Succot 5781

Succot 5781

Making Music with What Remains

I was saddened, but not surprised, by the news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. It was obvious that she was fighting a desperate battle to stay alive until the inauguration of a new President. Alas, like all mortals, she has breathed her last. She is celebrated in death, as she was in life, for her ongoing struggle for gender equality and a fair and inclusive social order. She earned the honor of being the first Jew and first woman to lie in state at the Capitol. She clearly deserved this expression of national gratitude.

RBG, as she was affectionately called, bemoaned the divisiveness and ugliness that has infected our society. Liberals and conservatives with differing ideologies have erected a wall of separation. For RBG, however, respecting your opponent’s humanity outweighed the issues in contention.

Antonin Scalia was a legal giant. Even as RBG was an icon for the left, he was an icon for the right. Each of these legal giants was committed to his/her legal philosophy. They were as often as not on the opposite side of the issues, but they were close personal friends. They were guests in each other’s homes; they celebrated family holidays together; they respected each other’s humanity.

RBG was a mentsch. This manifested itself not only in her long legal career as an advocate, a judge and then as Justice, but in her relationship with the many young lawyers fortunate to be her clerks. She demanded excellence but had deep affection for them as human beings. She celebrated their birthdays and apparently was a shadchanit, who helped young people find one another, to build lives together and, on occasion, was the marriage officiant.

The famed violinist Itzhak Perlman entered the concert stage supporting himself with his two crutches. He sat in his chair, picked up his violin, assured himself that all was in order and indicated to the conductor he was ready. No sooner had he begun when one of the violin strings snapped. Perlman, however, barely flinched. He continued to play with but three strings, changing, adjusting, improvising and innovating to the symphony’s amazingly successful conclusion. Responding to the enthusiastic standing ovation, he simply said, “It is our task to make music with what remains.”

The story, whether true or legend, is an apt metaphor for life. Perlman, a victim of polio, continued despite his physical limitations to make music all his life. Each of us during our lifetime is inevitably confronted with difficulties and frustrations. The quality of our life is determined by our ability to make music with what remains.

On a plaque on RBG’s wall and woven into one of her famous collars is RBG’s favorite biblical text, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). In a real sense, this was her marching order in a lifelong journey to make America more inclusive and more just.

The fragile succah is a powerful reminder of human fragility and that of a just society. May we invite RBG’s spirit into our succah and be strengthened in our resolve to help build that just, inclusive, and respectful America, to which she dedicated her life.

Her death is a great loss; the quality of our social and legal discourse is, and will continue to be, affected. Yet generations come and generations go and assuredly those who were inspired, instructed, and defended by RBG will continue to play her music with what remains.

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing and a Chag Succot Sameach, a festive and joyous celebration of Succot

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar

Rosh Hashanah 5781

Rosh Hashanah 5781

Adapting

Living with the pandemic is an ongoing challenge. Changes in our lives have affected relationships and altered how and where we do our work, study and pray. It has not been easy. The story of Abraham’s concubine, Hagar, provides a perspective during these days of trial and challenge.

The first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah selection includes the story of Abraham’s banishment of Hagar together with their son, Ishmael. They are dispatched to the desert with only bread and water.

Wandering in the vast wasteland, their water soon gives out. Overcome by thirst and dehydration, a weeping Hagar, awash in self-pity, collapses opposite an immobilized Ishmael. It is then that an angel of God calls her to open her eyes to behold the well of water within her sight. She and Ishmael drink, fill the bottle of water and continue on their journey. They successfully exit from the desert to build new lives.

Hagar survived by transcending her self-pity. Surviving the pandemic likewise requires overcoming the tendency to be immobilized by the challenges of the moment. The human capacity to adapt to trying circumstances and difficult situations is an amazing blessing, that can be neutralized, however, by self-pity.

Face masks are uncomfortable and social distancing seriously compromises the experience of intimacy. We have, however, discovered the power of Zoom and other technologies to enable us to convert our homes to office workspace, classrooms, prayer sites and most significantly, into virtual venues for family gatherings, for both simcha and sadness. By successfully overcoming the Hagar response we have transcended much of the pain, frustration and isolation caused by the pandemic.

