Shabbat Service Tribute to Rabbi Neil and Susan Sandler
By Larry Gold, AA Past President
Saturday, June 12, 2021
I appreciate being given the honor of speaking today about our beloved and now retired (at least from AA) Senior Rabbi, Neil Sandler, and Susan Sandler. Thank you, Rabbi Rosenthal, Rabbi Blustin. Thank you, Gerry, and your fellow officers for giving me this opportunity.
I'm going to talk this morning about Neil and Susan from a personal perspective – as a congregant and as a past President of Ahavath Achim Synagogue.
There are many things I remember about Neil both during the search process and then again when he was engaged to become our Senior Rabbi in 2004. And of course, through the years we served together. Those memories linger and remain fresh because, at least initially, they were so intense.
To put this in some context, many of you here (and via Zoom) were with us in those days. Neil became our new Senior Rabbi at almost the same time I was installed as President. It was a new and eye-opening experience for both of us. And it was an especially challenging time for our Congregation. Rabbi Goodman had recently retired, and we were having issues with our clergy. I remember that our officer meetings during that time were focused heavily on personnel issues. And we were just beginning to realize that we had a major issue with a declining membership.
When we engaged Neil, one of the most pointed questions he asked us was whether we were ready for change. I remember vividly that conversation with him in – where else? The parking lot. The unofficial location for all serious business at AA.
I don't think Neil understood just how ready we were for change and I'm not sure we knew what sort of changes we wanted or envisioned. One thing all of us did know was that we couldn't make progress as a synagogue without embracing change. Well, here it came, ready or not, and hiring Neil was a big step in that direction.
Rabbi Sandler's tenure and my presidency got off to a rousing start with his first High Holidays with us. We had a terrible storm during the night of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and when we got to Synagogue on that first morning, we had no power; no electricity – nothing. Without electricity we had no lighting. What were we going to do? We could not cancel services on such an important holiday. Forget the Aliyah list that I had poured over for several weeks and all the calls I and my fellow officers made to line people up. Forget the normal service routines. And we had no time to consider many alternatives. Thank goodness, Rabbi Sandler was innovative enough and calm enough to figure it out. The only option was to conduct services in the Cohen Pavilion with as much daylight as we could get. We set up a raft of chairs in the Pavilion and on the outside on the sidewalk in front of the garden area and we conducted services as best we could manage. It was kind of like holding a service in a can or sardines, but it turned out to be a remarkable service. To this day, congregants tell me it was one of the nicest, warmest, and best Rosh Hashanah experiences they've ever had. We were warm and welcoming in a whole new way, long before that became a popular mantra. We also got to see how Neil could handle crises and how calmly he could respond to them.
Before going on about Neil, I want to mention that when we engaged Rabbi Sandler, we had only limited contact with Susan. What a wonderful surprise to find how fabulous a team they made and what a gem she is. For those of you who have had the pleasure of sharing a Shabbat or Holiday meal in their home, you know how gracious and warm she is. Not to mention, a wonderful cook and entertainer. Her dinners became legendary – in a very good way – and I still can taste her salmon dishes and her Challahs that are breathtakingly delicious. But Susan brought more to the table, literally and figuratively, than just her domestic skills. She is an accomplished social worker and has performed fabulously with hospice and in other parts of our Atlanta community. More pertinent to AA, she has been a force in our Congregation – not just with Sisterhood, where she ably served as President, but also with championing women's issues and rights along with Neil.
For me, seeing them together on Shabbat and holidays and sharing many experiences with both of them, was a real treat and gave me a sense of comfort and warmth. Almost family. I treasure their friendship and their devotion to our Congregation.
What kind of man is Neil? He's not demonstrative or flamboyant. Neil is quietly effective at what he does. I'll repeat that: He's quiet and effective. He also exhibits a very strong quality that I learned from one of my former senior law partners many years ago. That great man told me that I would be amazed at what I could accomplish if I didn't care who got the credit. I've tried to live up to that standard myself, but that is pure Neil Sandler. Wherever he learned those skills, they have stood him in good stead, and we have been the beneficiary of his grace, his wisdom, and his experience.
