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.