On November 3rd, 1962 I became a Bar Mitzvah. My practice has wavered over the almost 60 years since then. I have often been very active in synagogue communities and sometimes completely inactive. From youth group at B’nai Jeshurun, to youth committee co-chair at Rodeph Sholom, much of my youth and young adulthood was spent affiliated with West Side synagogues. I was, years later, even an officer in my Lynbrook synagogue. This is the story of one of those active periods.
Family folklore included an understanding that my father wanted to study to be a Rabbi but in his junior year of college at CCNY, 1928-29, he changed direction for financial reasons that were never specifically disclosed. I think that it was the crash of ’29. He went on to the Federal Theatre in the technical side of theatre and then on to his work in documentary film, radio and television.
There was little evidence at 222 of his rabbinic interest when I became “sentient” in the 50’s. I do know that my religious education at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) on 86th Street was important to him, although my sister’s was not.
In 1975 after several years very involved at Rodeph Sholom, primarily but not exclusively with the youth program, I determined that I wanted to become a Rabbi. How much my father’s interest played in this, I do not know. I talked with several Rabbis during the decision making and was only discouraged by one, the admissions director at the seminary who said, “you’ll never get in here”.
The Associate Rabbi studied with me Shabbat afternoons after services while his daughter played around us and his wife made lunch which the four of us enjoyed together in their West Side apartment.
The Senior Rabbi took me out for lunch, ordering a cheeseburger, which I found amusing even back then due to the subject of our conversation not that I expected kosher practice in the Reform setting.
One obstacle to admission was my standardized testing performance. In sixth grade at PS9, we took the IOWAs (the IOWA Test of Basic Skills). While my entire class performed at the 99th percentile, I was at the 93rd.
When it came time to take the SATs, I performed well below my assumed potential. So, when I was faced with taking the GREs for rabbinical school I attached to my application a letter explaining my history of less than stellar performance.
At my admissions interview the second question came from the student on the committee, it went something like this, you wrote us about your GREs and they were in fact pretty good, can you explain that? My answer was simple, by writing that letter I lowered my test stress level, believing that you would consider my explanation when discussing my potential.
Money, of course, was also an issue. After my acceptance, some resources were developed at a farewell celebration thrown by my mother before I left for Israel. The most remarkable part of that event was the appearance of my cousin upon whom I had long had a crush. Let’s just say that most of the party, held in 9E, was spent with her.
It was 1976 and the sailing of the tall ships in the Hudson River was also spent with my cousin. My departure for the year in Israel followed shortly. This was to be the first of five years of rabbinic study. I was to be immersed in the land, history and language of Israel.
I found Israel very difficult. My rabbinic ambition did not survive but a couple of weeks, and I was headed home to New York and unemployment. Living at home with mom for a period, that included furniture building in the 9E living room, was also difficult. Job searching in those days, sans internet, was very different from what it is now but I did land a job at the Vera Institute of Justice which sent me back to the skills and interests I had learned at CCNY and the tools I had developed at the Rockefeller Program (NYS’s drug program of the early 70s).
I was not well received by most at my former congregation. I had failed their dreams for me; an important lesson I did not understand for many years. My friend with whom I had studied on that apartment floor stuck by me throughout the difficult period and Jean (my cousin) and I were married by the Senior Rabbi at Rodeph Sholom on the first night of Chanukah in 1978.
I am often dragged back, kicking and screaming, to that significant life point. My decision to return may have been hasty but the discomfort I felt in Israel is still palpable. Two incidents remain imbedded near the surface, even now more than forty years later.
I was walking down a Jerusalem street and the person in front of me stopped short. His rifle barrel was in my nose. My years as a 20th Precinct auxiliary police officer and my delving into robbery data for my master’s thesis as well as my father’s distaste for firearms all kicked in, leaving me quite shaken.
And then there was the errand I asked a fellow student to run to get coins for the phone, at the post office. He came back empty-handed; there had been a team of sappers (bomb disposal experts) dismantling a car in front of the post office.
These events, coupled with missing home and Jean and my perceived difference from fellow students who were all younger and had never worked, sent me packing. The college’s dean had no interest in turning me around saying, “if you’re not happy, go home.”
When I returned to NY I said that I was determined to be the thorn in the Rabbi’s side, wherever I landed, and I think that I succeeded for much of my life, asking questions, understanding much.
That Jewish upbringing in multiple West Side synagogues helped guide me to leadership as an adult. I served as a synagogue vice-president for four years and resigned in the first year of my presidency. From youth group president to synagogue president, I believe I served reasonably well.
It seems I was destined to not be rabbi or president.