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Shabbat Honoring Rabbi Rubinstein

June 15, 2014 | General News | Worship and High Holidays

Thousands of congregants gathered for Shabbat worship on Friday, June 13 to honor Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein, Central Synagogue’s departing senior rabbi.  Highlights of the evening included a joyous Hakafah; a tribute video prepared by Rabbi Rubinstein’s friends, family, and colleagues; presentations of Words of Faith, Hope, and Character, a book of the rabbi’s sermons, the Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein Fund for the Renaissance of Reform Judaism, and the naming Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein Chapel in the Community House; a “flash mob” of students singing and dancing to Rabbi Buchdahl’s rendition of “Higher Love,” and concentric circles of Rabbi Rubinstein’s family, clergy colleagues from Central and beyond, and all of the congregation joining hands in “concentric circles” in blessing.

Tribute Video | David Edelson’s Remarks | Howard Sharfstein’s Remarks | Rabbi Rubinstein’s Remarks | Photos coming soon

David Edelson’s Remarks

There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Well, we’ve gone a long way together over the past 23 years, thanks to your leadership and vision. The vibrancy and relevance of our community today is truly remarkable. It has been an amazing journey for Central and for each of us personally.

We are grateful beyond words.

Peter, nine months ago, during Yom Kippur, you delivered your sermon as a “love letter” to us. You were eloquent, poignant, and stirring. You told us you loved us for our courage, for our decency, and for our trust. You allowed that being our rabbi has been, for you, an enduring and sacred honor.

Tonight, it seems only fitting to respond to your love letter with one of our own. Naturally, you invoked rabbinic privilege and spoke for 33 minutes, while I’ve been allotted no more than five minutes. I guess that says something about the lay–clergy balance of power! So I’ll be brief and hopefully to the point.

Dear Peter,

Let me get right to the heart of the matter: We love you. So there, I said it. No beating around the bush, no stumbling over the “L word.” We love you unabashedly. We admire and respect you. We are proud of you. We consider you a dear and devoted friend.

In your love letter, you quoted the last letter written by the British poet John Keats, in which he admitted, “I can scarcely bid you good-bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.”

Peter, there are no awkward bows in this Sanctuary tonight, because this service is not about saying goodbye. Rather, it is about reflecting on and celebrating all that you have meant to us. It is about thanking you and reiterating our love for you.

The English major in me wishes I could quote a Keats poem that concisely captures our feelings for you, but “Ode on a Grecian Urn” just doesn’t seem to do the trick.

However, the more I searched for just the right poem, the more poetry itself seemed an apt metaphor for your rabbinate at Central… with you, Peter, as the poet.

Robert Frost, who taught at your beloved Amherst College, wrote that “to be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” Of course, what Frost implies is that poets can’t help themselves. In your case, Peter, serving as our rabbi has been your condition. It was never your job, but rather it has been your essence, your reason for being. You have been our rabbi every single day, morning and night, as if being our rabbi were what you were put on this earth to do.

So we love you because your rabbinate has been a beautiful poem, written by a poet for whom serving as our rabbi was simply natural.

Why else do we love you? Well, there are 1,300 people here tonight, plus many more joining by live streaming, and I can’t pretend to speak for all of them. So rather than try, permit me to speak personally about what I love the most about you.

Peter, I love your humanity. I love that you are down-to-earth and genuine. I love your compassion and empathy. I love when you laugh and hug and kiss. I love when you get overcome by emotion on the bimah and aren’t afraid to show it. I love that you openly acknowledge your fears and insecurities and don’t hide your vulnerability. I love that you are approachable and accessible, never arrogant or distant. I love when you admit that you’re simply doing the best you can, just like the rest of us. I love that you don’t judge us, but instead encourage us and egg us on.

Your humanity is what sets you apart. It is the cornerstone of what makes you such a trusted, beloved, and accessible leader.

Peter, thank you for being so real. Thank you for being a water-ski counselor, motorcycle rider, dog enthusiast, vodka aficionado, pigs-in-a-blanket lover, fast-food junkie, bike mechanic, and cycling fanatic. Thank you for being such a regular guy with such an extraordinary ability to connect with, inspire, and lead others.

We have been blessed to have you as our Senior Rabbi for these past 23 years.

In his beautiful song Forever Young, Bob Dylan, one of the great poets of your generation, captured our wishes for you and Kerry:

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others,
And let others do for you…
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
And may you stay forever young.

Kerry and Peter, may your exuberance and curiosity, and your love for one another, keep you forever young.

I will conclude tonight with a passage from your “Love Letter” that captures how we feel about you too:

“It is simply a story of love, our story of our shared journey, a love story for which we thank God and are hugely and humbly grateful. We have been blessed by our time together.”

Peter, we love you and we thank you. And let us all say, amen.

