Once Again I Felt Alone

My 72nd birthday that I celebrate today is a stark reminder that my 50th Hamilton College reunion quickly approaches. On that weekend Vickie and I shall be in Germany where we will teach about the Holocaust in schools, and I will speak in several churches and synagogues. I am sorry to miss it.

That said, I wish I could reflect more lovingly on my Hamilton years. I learned so much, but I often felt alone and lonely at our then men’s college in the middle of nowhere.

As a Hamilton student I was closer to academic probation than Phi Beta Kappa. It was not for lack of trying. I studied hard, but the knowledge the professors wanted me to demonstrate on exams did not seem to penetrate my brain.

My only real success on the Hill came on the tennis courts where I treasure my 50-3 varsity record and the ECAC and NCAA (regional, college division) tournaments that I won. Perhaps the most touching compliment I have ever received was when (our Coach) Mox Weber told me as he presented me the MVP award for the ’68 tennis team: “Steve, you’re the best team captain I’ve ever had, and that’s not just in tennis. That’s in all sports.”

Looking back, I see the total absence of Jewish life on campus in those days as one of the factors that led me to become a rabbi. I missed what had been a significant part of my childhood and high school years.

In my rearview mirror I also see a significant measure of what I call “academic anti-Semitism” on campus then. There were no Jewish studies courses and no Hillel or other outlet for Jewish religious or cultural expression.

I am thankful that the Hamilton of today is a very different place.

I thought of that academic anti-Semitism this past Wednesday when I attended a lecture by the Swedish Political Scientist, Johan Norberg at Sanibel’s Big Arts’ Forum. He spoke about all the advances that in learning and technology that make the times we live in the best era in human history. He lauded the contributions of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Africans and Asians all of which propelled human progress forward in important ways.

As I sat there I thought, “What about the Jews?

What about a people who comprise less than 1/3 of one per cent of the human population but who somehow has won 30% of the Nobel prizes given since the awards’ inception. Have we done nothing noteworthy enough to advance human progress?

I am convinced Professor Norberg’s omission was not accidental. His notes were in the open computer in front of him.

As his lecture progressed he spoke of the perils of extreme nationalism that creates barriers among people and place some in superior positions to others.

Without mentioning Israel by name, I heard behind his words all of the bromides and slogans of the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment) movement against Israel pushed so hard in many academic circles.

There was nothing overtly “wrong” with Johan Norberg’s lecture. He was urbane, witty, and entertaining. The audience seemed to enjoy the presentation although some commented that it lacked the substance and depth they hoped for.

But as I listened to Professor Norberg, I felt transported back to the Hamilton College I attended in the 60 ‘s. I felt isolated and alone. I felt part of “a people לבדד (l’vadad)) alone among the nations”, as Balaam in the Bible described the ancient Israelites. (Numbers 23:9).

We well remember when not enough people stood up for us when other marginalized us. Professor Norberg reminded me of those times.

It was not his intent, but he also reminded me that I must stand up for others who feel marginalized and alone even in this, the best of all eras to live in human history.



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.”