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Tales Out of Shul

Provocative, funny, moving, revealing 
this remarkable book will make you
laugh and cry (sometimes simultaneously)
as it takes you behind the scenes of Jewish
life's most hectic, frustrating, and satisfying

This riveting journal takes us on a vivid
and unforgettable tour of forty years in one
of the most successful careers in the
American rabbinate, as Rabbi Emanuel
one of the best writers in the
profession, records his achievements and
defeats, his hopes and disappointments.

We'll meet some unforgettable charac-
ters, like the unique "shochet" of Atlanta;
the Polish Catholic who hid a Jewish boy
during the Holocaust; those who never fail
to give charity and those who never do; the
woman who never misses a funeral; saints
and scoundrels; movers and meek; arrogant
and humble, and many more.

We'll deal with the mystery of the miss-
ing mechitzah, attend a reception where
the poor are the guests of honor, and
devise Hebrew names for Butch and
Nicholas. And we'll enter the rabbi's mind
as he ponders if he is really accomplishing
anything for Torah and Judaism in this

Few books offer such revealing insights
into human nature and contemporary



About the Author

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, presently living in
Jerusalem, is one of the most respected and distin-
guished figures in the American rabbinate. He led
Atlanta's Congregation Beth Jacob for almost forty
years, from its infancy until its current position as
one of America's finest Torah institutions. Ordained
by Baltimore's Ner Israel, with degrees from John
Hopkins and a doctorate from Emory University, he
has taught at Jerusalem's Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, at
Bar Ilan University, and at Emory University. Editor-
in-chief of Tradition magazine, he has authored four
earlier books, including the widely acclaimed On
Judaism: Conversations on Being Jewish in
Today's World. He has written hundreds of articles
in journals like The New Republic, Saturday
Review, Judaism, and The Jerusalem Post.

Graceful writer and incisive thinker, he brings to
bear in this unique work his keen sense of observation,
deep insight, and his lively sense of humor.

The unorthodox journal
of an Orthodox rabbi


Copyright 1996 by Shaar Press
4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, N.Y 11232 / (718) 921-9000
Distributed in Israel by SIFRIAT1 / A. GITLER
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Custom bound by Sefercraft, Inc. / 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn N.Y. 11232

Dedicated to
the members of

Congregation Beth. Jacob
Atlanta, Georgia

A wondrous blend of

individuals who have created

one of the unique congregations

in North America.

"I remember the devotion of thy youth . . .
when thou didst follow me in the wilderness,
in a land that was not sown
..." (Jeremiah 2:2)

By Way of Prologue:

A twenty-four year old man stepped off the train at
Atlanta's old Union Station on a Friday morning in August,
1952. A fledgling Atlanta synagogue was searching for a
rabbi, and the young man, newly ordained and soon to be
married, was searching for a pulpit. Fledgling synagogues do
not with ease find experienced rabbis, and inexperienced rab-
bis do not with ease find established synagogues.

The rabbi waited for the committee that was to meet him
at the station. The platform cleared, but there was no sign of
anyone. From the end of the terminal two gentlemen
approached him. "You're not the rabbi, are you?"

"Yes, 1 am. Are you from the synagogue?"

"We sure are. Pardon us for making you wait so long. We
saw you earlier, but we didn't know it was you. We were
sort of looking for someone who looked like, you know, a
rabbi." The three men chuckled, but only two of them
thought it was funny. The third was already sensitive
enough about the difficulties of finding a pulpit at such a
tender age.

As it turned out, the congregation took to him, and he to
them, and so, on that sultry Shabbos of Sedra Shoftim in the
year 5712/1952, the young man agreed to become the rabbi
of the young congregation of forty families.

Both the congregation and the rabbi expected the arrange-
ment to last, at most, for a few years, after which the rabbi
would look for greener pastures and the congregation would
begin searching again for a new rabbi. But somehow the
arrangement lasted for almost forty years. There were no

pastures greener nor pulpits more challenging. It was a mar-
riage made in heaven.

The marriage analogy is apt, for accepting a pulpit is
very much like taking a bride. In addition to the surface
facets  seeing eye to eye on issues  there must be a
chemistry between rabbi and congregation. One can never
know beforehand if that chemistry will exist afterward. In
this case, it developed that it did exist, which in no small
measure helped them remain together for a full generation.

Today, when Orthodoxy is so self-confident and knowl-
edgeable, it is difficult to conjure up the face of American
Orthodoxy in the fifties, particularly in Jewish communities
outside the major metropolitan areas. Orthodox Judaism
was evidently gasping its final breath, and it was only a
matter of tirrie before it disappeared. Torah observance
around the country was minimal, and serious Torah learn-
ing was almost non-existent.