Our Synagogues and Temples have proven to be innovative in adapting to the many limitations that are a consequence of the pandemic. High Holiday services will be different this year, but they will nonetheless be inspiring and meaningful. May the prayers that our lives speedily return to normal be fulfilled, and may the strength and resolve demonstrated during this crisis be an ongoing source of inspiration for us all.

From the holy city of Jerusalem, my best wishes for a Shanah Tovah U’Metukah, a year of blessings, good tidings and of health.

Rabbi Arnold M Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar

Shofetim 5780

Shofetim 5780

Life Matters

Justice Justice shall you pursue… (Deuteronomy 16:18)

If one is found slain… Lying in the field and it is not known who has slain him… The elders of the city nearest the slain man shall wash their hands and say our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it… (ibid 21:1, 7)

Moses in his final discourses to the Israelites instructs them to build a just and moral society in the Promised Land they are poised to enter. He challenges them with three words in the third verse of this week’s Torah portion: Tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice shall ye pursue.

If a man is found slain in the field and it is not known who has slain him, a just society assures the safety of all in its midst. Life matters even when the identity of the victim is unknown. To pursue justice is not solely justice for the residents of the community or for its privileged members, the pursuit of justice demands embracing the underprivileged, the stranger, the “other.” It’s an ongoing task requiring commitment, initiative and determination. Society is to be proactive in establishing and maintaining the highest standards of righteousness and integrity.

If an apparent victim of violence, is found in the field i.e. not within the boundaries of any community, it’s easy to dismiss it as another unsolved crime, but not so in this instance. Here all the elders of the city closest to where the body is found must gather at the nearest “mighty stream” with a one-year-old heifer and engage in a profound rite. They are to break its neck and then washing their hands in the brook proclaim their innocence by reciting, “Our hands not shed this blood.”

The Talmud notes it is inconceivable that the elders committed this crime. Why then this profession of innocence? This was to proclaim that this stranger did not enter their city only to be denied hospitality and departed without provisions and an escort to guide and protect him on his way. The elders speaking for their community were affirming that the stranger’s life was of consequence. Life matters. All life matters even that of the stranger. The pursuit of justice demands we be concerned about the welfare and safety of the outsider and “other.”

This ancient rite is rooted in the Biblical and Rabbinic teachings that the stance of “live and let live” it is contrary to the obligation to be proactive in the pursuit of justice. We are mandated to assume responsibility for the safety of others and that basic needs of food, shelter and security are assured to all.

This yesteryear’s rite unfolded at the banks of a raging stream, a metaphor developed at a later age by the prophet Amos who portrayed “justice welling up as water and justice as a mighty stream.” He framed an eternal challenge to nurture justice and to make it a powerful and ever living force in our communal and personal lives.

This ceremony of bygone days is no longer practiced, but like a mighty stream its message continues to flow focusing us on pursuing justice and affirming that life matters.

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar

He Bent the Arc

He Bent the Arc

Reflections on Representative John Lewis

The Israelite rebellion in response to the Spies’ report regarding the Land of Israel, found in the Book of Numbers, sealed the fate of the generation of the Exodus. Other than Caleb and Joshua, all over twenty years of age would perish during a forty-year trek in the desert; the children and grandchildren would cross the Jordan into Canaan. Forty years later, Moses, prior to his own departure from the scene, recounts, with admiration, Caleb’s bravery in confronting the mob and assuring them that, with God’s help, they would prevail.

For Moses, Caleb was a profile in courage. His faith in God and in the destiny of the people fired his courage.

I first met John Lewis in 1986 when he was the underdog candidate for Congress. We met for a morning cup of coffee, and I was impressed by his candor and humility. His leadership role in the civil rights movement was well-known, and he was widely respected as a champion for human rights issues.

He narrowly won that election and served in Congress for over 30 years until his recent death. He quickly became the conscience of the Congress and was not only a voice for justice for the African-American community. He spoke up on behalf of Soviet jury and for the State of Israel.

Some years ago, the congregation had a one-day mission to visit the National Holocaust Museum in DC. I contacted John Lewis and invited him to meet with us in the Museum’s rotunda. He graciously accepted and spoke with great sensitivity about the Holocaust and the challenge of quashing evil before it takes permanent root. He ended with the affirmation of “Never Again.” We sensed that, had there been individuals with John’s passion for justice and with his courage to speak truth to power, the Third Reich might not have taken root in Germany.