Howard Sharfstein’s Presentation of the Sermon Book

Peter, I had a nightmare last night.  The nightmare that I was standing here with you and I had brought the wrong speech.  And instead of saying what I wanted to say, I was asking everyone to give to the Yom Kippur Appeal. But actually, this is what I’m here for tonight.

I stand here tonight, Peter, representing the eight individuals who have had the privilege, know the blessing, of serving as president of the board of trustees of Central Synagogue during your tenure as our senior rabbi.  We are, in chronological order, Michael Weinberger, Mitchell Rabbino (of blessed memory), Martin Klein, Samuel Wasserman (of blessed memory), Alfred Youngwood, myself, Kenneth Heitner, and David Edelson.

In considering this moment, and what you have meant to all of us and to the Central synagogue community, your presidents concluded that it would be fitting for us to give a gift to you and a gift to each family that now shares the blessing of having you as our rabbi.  The gift is a book, a book that you wrote over the past 23 years.  The book is entitled Words of Faith, Hope, and Character, and it contains 18 of your most inspirational sermons.

The sermons were selected by a wonderful committee, headed by Rabbi Michael Friedman, supported by Steven Klausner, Amala Levine, Alan Mitelman, and Joseph Sofer.  We are so very grateful to Rabbi Friedman and this wonderful committee for the hard work that made this beautiful book a reality. 

Your presidents wanted to create a book of your most meaningful sermons because we know that your words, delivered on our High Holy Days, truly resonated with this entire community.  Whether you stood before us on this bimah, in the Armory, at the Waldorf, or in Avery Fisher Hall, your presidents want your words to continue to be part of the lives of this entire community, and part of the lives that will follow for many years.

It is our prayer that this book will be an enduring legacy of your rabbinate, and will be read by all of us and placed on our bookshelves, to be referenced at times of need, reflection, loss, or joy. 

Your sermons, Peter, have taught us many things.  You gave us hope and strength in the sermons that so closely followed the destruction of our Sanctuary, the horrors of September 11, and the stresses of the financial crisis.  You challenged us to become better people, more highly valued people.  You showed us how to be better Jews, and how our faith must be part of our lives every day that we have the blessing of breath. 

Simply put, the legacy of your sermons is in our hearts, right next to our love for you.

(And what I’m about to do, you’ll see that David and I did not coordinate our speeches.)

Let me close by using your words to express how all of us feel at this moment.  So imagine if you would instead of standing here speaking to us, you to imagine that all of us are gathered here on the bimah and you are sitting there in a pew.

Imagine this is our love letter to you, paraphrasing the love letter you delivered to all of us last Yom Kippur:

We love you for your courage.  We love you for your decency.  And we love you for your trust.  You have made our lives a dream.  We have shared an adventure and a journey. Being your congregation has been an enduring and sacred honor. 

Please accept this book from your presidents as an expression of our love and respect.  We are so very grateful and we wish you and Kerry many years of good health, fulfillment, and joy.

Rabbi Rubinstein’s Remarks

Very often, rabbis say “there are just no words,” and then we go on to talk. 

The amazing thing about all this is that I had no idea what was happening.  And in fact, the perfect means by which this congregation through this year has indicated what meaning I’ve had in your lives, and that you’ve had in mine, is that you made sure I didn’t know what was happening.  And therefore everything was a surprise.  I was studying with many of these children during Confirmation, and I had no idea that at the time they were saying they couldn’t come to class because they had finals, they were probably here rehearsing for this. 

Before I begin my few words, I just want to personally take note of those who cannot be here because they are ill, or in bed and not feeling well enough to have been here.  I just want them to know that they are here; though differently, they are as close to me as are all of you. 

Fortuitously, the parashah for this week, Sh’lach L’cha, begins with God’s command to Moses to “send forth wise people to spy out the land” which had been promised to the Israelites. 

But the words “sh’lach l’cha” can be translated as somewhat more reflective and personal: not really just about sending other people forth, but also about taking seriously for one’s self the same imperative to break momentum and comfort and inertia.  And to reflect and to deliberately leave what one is doing and loves—and loves passionately—and step across a boundary into the unknown, a new land and a new chapter. 

My body told me it was time to do it.  My head did as well.  But my heart still aches.  And for me that is what tonight is about: the complication and bittersweetness of it all. 

You heard that I began this year with a love letter.  It was an expression from my heart to yours.  I needed to tell you what was on my mind and running through me, that you make my life glorious and lovely. 

More so, you have stood beside me, and with me, and behind me, during traumatic times for this congregation and for our nation.  And you have embraced me tenderly in ecstatically joyful moments as well, with so many of you being at the wedding in which Kerry and I became husband and wife. 

You have given me the luxury of freedom to do what I believed could make this synagogue and the Jewish world better.  And you were dauntless in taking outrageously creative chances if that was what was necessary to forge a new expression of synagogue life. 

