My synagogue is 50 years old this year, and I have been the rabbi at Temple Beth Torah for almost 40 of those 50 years. I know some synagogues are older and some rabbis have served longer, but 50 years is definitely old enough to have left a mark on my soul and on my community. I want you, dear readers, to understand some of the reasons I love my synagogue. Most are stories. Here are some of them:
Naming a child
It is Jewish law to name a baby after a deceased relative … so, a couple came into my office in advance of a baby-naming ceremony for their newborn daughter and told me that they were going to name her Pamela. I said, "Pamela is a beautiful name. After whom is she being named?" They said, "We aren't going to tell you, rabbi, because we don't want you to be mad at us." I said, "Tell me or I will beat it out of you [or words to that effect]." They said, "We are naming her after our dog, Poncho." I said, "You are absolutely right. I am disappointed in you." They said, "Well, we loved Poncho." I said, "You loved Poncho? Does this mean that Poncho is dead?" They looked at me like I was a complete idiot and said, "Yes, rabbi, Poncho is dead. You don't think we would name our daughter after a LIVING dog?" Thank God for tradition.
For many years, the clergy in my synagogue have been women. My assistant rabbi, my cantor and my director of education are all women, and all of them except the cantor are rabbis. One day the children from a young grade in our religious school were asking me questions in the sanctuary. A little girl stood up and asked me, "Rabbi Gellman, are you sure it is OK for a man to be a rabbi?" Thank God for tradition.
There for the picking
For many years, thanks to the kindness of Meyer's Farms, we were allowed to go into their fields and glean unharvested vegetables in conformity to a biblical commandment to glean the fields for the poor. We donated tons of food to Long Island Cares' food bank. Many of my congregants over many fall harvest seasons picked green beans and peppers and eggplants. One year a little girl came up to me in an eggplant field and asked, "Why are we doing this?" I said, "Because poor people don't get fresh vegetables and so we are picking these eggplants for poor people to eat. These eggplants can be made into eggplant parmigiana. Do you like eggplant parmigiana?" She nodded yes. I said, "So that's why we are here — to pick eggplant parmigiana for the poor." She smiled a big smile and asked me, "Rabbi, where do we go to pick the cheese and the tomato sauce?" Thank God for tradition.
Coming round to organ
The mother of a girl who was scheduled to have her bat mitzvah at my synagogue came into my office in tears. She said, "My mother may not attend her own granddaughter's bat mitzvah in our synagogue because she is traditional and in her synagogue they do not have an organ. We have an organ, and she thinks it makes our services sound like we are in a church. Rabbi, could you please talk to my mother and try to convince her to attend? She respects you and it might help." I called the grandmother and patiently explained that even the services in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem were accompanied by musical instruments and a choir. I succeeded (barely) in getting her to agree to attend. The Friday evening service before the Saturday morning bat mitzvah was about to begin. The family and the grandmother were there in the front row waiting for the mother and the girl to light the Shabbat candles (accompanied by the organ!). Then suddenly, my pal, the Rev. Tom Hartman, appeared at the door to the sanctuary, said hello to his many friends and took a seat on the bimah (the stage) next to me and the ark that held the Torah scrolls. Tommy did this regularly and everyone loved him and welcomed him, but the grandmother who saw a priest on the bima sitting next to the rabbi looked like she was witnessing the arrival of a ghost. She said something to her daughter who smiled broadly. After the services I asked the daughter what her mother had said to her. She said, "She saw Father Tom sitting next to you. She looked at me and said, 'Maybe the organ is not that bad.' " Thank God for tradition.
Happy birthday Temple Beth Torah, and all the stories that fill my heart and soul.
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.