I had the honor of introducing John at a Rabbinical Assembly convention in Atlanta. He was enthusiastically received by my colleagues for his unyielding opposition to prejudice based on religion, color, or ethnicity.

I was present at the Governor’s mansion to celebrate the publication of John’s biography, Walking with The Wind. In his talk, John reflected on the time that he applied for a library card in Alabama and was turned down. When he grew up, the government was all too often an enemy of people of color. His presence at the mansion of the Governor of a historic Southern State was significant, but there was still a long road ahead in the ongoing challenge of bending the arc of history toward justice.

It’s an American story. This son of a sharecropper in rural Alabama rose to be a leader in national and state government. Yet he never backed away from his deep-seated commitment to speak truth to power. He was rightly called the conscience of the Congress; more appropriately, he was the conscience of so many of us. This modern-day Caleb awakened every morning to continue his life work of “bending the arc of history toward justice.”

Completing this task is more than a forty-year trek. It’s an ongoing mission to arrive at the day when justice shall well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24). May he rest in peace.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Rabbinic Scholar

Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all the men that were upon the face of the earth (Num. 12:3).

Perhaps the Torah is correct in its description of Moses in the Book of Numbers. From numerous personal experiences, I know those words accurately describe our friend and brother, John Lewis, of blessed memory.

I saw Representative Lewis speak before large audiences. I interacted with him in large groups and in small settings. Always the same John Lewis. Always the same countenance. Humility that, ironically, was overpowering.

In meetings, Representative Lewis gave his full attention. “Perfunctory” and “automatic pilot” were not words or expressions in his lexicon. Mr. Lewis focused on people, especially on young people. I recall a meeting in his office with about twenty people. Representative Lewis invited everyone to introduce herself or himself. When he reached the youngest member of the delegation, a teenager, John stopped the flow of introductions. He asked questions of the young man. He probed. He was interested in him, and he appreciated that this teenager had taken the time to visit him in Washington, DC. And, as always, he encouraged the young man to learn and to “get into good trouble.” A civil rights icon and a man admired by many people treated a young man in his office as if he were the guest of honor in this gathering! What humility!

In May 2013, I was with Representative Lewis in his office on a Tuesday. In a rather offhanded manner, he mentioned he would be at the Seminary two days later. John was excited to go to the institution he associated with a man he greatly admired, Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory. But Representative Lewis didn’t tell me why he would be going to JTS. Only later that day did I learn he would be receiving an honorary degree and serving as Commencement speaker! He was too modest to tell me exactly why he was going to the Seminary. Two days later, I beamed as I sat in the audience and listened to Representative Lewis. His humility, shaped by the gratitude he felt in being honored by the institution he associated with the man he called “Rabbi Herschel,” was evident to all who were present.

Rabbi Arnold Goodman and I were among the members of the Rabbinical Assembly to have been fortunate to share a personal relationship with Representative John Lewis, of blessed memory. But his humble nature is an example to all of us. May the memory of his many good works be for a blessing and provide us with reassuring direction in these challenging times.

Rabbi Neil Sandler

Devarim (Shabbat Hazon) 5780

Devarim (Shabbat Hazon) 5780

He Bent the Arc

In the first chapter of Deuteronomy, the fifth of the Five Books of Moses that we begin reading this Shabbat, Moses praises Caleb for his courage and his faith. Forty years earlier he was one of the twelve men dispatched by Moses to scout out the Promised Land. Ten of the twelve lauded the beauty and fertility of the land but bemoaned that the imposing Canaanite cities and its well-trained warriors would be impossible to overcome. The report sparked a rebellion against Moses and God.

Caleb undaunted by the mass hysteria silenced the people with the assurance, “Have no fear of the people of the country for the Lord is with us.” The agitated community would have pelted him with stones had not the presence of the Lord made itself felt.

The rebellion sealed the fate of the generation of the Exodus. Other than Caleb and Joshua all over twenty years of age would perish during a forty-year trek in the desert; the children and grandchildren would cross the Jordan into Canaan. Forty years had passed, and Moses, prior to his own departure from the scene, recounts with admiration Caleb’s bravery in confronting the mob and assuring them that with God’s help they would prevail.

For Moses, Caleb was a profile in courage. His faith in God and in the destiny of the people fired his courage. Regrettably, his peers were not so blessed.