It was thus not surprising that the fine men and women
of Atlanta's putative Orthodox synagogue had never been
exposed to the rigors, or to the pleasures, of a Torah life.
The most pious among them observed kashrut and lit
Shabbat candles. This, plus attendance at a Friday night
Oneg Shabbat, marked one as being very devout. It was an
axiom that in the twentieth century it was simply not pos-
sible to observe anything else. Shabbat, or daily tefillin, or
the laws of mikueh, were not even on the agenda. Jewish
observance extended only as far as the kitchen, and a
scant ten families of the forty in the congregation kept
even that. And this was the most Orthodox of the commu-
nity's congregations.

One could live with this for a few years, while learning to be
a rabbi and before children were born. Unaccountably, howev-
er, the synagogue began a slow but steady climb, both spiritu-
ally and physically. This was not without pain, as these pages
will show, but it was remarkable nonetheless. And it was that
climb that cemented the relationship between rabbi and con-
gregation and kept them together through bad times and good.

Although this book is focused on one synagogue, it is not
a history of that synagogue. It is, rather, an impressionistic
look at events and individuals within that congregation and
the larger Jewish community around it. As in an impression-
istic painting, there is a sudden dab of color here, an outline
of a figure there; there are suggestions of a likeness or a sil-
houette, a hint of a background, a tracing of a scene, an
occasional still-life. Detailed structure is eschewed in favor of
vignettes and quick brushstrokes, all drawn on the larger
canvas of American Jewish life in mid-twentieth-century


During the years of my rabbinate I would sporadically
record incidents or ideas as they occurred. It is from that
notebook that this volume emerged. 1 have endeavored to
retain the breezy, discursive style of the original journal
entries, which were often recorded on the run, or while sitting
at the dais of interminable dinners, or late at night just before

exhaustion took over.

By and large, these entries bypass the cosmic for the com-
monplace. It is through the commonplace that the cosmic is
apprehended, and it is within the daily activities of flesh and
blood people that the authentic stuff of life is found.

This is a light book that is serious, and a serious book that
is light. On one level it will entertain and will engender an
occasional tear or chuckle. But on another level it is more
than a series of incidents and stories. Just as a flash of light-
ning on a dark prairie can illuminate for miles, so also can an
isolated incident expose profound aspects of life, revealing
both the foibles and the greatness of human beings.

Of course, unless one covers all blemishes and presents a
cosmeticized look at people, not every image can be flatter-
ing. A good portrait, after all, is a chiaroscuro of light and
shade. A journal such as this depicts not only the shining
faces of the pure and the virtuous, but also the faces of the
confused and the unlettered. Since a community consists of
a variety of individuals, each of whom contributes to it in his

or her own way, all types are recorded here as they appeared,
unadorned and without make-up.

Because the sketches are not airbrushed or retouched, all
the names used here are fictitious. In some cases, to preserve
anonymity, certain venues have been changed and disguised
 although each and every episode remains true. As a fur-
ther safeguard, most of these incidents happened so long ago
that neither the people involved, nor their families and
friends, are presently part of our community. In addition, I
have not recorded matters that would be easily identifiable
and might cause pain. (Nor have I included material that
would assuredly have catapulted this book into an instant
best seller.)

It is presented to the public in the hope that, beyond the
narratives that may be engrossing or provocative, the reader
will be enlightened, entertained, and perhaps even inspired. It
is also quite possible that sensitive readers will discover in
these pages a deeper knowledge of themselves as human
beings and as Jews.


Several people had a major hand in shaping this book. My
brother, Rabbi Aharon Feldman of Jerusalem, has taken time
from his own studying, writing and teaching to give me the
constant and unstinting benefit of his wisdom, judgment, and
erudition. For his unflagging help I am very thankful.

My sincerest appreciation to Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, editor
and writer, for the benefit of his vast experience and insight;
to Rabbi Yonason Rosenblum, author and biographer, for
judicious editing and important suggestions; and to Yosef
HaKohen, author of "The Universal Jew," for sensitive and
careful reading. Each of these talented individuals read the
manuscript at various stages, and each of them made per-
ceptive and valuable critiques.

My wife of four-and-a-half decades has of course experi-
enced firsthand much of what is recorded here. This made
her finely honed sense of language, her astute editorial skills,
and her keen discernment even more beneficial. For this and
for many other things 1 am grateful to her.

I also express my appreciation to the professional staff of
Shaar Press, for their unstinting and unwavering assistance in
many different ways.

These acknowledgments in no way implicate the acknowl-
edgees in the shortcomings of this book. For these, the
author retains exclusive rights and responsibilities.

As this volume sees the dawn of day, I express my grati-
tude to the One Above Who has afforded me the privilege of
toiling in His vineyard "to learn, teach, safeguard, perform and
sustain" the holy Torah which He has granted His people.

Emanuel Feldman


Chanukah 5757/December, 1996

then and now

Chapter 1:

The Hebrew Name

for Nicholas

When your sisterhood president asks you
about this, what will you say? If the answer is
not clear and unequivocal, you will not only
embarrass yourselves, you will also embarrass the yeshivah
which ordained you."

