Sanibel Sunrise

 

A new friend I hope to see in SanibelIMG_9096“מצוה גוררת מצוה. One good deed leads to another,” is one of the best-known quotations from Pirke Avot (4:2), the Talmudic tractate of wise maxims and moral teachings of our Sages.

Its wisdom again touched my life recently when Rabbi Guershon Kwasniewski from Porto Alegre, Brazil contacted me. Guershon was applying for membership in the Central Conference of American Rabbis and wrote to ask if I would write a letter of recommendation on his behalf.

Few requests could give me greater joy, as Guershon is an amazing rabbi.

When I visited Porto Alegre, as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in 2012, Guershon’s wisdom, caring and skill impressed me in so many ways.  He is a wonderful spiritual leader, an amazing organizer of events, a gifted teacher and a powerfully positive presence in interfaith community.

The furthest thing on my mind when I finished my letter for Rabbi Kwasniewski was looking for a job.

But when I went to the CCAR web site to look up the address of CCAR’s Placement Director, Rabbi Alan Henkin, (soon to retire after rendering years of invaluable service to our conference and the person to whom Guershon requested I write), I noticed our list of available positions.

I was not looking for a job, but the notice about a “part-time seasonal” position at Temple Bat Yam in Sanibel Island, Florida caught my eye.

Bat Yam’s rabbi, Myra Soifer, a highly respected colleague, is among the first female rabbis ordained by the Reform movement. She has left her post to join the Peace Corps and will teach English in Rwanda!

Myra wrote glowingly of the community and its members. She added that the congregation meets in a building owned by a UCC church and they had a wonderful relationship with congregation and its pastor, Dr. John Danner.

It is a congregation comprised almost exclusively of retirees, most of whom spend the warm weather months elsewhere.

The position seemed right up my alley.

It runs from the Days of Awe through the Sanibel “season” in April. So I would have several months free. The congregation’s demographics mean no religious school, youth groups, B’nai Mitzvah students—save for any interested adults—or Confirmation Class.

The primary rabbinical responsibilities are teaching, speaking, leading worship, attending to pastoral needs of the congregation and representing the congregation in the community at large.

So, I uploaded my CV, which I had not looked at in six years, added just a few pertinent items, and asked Rabbi Henkin to send it to Sanibel.

A few days later I got an email that the search committee chair would like to Face Time with me. She did and I was most impressed by her.

After the interview she said she would like to schedule another Face Time with other members of the Search Committee.

After three more Face Time interviews with members of the committee, the congregation invited Vickie and me down for a weekend of interviews and presentations.

One of the vital appointments I asked the committee to include was a meeting with Dr. Danner, Pastor of the UCC Church in which the congregation “lives.” Within five minutes, I knew it would be a privilege to work with him.

When they offered me the position several days later, I enthusiastically accepted.

Of course when a rabbi—any rabbi—is offered a position, other colleagues are disappointed. I feel for them. I have certainly been there.

Still I rejoice at the opportunity Bat Yam has offered me. I pray that I will be a blessing to the community and that serving them will bring blessings to Vickie and me.

I marvel too that all of this unfolded because I was doing a favor for a colleague.

Indeed, “מצוה גוררת מצוה. One good deed leads to another.”

 

 

Bernard Werthan, Jr.

No one outside of my immediate family has had as great an impact on my life or been a greater inspiration to my thinking than Bernard Werthan, Jr.

Bernard was born to a family of means and could have lived a life of self-centered leisure. Instead, he chose a life of tireless service to others. He gave to his community and to individuals who needed help in too many ways to count.

He and Betty, his lifelong love, were an amazing team. She was his muse, his inspiration and his support. They were far greater together than even the considerable sum of their parts.

One of Bernard’s main charitable endeavors was OIC***.

One year, when Senator Albert Gore, Jr. had to cancel at the last minute, after he had accepted the invitation to speak at the OIC graduation, Bernard decided I was the one to take his place.

“You mean,” I asked incredulously, “they are expecting Al Gore, and they are going to get me?

“You can do it,” he said.

That was just one example of a time that Bernard had more confidence in me than I have in myself. I shall always be grateful for the trust he placed in me.

Bernard never stopped learning and stretching the extraordinary mind with which God blessed him. He was always on the lookout for ways to use his knowledge to serve others.

During my last visit to Nashville, Bernard said just before I left: “There are two books that you have to read. They put race relations in our country in a whole new light. I’ll have them sent to you.”

A few days later two volumes arrived: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. They sat unopened on my shelf for a year and a half.

Then the invitation came for me to be this year’s keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Day Commemoration and Scholarship Awards Ceremony in Albuquerque, NM.

It was as though Bernard had sent me Stevenson and Alexander’s books for just that occasion.

I read them, and it was just as Bernard had said, they put race relations in America—a subject with which I thought I was thoroughly familiar—in a whole new light. The insights those books contain added immeasurably to the quality of my speech.

For me and for so many others Bernard Werthan put not only race relations but also the very meaning and purpose of life in a whole new light.

His generosity, his wisdom, his caring and his compassion will be a blessing to me—as it will be to so many–as long as I shall live.

 

***The mission of Nashville Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) is to provide education, training, counseling and job placement services for citizens of the community who are disadvantaged economically, educationally, and socially.

Our vision is to guide people on a successful road to self-achievement: leading to self-reliance.  

Why Israel Is So Special

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

As Israel celebrates its 66th year of independence, my mind replays a scene that could easily happen again today.
It was November 1975. The United Nations had just passed a horrific resolution condemning Zionism–-the very idea that there should be a Jewish State–as racism. Shocked, I knocked on the doors of one Christian pastor in our city after another asking for support.
Some were sympathetic, but I shall never forget one pastor’s response. “Steve,” he said, “you’ve taught me a lot about Judaism, and I consider you a friend. But I have neither interest in nor sympathy for Zionism.”
Today, on the land that made up the Turkish Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, twenty-two Arab/Islamic peoples have realized their hopes for independent nationhood. Jews also lived in the erstwhile Ottoman Empire. Why does the world begrudge one tiny sliver of land for Jewish national aspirations when…

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