While I was President, he and I met almost every Thursday after morning minyan to discuss weekly events and updates. He would bring up issues about ritual, services, issues that the RA was dealing with and his take on some of the issues were we facing as a Congregation. I felt he and I were developing a very symbiotic relationship that transcended the normal relationship between a lay leader and a Rabbi. And I am proud to say that this relationship has continued to this day. There is no person in whom I have more respect or for whom I feel more gratitude for his service to our Congregation than Neil Sandler.
As our clergy got more stable, we were soon joined by our newest Rabbi, Laurence Rosenthal, right out of Ziegler Rabbinical School, along with Brooke and their family. As with any new rabbi, we weren't exactly sure what we were getting, and Neil, to his enduring credit, took hold and began a mentoring process with Laurence that blossomed into one of the most powerful, enduring relationships between clergy that I have ever seen. It would have been easy for Neil to covet the spotlight and let Laurence linger in the background for several years. But that is not Neil's persona nor his style. He gave Laurence headway to develop his own skill sets and become his own Rabbi, with support and guidance, to be sure, but without a heavy hand. I particularly remember when we first started the so-called "Tent Service" on Rosh Hashanah – I can't remember the exact year. But I do remember how wonderful that service was and how brilliantly Laurence and Steve Grossman, along with others like Michael and Bonnie Levine, used that venue to establish a terrifically musical and vibrant service that appealed to so many. So much so, that we now are incorporating much of the style and less rigorous, if I may use that term, rituals into our regular High Holiday Services. We have more music, too.
Remember AAbsolute Shabbats? Neil's idea. Remember our first steps toward egalitarianism that Rabbi Goodman started? Neil took that to an entirely new level, to the point that with only one exception I can think of (Duchening) we are a fully egalitarian congregation. Thanks to Neil.
In addition to his rabbinic duties, Neil became very active in AIPAC and attended many of its conventions and he participated in many of its activities. He has become a real leader in that organization. He has always, always been a strong supporter of the State of Israel and, unlike many of his colleagues, for whom Israel became a divisive issue with their congregations, to the point that many of them would not and still do not speak about Israel, Neil has been forthright and outspoken about his (and our) support for Israel. That support continues to this day.
And that's what I want to emphasize about Neil. He is calm and steady and very, very bright. He is also consistent and persistent. In his own quiet way, of course. I like to think, and I hope Neil appreciates this as a compliment, that when Neil is on the Bimah, he isn't "preaching". He is guiding and he is teaching, He is encouraging us to be better Jews. And he has demonstrated, with his behavior, his words and his actions, how to do just that.
Moreover, and this is important. One of the most amazing aspects of Neil's personality, and Susan's, is their seemingly infinite capacity for compassion and empathy for us. He's always there – be it a happy event or a sad one, Neil calls the family. Before Covid, he visited. And often Susan would accompany him. I don't think that can be taught at rabbinical school. And he keeps in touch. He and Susan make sure congregants know that that they care and that they will be there. They make all feel more connected and not alone. I think that Neil's soul, which is what I call that mystical essence that connects the head and the heart, is just a gift from God and one that Neil and Susan have shared so willingly with us.
I want to close with two personal points that I think help exemplify Neil's character. First, when Margo was installed as International President of USCJ, Neil flew to NY for her installation. He wasn't asked to do this. He didn't have to do this. But he did it. He came of his own accord because he wanted to, and because he wanted to show our Synagogue's support for Margo and for USCJ. It was a thrill for Margo and for me that he was there.
Second, when I was asked to give these remarks, I wrote to Neil and asked him to give me some of his highlights as our Senior Rabbi. As you know, Neil is a very modest human being. So, he gave me a pretty short list. I'd like to think that if I were making up such a list for him, it would have been much longer – but we would be here through Havdallah this evening.
The prophet Micah asks: What does God require of us? Micah's answer: To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. I cannot think of a man or woman who provides a better example of that kind of Jew than Neil Sandler and Susan Sandler.
Neil, Susan, you have served us well and, although I know you will keep Atlanta as your home base, we will miss you. I will miss you.
May you go from strength to strength.