I first met John Lewis in 1986 when he was the underdog candidate for Congress. We met for a morning cup of coffee, and I was impressed by his candor and humility. His leadership role in the civil rights movement was well known, and he was widely respected as a champion for human rights issues.

He narrowly won that election and served in Congress for over 30 years until his recent death. He quickly became the conscience of the Congress and was well not only a voice for justice for the African-American community. He spoke up on behalf of Soviet jury and for the State of Israel.

Some years ago, the Congregation had a one day mission to visit the National Holocaust Museum in DC. I contacted John Lewis and invited him to meet with us in the Museum’s rotunda. He graciously accepted and spoke with great sensitivity about the Holocaust and the challenge of quashing evil before it takes permanent root. He ended with the affirmation of “Never Again.” We sensed had there been individuals with John’s passion for justice and with his courage to speak truth to power the Third Reich might not have taken root in Germany.

I had the honor introducing him at a Rabbinical Assembly convention in Atlanta. He was enthusiastically received by my colleagues for his unyielding opposition to prejudice based on religion, color, or ethnicity.

I was present at the Governor’s mansion to celebrate the publication of his biography, Walking With The Wind. In his talk, John reflected on the time that he applied for a library card in Alabama was turned down When he grew up the government was all too often an enemy of the people of color. His presence at the mansion of the Governor of a historic Southern State was significant, but there was still a long road ahead in the ongoing challenge of bending the arc of history toward justice.

It’s an American story. This son of a sharecropper in rural Alabama rose to be a leader in national and state government. Yet he never backed away from his deep-seated commitment to speak truth to power. He was rightly called the conscience of the Congress; more appropriately, he was the conscience of so many of us. This modern-day Caleb awakened every morning to begin a new day to continue his life work of “bending the arc of history toward justice.”

Completing this task is more than a forty-year trek. It’s an ongoing mission to arrive at the day when “Justice shall well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) May he rest in peace.

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and of blessing.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar

*The haftara or prophetic selection on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av is the first chapter of Isaiah that begins with the words Hazon Yeshayahu, the vision of Isaiah.(Hence the designated name of Shabbat Hazon.) In this chapter the prophet mourns that the faithful city (Jerusalem) that once was ”filled with justice and where righteousness dwelt… they (now) do not judge he case of the orphan and the widow’s cause never reaches them.” This powerful chapter is a fitting the segue into the annual Black Fast that this year begins on Wednesday night.

Pinchas 5780

Pinchas 5780

"Men"

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson died. I suspect that he regarded the Declaration with its immortal words he crafted as the most significant monument to his life and labors, far more than monuments of stone or bronze.

Did Jefferson a Virginia patrician and slaveholder really believe that all men are created? Could he have been totally unaware of the overt contradiction between enslaved Africans and their white masters and oppressors? Did he not realize that “men” excluded women and that gender inequality was the norm? Was Jefferson a hypocrite whose way all life contradicted his inspiring rhetoric? My sense is that for him and his peer’s “men” was a generic term that excluded people of color and women.

Was the story to end here that efforts to stamp out his memory by destroying appropriate monuments and statues are not only understandable but even defensible. Yet what Jefferson bequeathed to us in the Declaration’s preamble is a canvas upon which later generations have continued to expand our understanding of “men.” It’s been a painful and all too slow process, but ultimately the slaves were freed and given the dignity of being regarded as “men.” It took well over a century for the suffragettes to him achieve their goal of gender equality.

George Washington was also a slaveholder, yet our first president refused a third term, thereby affirming that in electing a President the nation was not crowning a king. Jefferson, Washington and virtually the entire generation created the basic structure of the United States and set us out upon the task to fashion a social order that continually expands our perception of “men.”

We are regrettably not yet a perfect society that is totally inclusive to all. The mantra Black Lives Matter is a reminder that we have yet to fully expand “men” to embrace every one of us.

Following the French Revolution an empowered citizenry resorted to the guillotine to behead former oppressors in those suspected of opposing the new regime. The current frenzy to behead statues and destroyed monuments that memorialize proponents of racism and exclusion. Yet there is an important distinction between the founders and defenders of the Confederacy that in its defense of slavery sought to abort the union and the generation of the founders.

Despite their obvious limitations and perspectives, with their affirmation of the equality of all “men” they set us on the journey to create a more perfect union. The glorious history of our nation is in its determination to continually redefine and broaden “men” to include us all. Obviously and regrettably we are not there yet, but the arc of history continues to bend and to expand to attain total inclusiveness.