And what touched me even more is that you allowed me my missteps and my failures because you intuitively knew that taking chances was necessary to engage with the unimaginable, and to boldly set out on unexplored byways, and you never made me feel bad about anything.  Not even those horrendous mistakes, which you might not have known but I knew, and for which I took full responsibility, though it hurt so much.

You have been amazing and loving and dependable and so very, very compassionate.  You see, what we have done, we did together.  Look at that wall—some of you remember how when we were nearing the completion of this building, we invited everybody in this congregation to paint some of the stenciling.  So many of our children who now have grown up and are adults added their hands to the finishing of that wall, so that they all knew that without their help this building would have remained incomplete. 

That is not simply about building a building.  It is about what we have created and it is about this evening.

We did not talk about partnership, we just did it.  And we did not talk about affection and love, we just had it.  And we did not convince ourselves to be courageous—it was in our bloodline. 

We believed that there was no challenge too great, no chasm too wide, and no barrier too high that we couldn’t overcome it if we just took each other’s hands and continued to march forward.  You were by my side.  To play on the poet Robert Browning’s words, we intuitively knew that our reach needed to exceed our grasp, or what is Jewish life all about otherwise?

And I thank you for it all.

I had no idea about the gifts that you would be giving.  The raising of the fund, I had some inkling of.  The book of sermons, I knew nothing of until just this week.  The naming of the chapel… nothing could be more perfect, more staying, more nourishing, and closest to my heart as that will be.

This evening is not only about love and courage, it is also about gratitude, a full bounty of which I feel in my life.  I am grateful for God having circuitously led me into the rabbinate.  I am grateful for my friends and colleagues for whom I have the bond of shared passion for Jewish life and survival and excellence.  And Rick, I am glad to see you here—I didn’t realize you were coming.  Through the years, you have kept me strong and focused, and laughing when that was what we needed. 

I am also grateful to the leadership of this synagogue, whom I had the chance to celebrate with at the beginning of this week.  I know that this congregation knows how blessed we are to have leaders who are wise and fearlessly courageous.  I am grateful to the chairs of this evening and the many people who’ve been responsible for all the programs in my honor. 

I am grateful for my family: my brothers and their wives who have always been my haven from childhood when I needed a shoulder.  I am inordinately grateful to my sons and their families; more than any, they are our future.  I would still work to be as good a person as the two of you are.  And I am grateful to my parents, who, though not here, I know are loving every minute.  My father would just sit here proudly knowing that he bequeathed to his sons a love and commitment to synagogue life and Judaism, and my mom, who would just be here, loving the fact that you were paying attention to her.

Above all, and always, I am grateful for Kerry, who, in the most improbable way, danced into my life and in her own understated and inestimable way makes me a better man and a far better rabbi than I would be without her.  My love is so great that my heart still skips a beat every day when she walks into a room, and I always need to see her in the Sanctuary during worship to be fully at peace during services. 

I spoke these words at our annual meeting, but they move within me even now: In some ways, we will go in different directions, but not entirely, because my heart remains here.  My love for this synagogue is boundless and forever.  My hopes and dreams for this congregation, and for myself, are to soar. 

About myself I am not so certain.  But about this congregation—soon to be in the hands of a great rabbi, a great friend, and, joyfully, my successor, Angela Buchdahl—I know you will soar, because she does.  And for that, I am so very grateful, as for my colleagues who support me on this pulpit, this team of friends with whom I work. 

The future remains in our hands, and it is bright.  Jewish life is in our spirit, and it is glorious.  And our Jewish mission pulses through us, and that is our promise, our vision.  So we will make it a reality. 

In January of last year, when I sat with David Edelson and told him of my decision, tonight was far enough away that it didn’t feel as though I would be in fact feeling the way I feel now.  There is no way to foresee the movement of emotion that we have.  But I so love this congregation that it hurts, and I feel so much of that love back from you.  It’s a gift in my life; you’re a gift in my life. 

And though when I walk out of my building, I may make a turn to my right rather than the left, this I know:

We who have suffered and cried together: we will never lose each other. 

We who have celebrated and joyfully the watched the birth of new life, and of new marriages: we will never lose each other. 

We who have struggled with the problems in our lives, with the vicissitudes of economies and of this nation and of this city, and stood strong in defense of our people: we will never lose each other. 

We have traveled this world because we understand that the Jewish community throughout this world has something to teach us as we have the ability to teach them: how can we possibly lose each other?

No, this is not about loss.  It is something about heartache, but above all, it is about truth and the wonder of what you and I have done together.  Together—and we must never forget that.  We have built a miracle. And those children who danced in the aisle this evening someday will look back and be grateful.  And that’s the gratitude we deserve. 

So I thank you with great love, some pain, but above all, a belief in you, the Jewish people, and our future together.

Thank you.

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