This was the voice of our teachers as we prepared for the rab-
binate. They tried to prod us into ever more intensive study by
imposing upon us the fear of both God and layman. We spent
many stressful days and nights worrying about the questions
our future congregants would throw at us. I suppose we had
some fear of God, but our greatest fear was of the layman.

I was duly ordained, accepted my first pulpit, and anxious-
ly awaited my first religious question. It was not one for which
my yeshivah training had prepared me: "We just had a baby
boy. What is the Hebrew name for Nicholas?"

Now that's a fine name for a Jewish boy: Nicholas
Greenstein. Nick. It has a certain panache to it, a certain
cadence - goyish, but not completely. Not yet. If Nicholas still
has its Greenstein to maintain some vestigial ancestral mem-
ories, Nick's own first-born, in the shifting sands of time, will
probably be Nicholas, Jr. Not Nicholas Greenstein, Jr., but
some other name with a less Jewish residue which, in a guilt-
assuaging maneuver, will undoubtedly begin with a "G":
Guerin perhaps, which still has some subtle greenery grow-
ing within it. Perhaps Graham. No vestiges of anything there.
Grimes? Green? It will probably be Guerin: Nicholas Guerin,
Jr., followed in a generation by Nicholas Guerin III, devoted
member of the First Episcopalian Church of Atlanta.

Here was an infant in whose fate I was now an accomplice.
By giving him a Hebrew name, was I not contributing to the
delinquency of a Jewish minor? Rabbi, I said to myself, just
tell Mrs. Greenstein that Nicholas is not a suitable name for
a Jewish boy. Certainly the child was not being named after
his grandfather.

"Mazal Tov, Mrs. Greenstein. Now, let me see. Nicholas is a
very interesting name. Is he being named after anyone?"

"His grandfather. He had some really Jewish name that
began with an 'N.' No one is really sure what it was, 'Nemmy'
or 'Neemy,' something like that. We thought Nicholas would
be a fitting remembrance because it retains the N."

Having grown up in a rabbi's home, I was not unfamiliar
with such insipidities, but I could not help thinking to myself:
Am I going to spend the balance of my life providing people
with the Hebrew equivalents for Butch and JoAnn, Clete and
BettyLou? (Baruch, Chana, Kalman, and Beracha Lea were
my contributions to Jewish posterity.)

To Mrs. Greenstein I suggested Nehemiah. She liked it but
could not quite pronounce it. It didn't matter, because I knew

that Nicholas would not be called Nehemiah more than a
total of four times in his life: at his Bris Milah, Bar Mitzvah,
wedding, and, if he was still listening, his funeral.

I was young, sure of myself, and angry at the creeping
assimilation that the Nicholases of the Jewish world repre-
sented  and I was wrong about little Nick. Over the years,
strange things occurred in the Greenstein household. Against
all odds, Nick's parents gradually changed their way of living:
they added kashrut to their home, later they began observing
Shabbat, and lo and behold, Nicholas Greenstein entered the
local Jewish day school, went on to a Jewish high school in
another city, and today is a professional who is an observant
Jew. His shingle reads: Nehemiah Greenstein, Ph.D.

I was wrong about his children as well. Not only are they
not "Juniors"; they don't bear secular names at all. They are
Chaim and Devora and Yaakov and Meir and Lea, and this is
what everyone, Jew and non-Jew, calls them. They are not
headed for the First Episcopalian Church.

That was not the only erroneous prophecy I made about
this congregation. Though I hoped they might grow Jewishly,
1 assumed any such growth would be unremarkable. I thought
I would stay a few years with them, do what I could, learn how
to be a rabbi along the way, and then move on. I stayed with
them for almost forty years; I must be a very slow learner.

"Forty years": the phrase trips off the tongue, but the
thens and the nows whir through my head. The congregation
has changed, and so have I. They have surely changed for
the better. In 1952, we were fortunate that ten old men
showed up every Shabbat morning in the old house we had
converted into a synagogue; sometimes we had to wait over
an hour for the tenth man. Synagogue officers never came
to shul on Shabbat morning in those days. That was only for
old-timers. Now we have over four hundred every Shabbat in

a large and graceful structure, plus an early Shabbat morn-
ing minyan, plus an adult beginners' learning service, plus
people learning Torah every night, plus other Orthodox
enclaves which have been spawned in the city.

In 1952, there was as yet no Jewish day school in the com-
munity. Most of the establishment communal leaders were
against the very idea. It was, they argued, anti-public school
and unAmerican. They discounted it as yet another aberra-
tion of the benighted Orthodox who wished to segregate
Jewish children. Only one professional in the establishment
community, the head of the Bureau of Jewish Education, lent
his unofficial support and assisted in many ways in the
founding of Atlanta's first day school. It was a major struggle
to gain financial support and to find pioneering parents
courageous enough to expose their youngsters to what was
for them an untested concept in Jewish education.

Now there are a number of such schools in Atlanta, plus a
high school and a kollel. Even the Conservative and Reform
communities have their own day schools. And the Federation
now supports day schools generously.

In those days there was no communal adult education to
speak of. Now, our synagogue alone has nightly classes in
Talmud, Mishnah, Bible, Jewish thought. Other synagogues
and the Community Center also run study programs.

In those days there were no shomrei Shabbat under age
seventy in the entire city. Perhaps two or three courageous
women used the mikveh, which was located in a dangerous,
run-down neighborhood. Now, there are several hundred
shomrei Shabbat, and hundreds of women observe taharat
in several well-kept mikuaot in the city.

One can measure the spiritual development of a communi-
ty by the kinds of questions they ask their rabbi. From the sim-
ple questions I used to be asked to the ones that greet me now,
a thousand spiritual miles have been traversed. Now I get calls
on car phones from people who are puzzled over the Talmud
text we studied together the night before. They call with ques-
tions about business ethics, mikueh practices, the subtleties of

Shabbat laws, teftllin and tzitzis, or about the prohibition of
lending or borrowing money on interest. Now they keep me on
my toes. Yes, there is still the occasional what-is-the-Hebrew-
name-for-Claude inquiry, but 1 no longer find myself wondering
why they wasted my time in yeshivah teaching me the intrica-
cies of Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, Jewish thought, and other
matters I would never need to know. Now I wonder why they
didn't teach me more. We've come a long way from "Rabbi,
what's the Hebrew name for Nicholas?"

mechitzos separate the men from the boys

Chapter 2:
The Fallow Field

How all the changes took place In the
religious lives of this congregation of Jews is a
mystery. People look for simplistic answers,
and so they give me the credit. Yes, there was teaching and
there were discussion groups and counseling and persuasion
 there was sowing of the fallow field  but in my heart of
hearts I know that it happened with overwhelming kindness
and direction from Above, and that I had precious little to do
with it except to preside over the changes.

Kindness from Above: six years into my rabbinate, we
were making herculean efforts to move out of our old neigh-
borhood, which was rapidly changing and which Jews were
rapidly abandoning. After much searching, we purchased
several acres in a fairly nice section of town and paid a
down payment of ten thousand (borrowed) dollars. We were
delighted and excited by the prospect of constructing a new


Then the unthinkable happened. We engaged an architec-
tural firm to draw up preliminary building plans. After sever-
al weeks they came back with a report. The site was unbuild-
able. It was slowly giving way because of a nearby creek
which had affected the nature of the bedrock soil. We would
have to invest another ten thousand dollars for special sup-
ports _ literally sink it into the ground  before we could
build. That was out of the question.

The company which had studied the site before we pur-
chased it denied responsibility. The seller of the land
denied responsibility as well, insisting that he had made no
false claims about the property. Unless we chose to go to
court, we had lost ten thousand dollars. We could not afford
to go to court, and so we elected to take the loss and to

look elsewhere.

Gloom enveloped the congregation. We were angry at our-
selves for being taken in. Members dropped out, the neigh-
borhood continued its deterioration, and we were certain that
our congregational demise was close at hand.

But the hand of God was at work for us. Six months later
we found our present property, surveyed it carefully, pur-
chased it, and after a remarkable fund-raising campaign that
was itself beyond the natural, we built on it. It turned out to
be a far better location for us, one which enabled us to grow
and develop in exciting ways over the next thirty years. As
for the property that we lost, to have located in that area
would have been a miscalculation of major proportions 
for in just five years, that neighborhood became a commer-
cialized honky-tonk.

religious or observant?

The religious growth within the congregation has been dra-
matic, but there are constant reminders that much remains to
be done. One of the men who attends our daily minyan told
me one morning how much he sacrificed in order to be in shui
that day. "Last night I was up until two A.M. playing pinochle,
and still I'm here at six-thirty in the morning. If you're really
religious, no sacrifice is too great." I looked for a sign of irony
in his comment, but he was completely serious.

I worry about this: I have taught my people to be more
observant  which is the sine qua non of a Jew, and the
essential first step. But to become more religious, more aware
of God, more conscious of His Presence and less addicted to
the pinochle of daily life  that is the next plateau and much
more difficult to reach, for rabbis as well as laymen.

There is a yawning gap between being observant and being
religious. Observance can be objectively measured: maintain-
ing Shabbat and kashrut, davening regularly, wearing tzitzis,
practicing taharat hamishpachah  these are all tangible
aspects of observance. But what goes on within the heart
while all this is being performed  that only God knows.

For example, I fret about what takes place every Yom
Kippur eve as the shul begins to fill up: the incessant chat-
tering in the minutes before Kol Hidre begins. Many people
come to shul early to be assured of a seat (we have no
assigned seats) and then just sit there and chat, as if waiting
for the curtain to go up in a theater and the performance to
begin. As more and more people enter, the volume of noise
increases. At ten minutes before Kol Nidre, a time that calls
for silent contemplation, nine hundred people seem to be
talking at once. There are those who look through the Yom
Kippur machzor", or study a Jewish text, or sit and think  but
they are vastly outnumbered.

On the surface it seems like a minor issue, and perhaps I
am being naive, but even after all these years I find it dis-

couraging that, at the single most sacred moment of the year,
when the heavenly books of life and of death are open before
God, idle talk reigns supreme. It makes me wonder, despite
the tremendous growth in Jewish practice that this congre-
gation has experienced, if we have been at all successful in
stirring any deeper levels of religious feeling.

And yet, perhaps I am not being fair. Remarkable religious
growth has taken place within the community, not only in
terms of formal observance but also in terms of depth of
feeling and commitment. One sees a great amount of gen-
uine chesed, giving and sharing, and much openness and
acceptance of others. And there are manifestations of gen-
uine God-consciousness and piety. How can I assume to
know what lies within the hearts of people?

I must not forget that most of our members  even those
who are fully observant  do not come from religious back-
grounds. Most of them, to their credit, became observant in
their adult years within this congregation. We probably have
the largest percentage of returnees to Judaism of any syna-
gogue in North America. And we have a large number of fully
nonobservant members as well, who stick with us for a vari-
ety of reasons which I do not always comprehend, but which
I don't attempt to analyze because I am delighted they are
here. All of them  observant and nonobservant  have will-
ingly followed even though I was leading them into what must
have seemed like a religious no-man's land.

the love of thy betrothals

A little more tolerance from their rabbi would not be out of
order. Instead of carping at their not being perfect models of
piety, I should be singing to them the song from the second
chapter of Jeremiah: "I remember the kindness of thy youth,
the love of thy betrothals: thou following Me in the wilderness,
through a land that was not sown."

The kindness of thy youth: I remember the patience and
forbearance with which the vast majority of them accepted
the many mistakes in judgment of this young rabbi. I remem-
ber their small and large kindnesses, their esprit de corps,
their fierce love for our little shul, their volunteering to do any-
thing from painting the building, to planting the grass, to fix-
ing broken windows, to repairing leaks, to washing the floors,
to cooking synagogue dinners.

The love of thy betrothals: Paul Abrahams, though not per-
sonally observant, single-handedly kept our morning minyan
going for years. Fortunately, he owned a large Cadillac, and
when he saw our minyan foundering because of the deterio-
rating neighborhood, he literally took the wheel into his own
hands. Every single weekday morning he would drive all over
town, pick up six men and take them to our minyan, daven
with them, drive them home, and then go off to work. Without
this Jew, who was not observant but who cared about
Yiddishkeit, our daily minyan would have disappeared.

Following me in the wilderness: I remember with a mixture
of amusement and pride their spirited defense of Orthodox
Judaism among their non-Orthodox friends, even though
many of my defenders did not personally observe Shabbat,
kashrut, or anything else.

Yes, many of them did not seem to budge one iota reli-
giously, but we felt betrothed to one another. I deeply cared for
them, and I knew they cared for their rookie rabbi and his wife.

the drive for success

At the same time, I recognized that the few members who
supported our little shul in those days were, with some happy
exceptions, Jewishly insecure. Minimally observant them-
selves, they did not know the religious direction they or the
shul should be taking. Many of them would not have objected
if I had developed the synagogue into a non-demanding
Conservative congregation with all the trappings of synagogue

modernity: mixed seating, responsive English readings, movie
and book reviews from the pulpit, and, inevitably, a rabbi
adorned in a black clerical robe. In brief, they would have been
delighted if I had faithfully mimicked the non-Orthodox rabbis
who seemed so successful. They were convinced that if I would
only follow their lead, our synagogue would also become large,
wealthy, and stylish.

To make things more difficult, the largest and most affluent
synagogue in the city, until then nominally Orthodox, had offi-
cially joined the Conservative movement a few years earlier.
Another large Orthodox synagogue was experiencing internal
dissension over the same issue, and was beginning to make
compromises with the Orthodox character of its services. All
this increased the sense of isolation and insecurity within our
synagogue, and intensified the fears of being left behind.

I was still very young and inexperienced, but it was not dif-
ficult to recognize the root cause of my congregation's
demands of me. Beyond the depressing effect created by the
swing to the Conservative movement, my people had never
really seen or experienced classical Judaism. They had no
models to follow. The only Judaism they knew was what they
witnessed in the large and influential non-Orthodox congre-
gations in town.

During my first year, some synagogue board members
asked me to recite Birkat Kohanim at the end of the Shabbat
services. "But I'm not a kohen," I said. "Only a kohen may
pronounce this blessing."

"But you're a rabbi. That's just like a kohen, isn't it?"

"No, a rabbi is a teacher of Torah, but he has no special
privileges like a kohen. That's why the first aliyah to the
Torah goes to a kohen, not to a rabbi  unless the rabbi hap-
pens also to be a kohen. A kohen is a descendant of Aaron,
the first kohen; a kohen's ancestors were in charge of the ser-
vices in the Holy Temple."

"Well, Rabbi_______is not a kohen and yet he blesses the
congregation in Hebrew after services each Shabbat. It's so
beautiful: 'May the Lord bless you and keep you' and all that.

It's really meaningful. Maybe you ought to consider it."
"I grant you that it's beautiful. But Jewish law clearly says

that in public it can only be pronounced by a kohen. I don't
know about Rabbi_______. He's not Orthodox, so that might
explain it."

"Well, maybe they're on to something. It sure is a beautiful
thing to see."

down for the count

These were the fifties, and, as everyone knew, Orthodox
Judaism in America was down for the count. Throughout the
country, including Atlanta, once-proud Orthodox synagogues
were tossing overboard their traditional practices  separate
seating for men and women, prayer in Hebrew, serious Torah
study, emphasis on the sanctity of mitzvot  and enthusias-
tically clambering aboard the ship of the future.

Many Orthodox rabbis rationalized their abandonment of
the tradition by convincing themselves and their congregants
that unless they took half a loaf and joined the burgeoning
Conservative movement, traditional Judaism would crumble
completely. What seemed like the golden mean of that move-
ment was very appealing: it offered a Judaism not as flexible
as the Reform, and yet not as demanding as the Orthodox. It
was Orthodoxy without the restrictions; it was Reform with a

The Orthodox rabbis who led the flight into the
Conservative camp encountered very little resistance among
their congregants; on the contrary, they were applauded for
their foresight. The ship was leaving the harbor, and it was
time to jump aboard or forever be left behind. For a brief
moment in history, it seemed irresistible.

No one in the fifties could possibly have limned the face of
non-Orthodox American Jewry a generation later: a commu-
nity ravaged by Jewish illiteracy and rampant assimilation;
an intermarriage rate of over sixty percent  and, in a mirac-

ulous reversal, an Orthodoxy risen from the dead to become
a learned and self-confident movement that has restored
awareness of Torah learning and Torah living onto the agen-
da of Jewish life.

am I crazy?

No one could have foreseen it, certainly not a twenty-four-
year-old rabbi about to enter his First pulpit. "Am I crazy?" I
remember asking my father, who had been a rabbi in Baltimore
for many years. "The town is owned by the Conservative and
the Reform movements. They are personally decent people,
but for them Orthodoxy is a back number, finished, dead. And
my people don't really disagree. What chance do I have to
bring anything genuine into my tiny congregation of forty fam-
ilies? Most of them are so unsure of this little Orthodox shul's
future that they also belong to a non-Orthodox congregation as
a kind of religious insurance policy."

"Don't worry about tomorrow," he said. "That's God's job.
Just worry about today. Your job is to get up each morning
and do your best to teach authentic Torah in the most effec-
tive way you know how. Remember that as a rabbi you teach
in a hundred different ways, not just by using a text or by
teaching a class, but by the way you and your wife talk to
your people, by the way you relate to them, by your general
demeanor. You even teach them by the way you go shopping
for groceries. You do your job, and God will do His."

Because I sensed my people's envy of the larger congrega-
tions, I spent the early years trying to instill Jewish self-confi-
dence into them. I began from scratch, teaching many of them
how to read simple Hebrew, running small discussion groups,
and ceaselessly preaching that those who study Torah and
practice mitzuot are the true aristocrats of the Jewish people.
It was important to inspire them with the adventure of swim-
ming against the stream, of being different from the masses. I
pointed out the excitement of living authentically and gen-

uinely, and ridiculed the easy value system and gimmickry of
the society around us. The constant, relentless theme was the
contrast between phoniness and authenticity, between gim-
mickry and genuineness. I pointed to the silliness and futility
of sisterhood Sabbaths and Boy Scout Sabbaths and birthday
Sabbaths, and stressed that what we needed more than any-
thing else was a Sabbath Sabbath.

A young man once said to me, "Rabbi, you like to knock
all these gimmicks, but you have your own gimmick."

"Really? What's my gimmick?"


To their great credit, they listened respectfully, and in some
cases they actually took me seriously. I think that despite
their lack of Jewish learning they sensed in their soul of souls
that what I was teaching was true.

the case of the missing

Well, most of the time they did. Like any marriage, howev-
er, our relationship was not always without its tensions.
During the third year of my tenure the congregation sold its
tiny quarters and purchased a church building which we ren-
ovated into a synagogue. This was the natural time for me to
install a physical mechitzah in the synagogue. Up until then
we had had separate seating for men and women, but no
actual partition. This was far from the ideal situation, but I
accepted the pulpit after consulting with a number of rabbinic
authorities who approved the arrangement with the under-
standing that it was temporary, and that within a reasonable
time an halachically acceptable partition would be installed.

Today the concept of a mechitzah, though still misunder-
stood by many Jews, is an accepted fact of life for an
Orthodox synagogue. But in the fifties the idea of a physical
barrier between men and women in a shul was anathema.
The loud noises one heard emanating from American

Orthodox synagogues were the sound of mechitzos every-
where crashing to the ground, one after the other. Without
doubt, the availability of mixed seating was one of the great
attractions of the Conservative movement, which liked to
point to its fusion of tradition and modernity {a fusion which
soon enough was to become confusion).

If timing is all the timing of my effort to introduce a
mechitzah into the shul could not have been worse.
Furthermore, it threatened to abort the very dream of some
of our members: to become popular and accepted, just like
the large non-Orthodox synagogues in the community.

It was absolutely clear that if I brought the matter up for a
vote, the mechitzah idea would lose by a landslide. So I sim-
ply informed our president that this was something we would
be doing as part of the renovation of the new building. He did
not at first realize the full ramifications of what 1 was saying
and posed no objections.

I had the mechitzah built and installed  a series of
wrought-iron stands holding a velvet curtain running down the
center aisle  and proudly and anxiously awaited its public
debut on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah. But since no
more than a minyan of ten old men and two elderly women
ever attended on Shabbat mornings, it was hardly noticed.

That night, however, was the night of Selichot, which was
normally attended by many more people. I anticipated that
there would be no great enthusiasm for the mechitzah but
was not prepared for what actually took place.

When the wives of the leading members of the board
walked into the shul at midnight and saw the mechitzah, they
were aghast. They knew that in our shul they could not sit
with their husbands, but this they had not expected. They
immediately turned on their heels, stalked out of shul, and
waited outside in their cars until Selichot was over. One can
only surmise what they told their husbands on the way home.

The next afternoon I walked into the shul to check a few
things and noticed that the mechitzah had disappeared. I was
puzzled and called the chairman of the renovations commit-

tee to ask him what had happened. "Oh, yes," he said, "I
should have called you. The fire marshal inspected the build-
ing and told us that it was a fire hazard because it was in the
middle of the aisle. He said it would block a quick exit in an
emergency, so he took it away."

"Please give me the name of the fire marshal. I'd like to talk
to him."

"No use, Rabbi. His mind is made up. He was very firm
about it. By the way, your sermon at Selichot was very nice."

I called the shul president and asked to meet with him that
night. During the meeting, I had a ludicrous but entirely accu-
rate insight: some individuals had absconded with the
mechitzah, in full knowledge that in the few days remaining
until Rosh Hashanah I would not be able to replace it. I told
him that it was his task to talk to the fire marshal and to get
the mechitzah back in place by Rosh Hashanah. And then I
very quietly used my trump card: I wanted him to know in
advance that if it was not in place when I walked into shul
Rosh Hashanah evening, I would very regretfully but very
definitely turn right around and leave  and they would have
to find themselves another rabbi. I knew, too, that in the few
days remaining before the holiday they would not be able to
find a rabbi. I also knew that they liked me enough not to
want to lose me.

I went home and asked my wife Estelle if she would be will-
ing to pull up stakes if necessary. Without any hesitation she
gave me her full backing. We had an eighteen-month-old
baby; another was due in several months, I was facing the
end of my rabbinate in Atlanta  but there was no alterna-
tive. They had challenged not only Jewish tradition, they had
also challenged what little authority I had as a rabbi.

During the two days remaining before Rosh Hashanah I
sent, through various channels, unmistakably clear signals to
the congregational leadership that I was not bluffing.

One of the most effective channels was Oscar Brodsky.
Oscar was the kind of person who was curious about every-
thing and everyone. This in itself is not a character flaw, but he

constitutionally unable to keep any information to himself.
Whatever he knew, the whole town knew within one day. I ran
into Oscar in the drug store during the mechitzah crisis. "How
you doing, Rabbi? Ready for the holidays?"

There and then I decided that Oscar's loose tongue would
now be commandeered for holy purposes. "Unfortunately," I
said, "I'm not really ready."

"What's the problem?"

"Well, you may not have heard about it, but I was told the
fire marshal absconded with our new mechitzah. The fel-
lows don't think it's a big deal, but 1 told them that unless
it gets put back I won't be able to daven with them on the

"Wow, that is serious."

I wished Oscar a good year and silently prayed that God
would permit him to continue to be loose-tongued at least
until Rosh Hashanah.

The officers met with me several more times. They tried to
convince me that a mechitzah was not very important.
Furthermore, it would prevent people from joining our syna-
gogue and would tear the shul apart. I should not act impul-
sively, they said; perhaps in a few years the congregation
would be more amenable. I was courteous and sympathetic,
but I told him that this was something I had to have if I were
to remain with them, and that I was particularly unhappy with
the fact that the mechitzah had been removed without any
consultation with me.

On the morning before Rosh Hashanah I walked into the
main shul, and there was the mechitzah back in its place. It
was wrought-iron, it was black, the curtain was hardly luxuri-
ous, but it was one of the loveliest sights 1 had ever seen in my
life. I was overjoyed but said nothing to anyone except Estelle.

When I entered the shul that night I behaved as if noth-
ing unusual had occurred. I said nothing about it to the offi-
cers, and they said nothing to me. I did, however, devote
the first Rosh Hashanah sermon to the idea of sanctity and
kedushah, and used as one of many examples the concept

of the separation of men and women during prayer. I
stressed that the purpose of a mechitzah was not to sug-
gest that women were in any way inferior or unworthy, but
that it was designed to increase intensity and concentration
in prayer. I noted that a synagogue is a replica of the
ancient Jerusalem Temple and that separate seating was a
feature of that Temple. A mechitzah is a statement that
prayer is not a social event but a serious encounter
between man and God.

public and private

I also stressed that classical Jewish prayer strives to main-
tain the atmosphere of a private relationship between God
and us during prayer  and to do this in a public setting. It
tries to maintain the relationship of the single, lonely Jew to
the single, lonely God (for God represents the ultimate lone-
liness: there is no one like Him) and to do this within the set-
ting of the minyan, which represents the community of Israel.

Thus we have the amidah, which is first whispered silently
and then repeated aloud by the chazzan. Thus, too, we have
the concept of the mechitzah. In one sense, a total communi-
ty prays. In another, a group of individual Jews is praying at
the same time and in the same place, but each at his or her
own level of understanding, each at his own pace, with his
own rhythm. Each individual brings to prayer his or her own
fears, yearning, sadness, gratitude, triumph, disappointment,
ecstasy. The separation of men and women during public
prayer symbolizes the separate and distinctive paths which
men and women follow in their approach to God.

And then, striking the theme that I had struck so many
times before, I told them that I realized that a mechitzah was
not a universal favorite, but that this was due to the fact that
people viewed it from tired and stale perspectives. It is a
major symbol that distinguishes an authentic Jewish com-
munity that adheres to tradition unflinchingly, whether or not

it wins popularity contests.

To their eternal credit, these people  who did not observe
many mitzuot  listened attentively, absorbed what I had to
say, and never troubled me about it again. Those who
remained unhappy with the mechitzah simply left the shul.
Blessedly, there were very few of them. The synagogue's reli-
gious identity was established, people knew who we were and
what we stood for, and we began a steady growth. In retro-
spect, it was not only a good move ideologically but also

That episode reinforced for me a basic truth about success
in the rabbinate: a rabbi must always be prepared to resign
from his position if necessary. If he feels beholden to, or
dependent upon, his people; if he is fearful of not finding
another position; if he is not ready to leave when his bottom-
line principles are trampled upon, then these principles begin
to totter and he begins to rationalize and justify his every
retreat. Soon enough, he will find his authority as a rabbi
depleted and he will become a glorified rabbinic rubber-
stamp, indispensable for the delivery of invocations and
benedictions, essential for filling up a dais  and quite incon-

I am not suggesting that a rabbi change pulpits constantly
 to do so is debilitating in physical and spiritual ways and
does not permit him to tend the seeds he is sowing  but he
must be prepared intellectually and emotionally to do so if
necessary. In a word, he must feel a sense not of dependence
on his congregation, but of independence. This kind of atti-
tude, cultivated over the years, will transmit itself to his fol-
lowers and will enable him to be a true leader  and, para-
doxically, it will ensure greater longevity in his pulpit.

On the Shabbat following the great mechitzah showdown,
our minyan consisted of the usual ten men and, now sitting
on the other side of the new mechitzah, our two regular
Shabbat women: Mrs. Kaminsky, eighty-eight, and her friend
Mrs. Weinstock, eighty-five. Younger women in those days

had better things to do on Shabbat mornings than go to shul.

These two were genuinely pious and God-fearing ladies;
they came early to shul and stayed late, and they were
delighted with the mechitzah. "I feel much better davening
here now," Mrs. Kaminsky said to me as we left shul.

Fortunately, neither of them was aware of what old man
Fischer had whispered in my ear just before Torah reading:
"Now I understand why you fought so hard for a mechitzah.
Look who's sitting over there: Miss America and Miss
Universe." Not a very charitable observation, nor an informed
one, but nevertheless very amusing  for Fischer himself
was almost ninety.


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