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.

Rabbi Arnold M Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar

New Beginnings Begin by Perspective

New Beginnings Begin by Perspective

What are new beginnings, really? Are they events, happenings that we step into, or are they something else entirely? Today marks some profound beginnings. Rabbi Sandler begins a new chapter in his professional career, after 37 years of full time service to the Jewish community, he is beginning a new adventure, stepping into a new role with our congregation and planning his exciting and vibrant future, which will, God-willing, include a grandbaby! (B’Sha’ah Tovah to Neil, Susan, Ariel, and Jamie). If only baseball was happening, Neil would then be able to say he had arrived in Gan Eden (The Garden of Eden). Today is Rabbi Sam’s first day as the Associate Rabbi of our congregation. More than his new beginning, this is a wonderful beginning for us which I pray we will capture by making him feel welcomed and part of the Ahavath Achim family. Many of us are still acclimating to the new, virtual world. Although there is still a sting when we think about our new reality, I am hearing about people leaning in and adapting, embracing, and exploring a world without the restrictions of distance. People taking online classes from major universities they never visited, they are connecting with old friends, far away. Others are learning about different cultures and connecting with people in far off countries. It’s amazing… it’s a new beginning.

The question I want to ask is not about when beginnings happen but what allows them to happen. Beginnings are more than just points in time; when one thing ends, so another thing begins. There are plenty of people who arrive at such moments and nothing changes for them. Our Torah shares with us a subtle truth about beginnings – they are often about perspective.

In Parshat Balak, we learn the story of the sorcerer/prophet Bilam, who was sent to curse the Jewish people only to change his words into a blessing and a statement of admiration. Bilam’s words are found in our prayer book each morning – Mah Tovu O’halecha, Ya’akov – How beautiful are your tents. Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel. We not only say these words each morning to start our morning prayers, it is arguably the most learned piece of liturgy/scripture introduced to our children in song. Although the words are beautiful and the end result of the story is one of blessing, it is a bit strange that we start each morning and we teach our children the words of somebody whose intention originally was one of cursedness.

Our Torah is sharing with us an important truth about beginnings – they are all about perspective. No doubt, life happens: jobs end, opportunities arise and fall, moments come and go. However, our emotional, spiritual, and mental posture will dictate so much about how those moments are perceived, confronted, and experienced. Just as in the case of Bilam, perspective can change in a heartbeat. You could feel one way one minute and another way the next. We recite Mah Tovu each morning because today doesn’t need to be tied to our experience from yesterday. Children learn how to sing these words because each moment must be approached with a freshness and openness turning something ordinary into something extraordinary. A new world is beginning! It begins the minute we decide to seek its blessings rather than its curses.

Korach 5780

Korach 5780

The Desert's Populist

Vayikach Korach (and Korach took…) are the opening words of this week’s Torah portion without any reference to what was taken. An insightful Midrash suggests that he took “himself.”

Korach, Moses’ first cousin, was talented, articulate and ambitious. It was toward the end of the 40-year trek in the desert, and the Israelites were restive, fatigued and unsure of their future. Most of the adult generation that had witnessed the Exodus was now gone. The sameness of life in the desert was terribly burdensome, and the stated goal of conquest and settlement of the Promised Land was still an unrealized dream.

Korach, sensing the increasing disillusionment with Moses, openly challenged him. With the support of a cadre of elders he took himself (i.e. he raised himself up as the champion of the people). He was the classic prototype of the populist, thundering, “All of the people are holy, and why have you raised yourself over us all?” He pictured Moses as an elitist, while describing himself as a true man of the people.

Korach made his move shortly after Moses was challenged by his two older siblings, Aaron and Miriam, who insisted that they too were worthy of directly hearing God’s words. The Divine response was that Moses had two sterling qualifications: he was the most upright of God’s people and yet the most humble.

Korach’s attempt ultimately failed. His true character came to light when he spurned Moses’ offer to meet and hopefully reach a compromise possibly creating a new status quo in which he might have a significant role. He perceived Moses’ humility as a weakness, paying scant attention to his basic and admirable integrity. It was this hubris that led to Korach’s downfall. In the Bible’s words, “the earth swallowed him up.” The force of this description is that he disappeared from the scene as if consumed by the very environment he sought to dominate.

