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Five Special Moments

It’s June, the final month of my work as Senior Rabbi of KI and all the big celebrations are behind us. We still have Confirmation (this Saturday night) and a number of Bnai Mitzvah and baby namings among other things. But the clock is running and sometime in the next two weeks I will be breaking down my office and starting the process of transferring over to my new digs in what has been the Gift Shop. So, it’s only natural that I am reflecting back on the last 21 years and singling out a host of special moments of particular importance to me. Here are five of them:

GETTYSBURG: As a little boy I was taken several times by my late father to visit the Gettysburg Battlefield where the Union and Confederate armies clashed from July 1 to July 3, 1863. It was the largest, bloodiest battle of the Civil War, the “high water mark” of the Confederacy and later the site of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s immortal 272-word speech dedicating the military cemetery. Always fascinated by those three fateful days in July 1863, I decided to do a research project identifying the Jewish soldiers on both sides of the field. As the list of names grew, I decided to go to Gettysburg and with the help of the thousands of military markers, determine where they stood and sometimes, died. The list is still a work in progress (with over 500 names) but even without a definitive count, I thought it worthwhile to organize a bus trip to Gettysburg and share my findings with the congregation “on site.” It was more than a great trip. It was spectacular and resulted in a flood of feelings as we walked the “angle” where Pickett’s Charge hit the Union line heavily populated by Jewish soldiers from Philadelphia and then stood in front of a marker commemorating the Gettysburg Address. It was a time of bonding, inspiration and renewal I will not forget.

SANCTUARY REFURBISHMENT: About a decade ago when Peter Soloff was President of the congregation, the Board decided it was time to reupholster the seats in the Sanctuary. While I agreed that the chairs needed work, I also thought it was the right moment to go large and think about how we would use our Sanctuary for the next generation. To my amazement, the discussions were brisk, engaged and quick! Just thinking about changing the central symbol of a synagogue can take years. But KI was ready. We needed to add technological capacity. We needed to work on the lighting, the sound system and the color scheme of the room. We needed to think about the use of Hebrew as a visual statement on the Bimah. We needed to lower the Bimah to get the clergy closer to the congregation, provide handicap access and we needed to find a new system to help the hearing impaired. In almost no time, a huge amount of money was raised, scaffolding was built from floor to ceiling and the work began. Remarkably, the new sanctuary looked a whole lot like the old sanctuary but is functionality had been radically upgraded. We now had sacred space for the 21st century. Our biggest and most revered space felt both majestic as always but yet more “heimish.” It was a critically important collective accomplishment and, perhaps, a little bit of a miracle, too.

DOCTOR OF DIVINITY (DD). Unlike most rabbis, I stayed in school for 7 more years after receiving my ordination in 1980 to earn my Ph.D. in Jewish history. A doctorate enabled me to have a two-track career, both in the pulpit and in academia. I was lucky because I was able to have both and, even more, one made the other better and deeper. So, as I approached the 25-year mark in my rabbinate in 2005 and became eligible for my Doctor of Divinity Degree, known among rabbis as a “Doctor of Duration” diploma, I did not think it was going to be “a big deal.” I went with my family to Congregation Emanu-El, on Fifth Avenue for the ceremony and to my surprise, was filled with emotion. My DD, I realized was not just a piece of paper, it was a hard earned recognition of 25 years in the pulpit, of living a fireman’s life and learning how to “pastor” a congregation of all sizes. While I was very happy to be “Rabbi Doctor Doctor,” I was even more gratified that my part of celebrating life, comforting the mourner and just “being there” had official as well as intrinsic value. I decided it was too much to change my letterhead and business card (remember them?), too many letters! But on the inside, it felt good. In any event, after becoming “Dr. Dr. Rabbi Professor,” I was just as content to be called “Lance” by those choosing to do so. I like all my titles but I am just as content in just being me.

MISHKAN T’FILAH. In my lifetime as a Reform Jew, I have had three prayer books. First was the Union Prayer Book (UPB), a small, beautifully written prayer book which represented the deep root of Reform Judaism from its classical phase. “Grant us peace” and “Let us adore” were two of many passages which became part of my spiritual oxygen as a young person. Next came the Gates of Prayer in the 1970s, a massive volume that reflected the growing diversity of Reform Judaism at the end of the 20th century. It had more Hebrew available than the old UPB but was a tad less majestic. It also came out just before the impact of feminism on the Reform movement. Thus, it was dated the day it appeared. In 2007, the movement published Mishkan T’filah or Sanctuary of Prayer, the third prayer book in my lifetime but this time I was not just a “user” but also a “producer” of the book. In the production process, something went terribly wrong and my rabbinic organization contacted me, along with a rabbi-attorney-friend, to take over the process. We worked furiously to fix the many technical problems and oversaw the printing of tens of thousands of prayer books. I was then invited to write a position paper to help frame Volume II for the High Holy Days. In my mind, the movement was ready to go digital but it could not find a business plan for the project. That came later. Meanwhile, a new generation of prayer books were out there and serving as the sacred vehicles of Reform spirituality. I am honored that I was part of that process.

EISENSTAEDT TORAH. One last memory. There are thousands of them. But let me end this group of reflections with a remembrance of a very special moment in a little village about 50 miles south of Vienna in Burgenland, Austria. In planning a trip to Central Europe, I wanted to visit a town called Eisenstaedt for three reasons: it had the last surviving door to a Jewish ghetto in Europe (Napoleon’s troops forgot to remove it), it was the home of the great composer J. Haydn and it was the site of the Esterhazy Palace, the family which has accused Alfred Dreyfus of treason after the Franco-Prussian war. Any one of these factors would have justified a visit but as it happened (and maybe why people travel), it was the unexpected which made the day. After touring the Haydn sites and the palace, we went to the old ghetto and worked our way into its narrow, winding streets. We entered into one of the larger residences there (they were all abandoned) and were ushered into high ceiling room with an ark which, we were told, had been a private family synagogue-chapel in its day. In the ark was a single fragment of a Torah scroll; a torn, incomplete, single column. “Read it,” everyone in our group called out. So we said the blessing on reading from the Torah and I then read the scrap of parchment and translated it for the group. It felt like the souls of a hundred generations were released into that air space. For some unknown reason, only a tiny remnant of our ancient tradition remained there and all of the Jews of the town were gone. All that was left was a little bit of Torah. But it was enough to wrap our hearts with the complete scroll of our tradition. I went to Burgenland to experience a tiny slice of tradition. Instead, the entire power of our heritage made itself present and “we were renewed as in days of old.”

I am grateful for all my memories of the last 21 years. I am glad that I am able to share them with you.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.