20 Things You Might Not Know About Me

In the world of cyberspace, where twitters and blogs abound and Facebook connects many into a single universe of “friends,” there is a popular pastime of sharing little known facts of one’s life under the rubric:  25 Things You Might Not Know About Me.  This month I celebrate the 20th anniversary of my ordination as a rabbi.  It was a beautiful day in May.  The year 1989.  I remember thinking:  I am nearly 30 (it seemed so old then) what have I done with my life?  And, now, here I am 20 years later–wasn’t it just a blink of an eye?–looking back on a path that I seem to understand better with the wisdom of hindsight.  So I share with you 20 Things You Might Know About Me to mark the passing of these 20 years.

As I reflect upon the experiences that have shaped my path, I see much more clearly now the mysterious hand of God guiding me along.

1. I suppose one might have noticed the early signs of rabbinic tendencies… if one had been paying attention.  After all, how many kids led, as I did, regular graveside services for our dearly departed rodent pets out in the back yard.  Complete with Kaddish.

2.  I was also one of the few kids I knew who begged his parents to start lessons for Bar Mitzvah with the cantor earlier than required.  I have very strong memories of traveling the summer before my Bar Mitzvah by car up to Oregon listening to my Torah and Haftarah portions on the little micro-cassette recorder that I had borrowed from my dad’s office.

3.  When I was a kid, I loved animals and really wanted to be a veterinarian and come to Davis to study.  Who knew how life would turn out?  I never became a vet, but I fulfilled my dream of coming to Davis anyway.

4.  I was so completely amazed the first time I saw my rabbi at the gym that I came home and exclaimed, “The Rabbi wore tennis shoes!”  I probably had never seen him outside the synagogue before and certainly not running up and down a basketball court.  How many kids today would be amazed that I, too, wear tennis shoes?!

5.  The Yom Kippur war broke out only a week or so before my Bar Mitzvah.  This left a lasting impression.  I remember sitting in the car, listening to the radio, as the final days of the war played out.  I remember the tremendous relief that we all felt when the war was over and Israel was safe.  So much to be thankful for.  My Bar Mitzvah was on the Shabbat of Sukkot over 35 years ago and sometimes it feels just like yesterday.

6.  I loved studying Hebrew, and after becoming Bar Mitzvah, I continued studying modern Hebrew for over a year with a private tutor once a week.  Little did I know it then, but this gave me a jump on my Hebrew studies in college at UC Berkeley.

7.  My first trip to Israel was in 1976, just after my Confirmation.  Going to Israel was a really big deal, and was a carrot that kept many students, in my day, in religious school up through the 10th grade.  I didn’t need any extra encouragement, though.  I stayed involved right up through 12th grade.

8.  I shared my 13th visit to Israel with my family and a number of families from our congregation just a few summers ago.  It was one of the highlights of my life and such a joy to share it with our Davis family.

9.  One of the things that I learned from my Rabbi, Marty Weiner, was that this trip to Israel at 16 was such a precious experience for every student.  He taught me that money should never prevent a student from taking advantage of this incredible opportunity.  I have made that credo a part of my philosophy, too.

10. The day we flew to Israel was June 27, 1976.  This was the same day that an Air France flight was hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda.  We were all in Israel during the extraordinary raid on Entebbe, on July 4, to free the hostages that were being held captive.  What a rush of exhilaration when it was all over!  There were t-shirts for sale the next day all over Israel.  I was also present at the founding of the first Reform kibbutz, Kibbutz Yahel, on that same day, July 4.   30 years later I brought our synagogue trip back to Yahel.  There had been a few changes!

11. I spent my junior year of college on a kibbutz in Israel, Kibbutz Tzora.  I had a wonderful adopted family on the kibbutz.  They spoke zero English.  Not only that.  They spoke Hebrew at the speed of lightening, or so it seemed.  It was quite a challenge for my Hebrew.  I spent a lot of time hanging out with the 2nd and 3rd grade kids who would gather on the lawn after dinner; they were about my Hebrew speed.  One of those kids grew up and ended up marrying a rabbi who is now the head of the CCAR Press, the publishing arm of the Reform Rabbis.

12. While on the kibbutz, I worked primarily in the cotton fields.  It was an incredible experience for a city boy to get up at 4 in the morning and go out and labor in the fields.  I learned how to drive a tractor and move irrigation pipes.  I loved being an intimate witness to the changing seasons and growing cycle of the cotton.

13. On kibbutz, I also had a chance to herd the turkeys, shake almonds out of the tree, milk the cows at some ungodly hour and wind the stray grape vines along their wires.  I was learning quite an interesting Hebrew vocabulary.  Did you know that turkeys in Israel don’t say, “Gobble, gobble, gobble?”  In Hebrew they say, “Adar, Adar, Adar?”  So it was common practice to run up to a gaggle of turkeys and ask “When is Purim?”  They would always answer correctly with the month of “Adar.”

14. As a part of our Year Abroad program in Israel, we had a chance to spend time with the first year students from the Hebrew Union College (The Reform rabbinic training seminary/yeshivah that I eventually attended a few years later) in Jerusalem.  I remember exciting conversations, but also wondering, “Could I ever be a rabbi?  Do I have what it takes?”

15. When I returned from Israel, I joined Garin Aravah, a group of young American Reform Jews seriously contemplating making aliyah to Israel. I went to a number of meetings and conferences, but decided I would become a rabbi first and then I could always go to Israel after.  At least I would have a career…or so my parents told me.

16. Somehow I never went to Jewish camp as a child, but I did work at Camp Swig for a number of summers while in college.  My experiences of seeing Judaism come alive for kids at Camp Swig, coupled with a summer at the Brandeis Bardin Institute, where we were challenged to think deeply about the moral and ethical implications of Judaism, and a year in Israel, were all very powerful and influential experiences in shaping my decision to become a rabbi.

17. When I entered Rabbinic School, I was quite sure that my future would be in youth work and informal Jewish education.  I was convinced that I did not want to work in a synagogue.  I had somehow gotten the impression that synagogues were much too political.  I ended up being encouraged to do an internship in a synagogue in New Jersey just to have the experience.  I did, and I loved the connections that I made with the people in that community.  I was hooked, and that was a major transformation for me that lead me to pursue being the rabbi of a congregation.  The synagogue was pretty “classical” Reform, however, and I was informed by the Senior Rabbi there that I shouldn’t wear my kippah on the bima.  When I protested, he was willing to compromise and told me that I could wear a kippah as long as it matched my hair color.

18. Late in the process, as we were preparing for our interviews for positions after our ordination, an announcement came through about a job in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I didn’t know much about the Midwest but decided to apply anyway.  On the day of the interview, however, I almost didn’t go because there was a scholar-in-residence at the school who I wanted to hear.  But lucky for me, I went to the interview; more out a sense of duty than from a sense that I would really go there.  But I got the job, and had a wonderful introduction to congregational life as a rabbi.  It was there in Milwaukee that I met Julie, and we wed in 1991.  We still go back and have many friends and, of course, family there.  When I told my parents that it looked like I would be taking a job in Milwaukee, my mother responded, “That’s wonderful, honey!….Where is that?”  Everyone in our family knows where Milwaukee is now!

19. I left Congregation Shalom, in Milwaukee, to become the Director of URJ Camp Swig.  While it was a fairly short tenure, I learned a great deal from working at Camp Swig.  More importantly, I have come to realize that it is only because I was at Swig that I came to meet the wonderful families from Bet Haverim in Davis who were a large part of our Family Camp each summer.  When our congregation was looking for a rabbi, I was in transition and was invited to apply.

20. Looking back on these twenty years, so many fabulous experiences large and small have made up my life journey that has lead me to being your rabbi.

And, now, as we get ready to begin our 15th year together, I am filled with such gratitude–to all of you and to the Holy Source of Life who brought us together–that so many of my 20 years as a rabbi have been shared with you.  What a blessing!  I look forward to making many more memories together.