The Bible’s magic is in its grasp of human nature. It tells us of Cain’s envy of Abel that led to the terrible act of fratricide, the ongoing reality of sibling rivalry and family disharmony, the excessive appetite of kings and leaders, the corruption of the cult by venal priests and the stranglehold of the “haves” over the “have-nots.”

Korach’s burning ambition to court popular support to achieve his personal goal is obviously not a solitary incident in human history. This manipulation has been replicated to this very day, all too often with disastrous consequences for the targeted community, society or nation.

Excessive ego is an accepted characteristic of a leader. He/she must be confident in the ability to assure the populace’s welfare. Moses’ total humility, while one-of-a-kind, and his total integrity are ongoing challenges before every aspiring leader. These two divine criteria of unflinching honesty and a healthy dose of humility are a challenge for each of us, and certainly for the men and women who aspire to leadership.

The leader who insists he can do no wrong, who over and again demonstrates that it’s all about me is tragically an anti-Moses and as a contemporary disciple of Korach deserves to be replaced.

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.

Rabbi Arnold M Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar

Always Becoming, Always Evolving, Always Arriving

Always Becoming, Always Evolving, Always Arriving

“Lech Lecha may’artzecha…” These are the first words with which the Holy One turned to our spiritual patriarch, Abraham. God knew exactly what Abraham’s mission would be… to go to the place where the Holy One would lead him, the Land of Israel.

Later in the Torah, Abraham’s personal journey would be mirrored in the lives of our Israelite ancestors in Egypt. Their points of departure were different, but the destination was the same. There was, however, one significant difference between these journeys. Abraham arrived in the destination. However, when the Torah reaches its conclusion the Israelites remain just outside the Land, poised to enter it.

In a recent class, Rabbi Brad Artson, Dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the American Jewish University, remarked on the ironic nature of the Torah in this regard. So much of the Torah is devoted to the journey, but the journey’s end isn’t reached. Similarly, in their own lives, people are never really “there” or fully settled.

Journeys… never quite complete.

Over thirty-eight years ago, I was ordained a “Rabbi, Teacher and Preacher in Israel.” I completed a master’s degree in social work the next year and then set out on a great adventure. Like Abraham, I had no idea where I was heading! I didn’t know, even after ordination, if I wanted to be a pulpit rabbi! My first experience in a congregation convinced me. I gained a sense of calling and mission. I knew this was what I was meant to do. Then, in that proverbial “blink of an eye,” thirty-seven years flew by. While I haven’t reached the end of my pulpit career, I have reached the end of my tenure as a full-time rabbi. For the next year, I will serve our congregation on a part-time basis and support the efforts of our excellent and engaging rabbis, Laurence Rosenthal and Sam Blustin.

Unlike Abraham, as I began my pulpit career, I felt no “guiding hand.” But I did eventually feel God’s presence. That was sufficient and reassuring enough for me. As the years went by, I discerned more about the “destination” and what I sought to accomplish in the rabbinate.

Now it is time for a significant transition in my life…

Back in that recent class, Rabbi Artson drew out the metaphorical significance of the Israelites temporarily ending their journey in the Torah while encamped on the east bank of the Jordan River, just across from their ultimate destination. “Like the Israelites, we are,” Rabbi Artson suggested, “always becoming, always evolving, always arriving.”

That’s an apt metaphor today for my life as a congregational rabbi and spiritual leader. My full-time career is coming to an end. Yet, as a rabbi, a human being, a husband, a father, and a grandfather (God-willing, later this fall!), I am still becoming… and so are you.

What a blessing…

“Baruch Atta Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam shehechianee…” Praised are You, Sovereign of the world, who has kept me in life, sustained me and enabled me to reach this wondrous moment!

Rabbi Neil Sandler

This Is a Big Moment, Don’t Let It Go Unnoticed! Reflections of My 12 Years With Neil and Susan Sandler

This Is a Big Moment, Don't Let It Go Unnoticed!

