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.
Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal