L'hitra'ot… Not Goodbye:
Lessons Learned From Our Friend Rabbi Neil Sandler
Today Rabbi Sandler is making his way to Virginia to officially settle for the year in his new position at congregation Beth Emeth, in the town of Herndon, to serve as Interim Rabbi. There are many ways to say goodbye in Hebrew but my favorite is L'hitra'ot (see you later). As Rabbi Sandler goes up north to offer his skills, kindness, and expertise to a Conservative congregation in need, I am grateful for the legacy that he has left, the calm waters he has sailed us towards and the many gifts that his 17 years has provided me and our community. Throughout the month of June, we have taken the opportunity to honor Susan and Neil for the many contributions they have made to the structure, spirit, and culture of our congregation. Being behind the scenes, I can tell you that Rabbi Sandler was wildly uncomfortable with the fuss, yet we persisted. We all know that it is outside of Rabbi Sandler's nature to insist on the spotlight. In fact, much of my success is owed to his humility and generosity of spirit. I would not be the rabbi I am today if it weren't for the space that Neil provided me to hone my craft, create my own identity and build meaningful relationships. As Ahavath Achim synagogue continues its journey to meet the needs of 21 century Jews and lead the way in embracing and cultivating the new Jewish world, it is important to reflect on where we have been in order to take stock of our strengths and the incredible strides that we have made, for many of which Rabbi Sandler is owed credit.
Over the last 13 years, I have learned much from my mentor, colleague, and friend. My lessons learned were not just practical rabbinics, although there were plenty of those. Some of Neil's greatest teachings were true rabbinic ideas, steeped deeply in our Talmudic tradition.
- Pitchon Pey: Literally, the opening of the mouth. Don't give people an opportunity to talk… if you have made a mistake, admit it and work towards finding healing rather than protecting one's ego.
- Lefnei MeShoret HaDin: Beyond the letter of the law. Don't do the bare minimum. Go the extra mile to be helpful.
- Be a Mench: Self-explanatory.
- The World Stands Upon Three Pillars: The Pillar of Torah, the Pillar of Service, the Pillar of Loving-Kindness (Pirkei Avot 1:2): No two people embody this spiritual truth as Susan and Neil do.
Many beautiful things have been said about Rabbi Neil and Susan Sandler of their 17 years leading our community. Much of those comments focused on their menchlekite (loving-kindness). All the statements shared have been true and I know that they have appreciated these heartfelt reflections of gratitude offered in person, through emails, during classes and inscribed in their tribute book. I wanted to add one more for the roster before we close out this month of gratitude, appreciation, and celebration.
Rabbi Sandler has been at the helm of a cultural change within our congregation and community. When I arrived at Ahavath Achim synagogue, I found a community that was very loving and warm. It is why I chose to throw my lot in with this community. I remember, in those early years, that Rabbi Sandler was managing an aggressive campaign discussing the 'Spirituality of Welcoming,' a term brought to the forefront by Dr. Ron Wolfson's eponymous book. From the very beginning, I felt that this campaign of 'welcomeness' seemed a bit overkill. Not because it's not important, but because our community appeared to be so welcoming. As I was introduced to the data from the 2007 Strategic Plan and ventured out into the community, I realized that our congregation was not always known for its warmth and 'welcomeness.' Ahavath Achim had a very different reputation. Negative impressions can be lasting so we must continue to be vigilant. But I feel confident that today Ahavath Achim is known as a warm and welcoming community. That is a huge cultural change and Rabbi Sandler and his leadership during those early days deserve the credit.
Within the greater Atlanta community, Rabbi Sandler's impact was also felt, especially among his colleagues. On May 26, I completed my two-year term as president of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. The ARA is supported by a very generous grant from the Marcus Foundation which allows us to support the Metro Atlanta community of rabbis with coaching, high level learning with scholars from around the world, a three-day retreat with more learning and community building, as well as community visioning. Early in my tenure here, Rabbi Sandler was president, and this was before we had the amazing resources gifted by the Marcus grant. The rabbinic community was much different. Rabbis were siloed, only thinking about their own congregations. Participation at ARA programs was abysmal. Communities were competitive instead of collaborative and collegiality was not very high on anybody's list. Rabbi Sandler was part of those very early conversations about the possibility of forming a different rabbinic cohort and the idea of approaching the Marcus Foundation with a proposal. Today, it is widely felt that we have the strongest rabbinic community in Jewish Atlanta's history. This would not have happened without Rabbi Sandler's vision, persistence, and kindness.
Much can be said about the Sandlers' 17 years leading our community. We know that Congregation Beth Emeth in Herdon, VA will feel similar blessings over the next year. For me, Rabbi Sandler's presence is still very much here, helping me to guide and lead our community forward. As we continue to grow our community, to embrace Jews where they are and cultivate a Jewish community that speaks to the Jews of tomorrow, I am grateful for the strong position Rabbi Sandler has left us in and the tools he has personally given me to be successful. Thankfully, it's not goodbye but L'hitra'ot.