Reflections of My 12 Years With Neil and Susan Sandler

This Shabbat will mark another important shift in the life of our community but more importantly, in the life of the rabbinate of our beloved Rabbi Neil and Susan Sandler. Next week, Rabbi Sandler transitions from full time to part time membership on our team. This transition has been a long one and, frankly, unlike many that are experienced in congregations. Although Rabbi and Susan will still be around, and you will still have opportunities to learn from, study with, consult with Rabbi Sandler for the coming year, I need to acknowledge this moment because it’s a big one. If left alone, I imagine many of us might not even notice. But it’s big. After 37 years as a full-time rabbi, 16 of those years serving our own community, Rabbi and Susan are taking this major step back. When I reflect on my 12 years at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, I cannot do so without an incredible sense of gratitude for Neil and Susan; for what they have meant to me, for what they have meant to this community, and for what they have meant to Ahavath Achim Synagogue. Of course, I can’t capture everything in this letter. However, I hope that my words here will help each of us conjure our own gratitude for Neil and Susan; gratitude which I pray that you might share with others, especially with them directly.

My first memory of Rabbi Sandler was from interview week at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. All graduating rabbinical students were provided the opportunity to interview with congregations of their choosing, in a round-robin style process (one hour, each interview). After reading a few synagogue profiles, Brooke and I agreed that we couldn’t tell the difference between any of them. They all said they were welcoming, dynamic, engaging, [you fill in the positive attribute]. We finally decided to interview only with congregations that were nestled in areas, according to Google Maps, with a lot of tree coverage. I ended up sitting through 11 interviews in three days. I remember very little about any specific interview. The questions were generic (Good but the same) and after the third interview, the faces all started to blend together. I mainly interviewed with congregations seeking an assistant rabbi so the majority of these one-hour conversations included a senior colleague as part of the search committee. I don’t remember any of them. Except one. Rabbi Neil Sandler. After my interview with Ahavath Achim Synagogue of Atlanta, GA, the senior rabbi walked me out of the room, thanked me for my time, handed me his card and said that if there was anything I needed or wanted to discuss, about the AA Synagogue or the job search in general, that I could call him. What a mensch! No other rabbi did this. No other interview ended in such a way. It was the one interview after which I was able to turn to Brooke and say that I wanted to work with somebody like that. Upon reflecting over the twelve years since, I can say that nothing has changed. Neil’s best trait is that he is a mensch through and through, filled with love, compassion, kindness, and wisdom. Immediately upon arriving in Atlanta to begin our tenure with Ahavath Achim, we met Susan Sandler – she was even better! A dynamic duo if there ever was one.

When I came to Ahavath Achim fresh out of school, I had no idea how to officiate at a funeral, a bris or baby naming, a wedding. I had never led services before. I participated in services but never created and held a sacred space from beginning to end. I had CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) but those hospital visits were with strangers whom I would never see again, never with congregants and their families with whom I would be living together in community. It’s a much different dynamic. Neil taught me how to do all of that. His door was always open when I needed to vent (I had a lot of venting to do), and eventually, my door became a place for him to walk in and vent. The Rabbi I am today is in large part because of the love, patience, and guidance that Rabbi Sandler shared with me. For that I am eternally grateful.

However, my gratitude extends beyond our professional relationship. Susan and Neil have acted as surrogate aunt and uncle for my family. Susan was on call for our kids when we were making midnight runs to the hospital to have more children. Countless Shabbat afternoons bringing over their dog and taking our kids out for a walk around the neighborhood. Shabbat and holiday meals together, baseball & basketball games, birthday parties, the list goes on and on. When we moved to Atlanta, we didn’t think we had family here…we were wrong. We simply needed to learn what family really meant.

About four years ago, Rabbi Sandler returned from a sabbatical with a new clarity of the Jewish world, the trajectory of Jewish life in America and the direction a congregation like Ahavath Achim Synagogue was needing to take to be relevant in the new spiritual landscape. It was at that time that he began talking with me about a new role with the congregation. The role of senior rabbi. Soon, Neil discussed his ideas with leadership and started the ball rolling towards this transition process. Neil and Susan put their own financial, spiritual, emotional, and professional well-being aside for the betterment of the AA community. I don’t know many people who would do such things. Once again – what a mensch!

I am the rabbi I am today because of Rabbi Sandler. I am the father and family man I am today because of the care and love of both Neil and Susan. I am grateful for my 12 years professionally, spiritually and in family with Rabbi and Susan Sandler. This moment is a big one and I am grateful that our moments together aren’t done yet. I pray that we will be able to celebrate the achievements, growth, and life that Susan and Rabbi Sandler had given to our spiritual family.

With gratitude,

Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal