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Drash - Young People Took Lead, Led to Egalitarianism, Informality

 

How a group of young people unexpectedly took over the leadership TI in 1969

leading to egalitarianism, the Funeral Practices committee, greater informality, greatly expanded congregational participation on the bimah, and other changes 

Drash By Howard White, May 2, 2009 

           

In 1963, I was a US Army Jewish Chaplain’s Assistant in Stuttgart, Germany. For the week of Kedoshim, today’s portion, my Rabbi/Chaplain was going to be in Israel and I would officiate at Friday evening services, including giving the sermon. I was a BT, Ba’al Teshuvah, new to observant Judaism very much influenced by being sent to Germany. It was the first time, I had ever read Kedoshim and it was a life changing experience. As those of you who followed the Torah reading today know, Kedoshim contains much that is truly sublime:

 

“19:9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.”

 

“14 You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” and of course:
 
“18 Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.”

 

I was so excited, I had to share all of it with the congregation, they became less and less excited as I went on and on. I considered repeating that drash today but decided against it because 1 o’clock is a bit late for Kiddush. 

It was this parsha that helped move my commitment to Judaism from a reaction to Germany to a lifetime commitment. This talk will be personal reminiscences about TI and our experiences here in the late sixties. Since we were heavily involved in the major changes at TI, it will also be a brief history of a very important era. 

When I returned to DC and civilian life, I joined Kesher Israel, the Orthodox Shul in Georgetown and after we got married Barbara and I were both involved there. But our plans were to move to this neighborhood, then known as Neighbor’s Inc. It was an integrated neighborhood that had fought off the block busting real estate agents while encouraging African Americans to purchase housing in the neighborhood. 

Fortunately, Shepherd Park also had 3 shuls, 2 Orthodox and 1 Conservative. We assumed we would join one of the Orthodox Shuls. We tried them and found them to be very unfriendly when we attended. 

On the other hand, we had heard good things about Rabbi Abramowitz and before we moved here, went to the JCC Coffee House to hear him and liked his talk. So we decided to try TI. Even though TI had a Bar Mitzvah that week, Mr. Tenn the Gabbai came over and asked if I was a Cohen or Levy. When I wasn’t, he said that because of the Bar Mitzvah, he couldn’t give me an Aliyah but next time I came he would be happy to. That Shabbos Rabbi Abamowitz, Buddy, gave a great sermon and we began to consider TI much more seriously. 

A little background on TI will help set the context for what followed. TI was originally an Orthodox shul. It became Conservative in 1959 when Buddy was hired. In the mid 60’s there had been a fight in the shul as to whether to stay in the city or move to the suburbs. Under Buddy’s leadership TI decided to stay in DC. 

Later in the week Milton Engel, a TI member, called me. He heard about us from his wife Diana, who was the Neighbors Inc. housing advisor. He told me that the leadership at TI did not want to renew Bud’s contract because of his anti-war and other liberal positions on various issues. He invited us to a meeting with Bud to discuss what we might do to keep the Rabbi. There were 6 couples at the meetings, 3 of us members. 

After a long discussion we decided our only choice was to run a slate of officers in the June TI election. Milton would run for President. He accepted with two conditions set forth by Diana. He would only serve one term and he would not have to sit on the Bima during services. Even before we started to campaign, we had attacked one of the then basic rules of Judaism. It was a precursor of the move toward informality that would mark TI. 

At the same time another major issue arose: whether we should merge the TI school with MCJC, now called Ohr Kodesh. Several of the parents and teachers (including the Hermans and Marjorie Rosenthal’s brother-in-law, Joe Friedman) successfully fought this proposal. We felt if it passed, it would have meant the end of the Shul. Since a Hebrew school is needed to draw new young members. Barbara met Esther for the first time at a congregational meeting on the merger. The proposal was defeated. 

Once Milton decided to run, we went into full campaign mode: gathering allies, writing letters to all members, making phone calls, holding “meet the candidates” receptions in living rooms, and even providing transportation to the meeting for some older members who supported the Rabbi.

The Cherner was jammed for the congregational meeting. Some of the neighbors wanted to know what Jewish holiday we were celebrating. Sidney Brown, a former president, nominated Milton with a beautiful talk. He said he had just come back from the USSR and while there he went to shul and all he saw were old people. Here  we had a group of younger people who wanted to be involved and the congregation was saying no. This was especially powerful because Sidney was a long time member, politically conservative, and wealthy. 

Milton was elected. Then, Sidney Michaelson, who was running on the other slate for First Vice President, stood up and said that Milton had the right to have his own team help him run the shul and withdrew from the race. The other members of that slate followed suit. It would have been too embarrassing not to. 

We had won. Now we had a synagogue to run. TI had been in bad financial shape. It was made worse when some of the big donors stopped donating. 

I was appointed as Ritual Chair and Gabbai. One of the first things we faced was running High Holiday services. As many of you know, it’s a big job under the best of circumstances. We were inexperienced, short on cash, and most of the old timers refused to help. For example, we found that we could not afford a Rabbi for the downstairs overflow service. Unlike the current Cherner service, it was strictly traditional and was usually run by a paid Rabbi and Cantor. It also raised a lot of money through ticket sales. 

We had some members who could announce pages, etc. But we needed somebody to give the sermons. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur day were solved easily. Rabbi Ben Mintz from Ohev gave the first day sermon, Rabbi Gene Lipman of Temple Sinai agreed to do the second day, and Bud said he would give his Yom Kippur sermon twice. That left Kol Nidre night. 

We had heard about an activist named Arthur Waskow who had become very Jewishly involved and had written a Freedom Seder. He sounded interesting and we invited him to speak on Kol Nidre night. At the time we had not seen the text of the Freedom Seder. When some of the more politically conservative members heard, they weren’t happy. They decided to go downstairs even though they had upstairs tickets.

To make matters worse, Arthur wrote a new Al Chet and wanted everyone to read it out loud. Just as with the standard Al Chet, the Ark would be opened for the reading. At this point, a riot broke out. I wasn’t down there so I can’t give you details but I was told that someone actually broke the microphone cable. 

To try to undo the damage, Milton appointed a COMMISSION headed by Lee White, a member, who was then Chairman of the Federal Power Commission. He, very successfully, navigated the difficult tides and succeeded in actually strengthening the Congregation. 

Enough of the problems, let’s get positive. In previous years the High Holiday honors had been auctioned off during the Service. Wealthier members had purchased chunks of honors (Musaf on Yom Kippur, for example) and given them to their friends. Many people were honored multiple times. As Gabbai, I changed that. I made innumerable phone calls to assign the Torah honors in advance, but the opening and closings were given on the spot. I also doubled the number of honors by having separate openers and closers. I tried to send up as many men (it was 1969) as possible. Some men who had been members for 40 years got their first High Holiday honors that year. It really meant something to them. As you know we have continued to keep many people involved. 

Our membership committee also got to work. Gene Herman was the chair and he brought in 40 or 50 new members that Summer. At the September Board Meeting, they were presented for membership. Some members of the opposition asked whether any of them were members of JUJ, a radical group of Jewish young people who were raising questions about the activities of the Jewish community. Of course we had no idea if they were, since we didn’t care. The opposition then suggested that we postpone the vote until we could find out. Fortunately, Sol Cooper, one of the members of the opposition said he never heard of anything so stupid. We were bringing in 50 new member families into a dying synagogue and you want to turn them away? We won by one vote, his.

We made many other changes as well over the next few years. Let me mention some of them. 

TI had a world class Chazan, Sholom Katz. He was the cantorial voice in the movie, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” He was at TI except for Pesach and the High Holidays when he was at Brown’s in the Catskills. So he came very cheap. He was also quite expert at discouraging Congregational singing. We decided not to renew his contract. That was when members and Buddy began to lead services more often. 

We began holding family retreats. This was not very common for Synagogues anywhere at that time and may have been the first in the DC area. Since there was no Pearlstone, the first retreats were held at Shrine Mount an Episcopal retreat center in western Virginia. The retreats were very successful and now are  standard at many congregations. At the first one we didn’t realize that you needed programming for the teens. I understand it took quite a bit of negotiating with a local farmer to mollify him after the teens wrecked his squash field. 

It was at that retreat that the issue of rights for women was first raised. I then added Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women to my portfolio. Barbara discussed this issue a few years ago and her talk is available through the TI home page.

The next year, the problems with how the Jewish funeral homes in the community were treating the mourners was raised. After a discussion and a lot of work, TI started what has become the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington. It serves 46 congregations, chavurot, and societies. It serves all branches of Judaism. TI started it and Temple Micah joined us. TI still provides very inexpensive funerals for members. Like egalitarianism, this is a permanent TI legacy to the entire community.

At that time, the biggest issue in the Jewish community was Soviet Jewry. We were the first Synagogue in the Washington area to celebrate some of Simchat Torah outside in support of Soviet Jews. Who were afraid to enter the synagogues because of possible retribution, Instead they gathered in the streets to dance on Simchat Torah to show their Jewishness as part of the fight for the right to emigrate. I can remember all of us chanting:

“One, two, three, four,
Open up the iron door.
Five, six, seven, eight,
Let my people emigrate.”

on the 16th Street steps on Simchat Torah night.

It was a busy and exceedingly productive few years. We took a dying, uninspired shul and made it a lively, exciting place to be. Not many people thought TI would still be around 40 years later. There are not that many of us left at TI who remember that time. But it laid the foundation for what TI is today.