's ongoing efforts to reach out to young Jews in their 20s and 30s.
- Written a new Torah Scroll in honor our community's 150th Anniversary
- Led numerous trips to Israel for Teens and Adults, strengthening our people's relationship to our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel
- Created innovative cultural programming like Brooklyn by the Book, in partnership with the Community Bookstore and the Brooklyn Public Library, bringing leading authors from the United States and Israel to speak to audiences of thousands
- Incubated the nation's most successful engagement with Israelis through Israelis in Brooklyn and Keshet/Keshetot
- Welcomed Altshul, an Independent Minyan, into CBE to help enrich Jewish spiritual life in our community
- Successfully raised more than $3 million dollars (including a prestigious award of $250,000 from American Express) for the repair and restoration of the Main Sanctuary's roof, exterior and stained glass windows
- Partnered with CAMBA to open a Men's Respite Shelter
- Partnered with John Jay High School to offer ongoing tutoring to neighborhood children in need
- Partnered with the Osborne Association to aid children in their visits to incarcerated parents in the New York state prison system
- Founded the CBE Gun Violence Prevention Group
- Responded in a moment of historic crisis to Hurricane Sandy by providing meals to thousands of New York City's poorest residents most deeply effected by the storm. CBE Feeds remains one of our community's most deeply meaningful statements of Judaism's prophetic command to comfort the afflicted and feed the hungry
- Engaged a number of foundations and family philanthropies from the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, the Covenant Foundation, and UJA Federation of New York in the sacred work of developing and growing Jewish life in Brooklyn
Besides my devoted and brilliant clergy colleagues, Rabbis Epstein and Katz as well as Cantor Breitzer (along with past partners here at CBE, Rabbi Emeritus Gerald Weider and Rabbi Daniel Bronstein) I have been blessed to work with the most extraordinary team of Jewish program professionals I have ever known--April Mellas, Cindy Greenberg, Lauren Shenkman, Isabel Burton, Debbie Brukman, Yehudit Feinstein, Jaci Israel, Ilana Friedman, Bobbie Finkelstein, Lisa Rosenberg, Laura Landau, Shuli Zilberfarb-Sela, Shelley Klein and countless others. Local leaders like my dear friends Reverend Daniel Meeter, Councilmen Brad Lander and Stephen Levin, past and current Brooklyn Boro Presidents Marty Markowitz and Eric Adams, have helped forge enduring friendships across neighborhoods that make Brooklyn truly special. Throughout the past many years, I have benefited from the ongoing wisdom and guidance from Shifra Bronznick, Nessa Rapoport, Julie Sandorf, Dana Raucher, Rabbi Dan Bronstein, Dr. Michael Berkowitz, Dr. Ari Kelman, Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, Rabbi Mishael Zion, John Ruskay, Mitchell Moss, Jay Kriegel, Pam Brier, and of course, as ever, the great Naomi Levine.
In addition, the past animates so much of what we do in the present in Jewish life. I have been buoyed in imagining what is possible in Jewish life today by my late friends and teachers Lisa Goldberg, Dr. George L. Mosse, Dr. Irv Saposnik, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Hertzberg, Rabbi Dr. Stanley Dreyfus and most recently, Edgar M. Bronfman.
Finally, in addition to working with our current president Charles Nathan, I have been blessed to have the support of past-presidents Jules Hirsch and David Kasakove as well as our current and past trustees, committee members and volunteers. Building and strengthening our synagogue with all of you has been a true blessing.
At age fifty-one and after nearly 25 years of work in the broader Jewish community, I am eager to pursue other areas of interest and public service in New York City. Rachel and the girls join me in expressing our heartfelt emotions at this time of transition and know that this strong and historic community will continue to thrive and grow for generations to come.
With sincere gratitude,