My Last Sermon at Temple Emanu-El
Rabbi Jonathan Miller
June 30, 2017/Parashat Korach
In my last three Shabbat messages, I addressed Birmingham, the Jewish future, and my rabbinate. This is the last time that I will stand on this pulpit as your rabbi. This is an emotional event for me and I imagine for many of you. I want to reminisce, reflect and share with you my vision for your future, the future of this synagogue which I and so many others in partnership with me worked so hard to build. I feel like this is my charge to the Bar Mitzvah child. We give them their certificates and gifts and send them off to their adulthood. Tonight is my send-off to you.
I will be honest with you. I came to Birmingham on a lark. When Judi and I received the call to come and visit in Birmingham in June, 28 years ago, Judi had me call Dr. Dreyfus, the Reform Movement’s director of placement services and tell him that I was offered a trip to visit Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham and that we must decline the trip because there is no way that we would consider moving to Birmingham. Dr. Dreyfus, with his melodious English accent said, “Jonathan, if they are willing to pay for you and your wife to travel from Los Angeles to Alabama, you should make the trip.” I told Judi that we have to go or else Dr. Dreyfus will have me on his blacklist.
When I arrived here, I was enchanted. I was enchanted with the hospitality, the beauty, and the eagerness of this synagogue to embrace a high energy person. I figured I had nothing to lose, and I told the search committee exactly what I thought about the things they asked me. I pulled no punches. And they still wanted me. I came back another time to see if my excitement was warranted. And then we came back to seal the deal. Half a year later, in the middle of the winter, four Millers got off our flight from Hawaii, were transported by David and Lois Cohen to the Embassy Suites, got a ride to Limbaugh Toyota to pick up my new minivan, and then I came to the Temple for Adele Cohn’s funeral. I sat in the back of a packed sanctuary. Rabbi Grafman was the officiant. I felt people turn around and all eyes were on me. From then on, this pulpit was mine.
The real mystery was not that fact that we came to Birmingham. I wanted a quieter life, and I wanted a real sense of community and a grounded place to raise my children. Judi and I agreed that we would stay 5 years, 6 years max, and then head out to a bigger city. Temple Emanu-El was to be our rest stop on the road of life. But then I decided to stay. That was the key decision. The important decision was not coming here, but staying here. Judi supported this decision, even though we were far from our families on both coasts. It was good. It has been very good. I have loved this city. I have loved this Jewish community. And I have loved you. I have loved you very much.
When I arrived, the congregation’s budget had just topped $600,000. We had maybe $350,000 in our Endowment Fund. The Sanctuary was beautiful, but it sure needed a lot of work. And the Newfield building was an ugly two-story building that was sinking into the ground. We entered the steps to the kitchen from the outside, and the steps were rusted out. Jane Siegel served as our part time cantorial soloist. Lester played the organ. Poor Daniel Siegel sat behind the bima every Saturday morning and drew pictures of Mr. Potato Head. Lois Cohen kept the kids in line. We had a choir every Friday night at our 8:00 service. Sterne Hall was the least attractive social hall in the United States. Robin Gotlieb was our executive director and Norma Warren did our acknowledgments.
Only one of two boilers for heat and hot water was operational. We had trouble assuring that we had enough money to pay our expenses.
27 and a half years later, we have a handsome facility, beautiful in every way and fully paid for. We are served by two rabbis and a cantor. Our endowment fund has over $14 million dollars in its corpus, and it pays out over $400,000 per year to help the Temple. We have a prominent place in the Jewish community and in the city of Birmingham. Our Discovery School takes care of 90 children. We have produced a cook book, a prayer book and my Legacy book. We have taken care of the religious needs of Jews and provided an occasional dose of hope and inspiration. We have done so much. Our budget has grown 4-fold. Our congregation is proud of who we are and what we represent. I am very proud. Very very proud. And you should be proud also. I have left this synagogue stronger and better than it was when I arrived in the dead of winter, 1991. And I could not have done any of this without your support, generosity and confidence.
I cannot thank everybody personally on the Temple team and in the congregation who have helped me be the best rabbi to you that I could have been. But I do want to speak to my fellow k’lei kodesh, fellow servants to God. How can I possibly express my gratitude to my Cantor of almost two decades? You voice is the voice of angels, and my prayers to God have been directed through the music that you and Dr. Mosteller have offered. Give this congregation every bit of your creative energy. They love you and want you to give to them from your soul.
Rabbi Haas has been my partner and dear friend, my football buddy and inspiration. I admire your dedication to get things done. Nothing gets in your way. You are intelligent and wise beyond your years. You have been my confidant and my support. Young rabbis like you grow into the great ones of the next generation. You are a mover and a doer and a lover of Zion, Am Yisrael, and the people you serve. Your future will be brilliant.
Cantor Roskin and Rabbi Haas, I will support you from afar and will be a listening post and guide for you should you call on me. My heart is filled with gratitude to both of you.
I want to share the seminal moment for me in my years of service to you. Temple Beth El had just built the Filler Cultural Center. I was walking out to our parking lot with Robert Levin, and I said, “Wow, their facility is beautiful. Look what we have. Our building is falling apart. It is a disgrace.” Robert said to me, “We can build something even better.” I remember the discussion as though it were yesterday. “Robert,” I said, “We can’t even balance our budget year after year. How in God’s name are we going to build a building?” Robert said, “We can do anything we set our minds to doing.”
That conversation was a turning point for me. In the intervening years, we refurbished our Sanctuary, built the Collat Congregational Center, added a Cantor and second Rabbi, expanded our programming, established the Discovery School and reached out into the community. We brought in dollars and built buildings and in an era of national disaffiliation with religious institutions, we have emerged as an anchor for the Jewish community in Birmingham. Somehow we got it all done.
Tonight, I am going to reflect on the “somehow.” Where does the somehow come from? And what do you need to do moving forward to capture the imagination of the people Temple Emanu-El serves? What advice can I offer in these twilight moments before the door swings shut?
In the months leading to my departure, I have been eating a lot of lunches and dinners out with congregants. By the way, thanks to everyone who has contributed to my expanding girth. At one lunch, one of my friends, an older gentleman looked me in the eye and said, “Jonathan, how can this Temple afford three clergy in the future?” There are two ways to answer this.
1. The dollar difference between engaging a second rabbi and a top-notch educator is negligible. Practically speaking, you can do this and do this easily, especially if you understand that a happy and functioning religious school and Discovery School brings in income and enthusiasm from the next generation of Jews who will lead and contribute to Temple Emanu-El in the generations to come. You cannot afford not to hire a third clergy, if that is what you desire.
2. You must believe in what you are doing. You must believe in God. You must believe in yourselves. You must have faith in the future. That is the magic ingredient of the “somehow” I mentioned earlier.
I have sat at the Board table longer than anyone else. I have endured lean years and enjoyed years of relative plenty. Plenty is better than lean. But dollars do not define success in Temple life. The Temple Emanu-El family has the ability to support anything they believe in. I want to repeat this statement. You have the ability to support anything you believe in.
In the Torah portion this week, the Israelites are thirsty. God tells Moses to speak to the rock so it will provide water for the thirsty Israelites. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses strikes it with his staff. God has pity on the Israelites and water comes pouring out. But God upbraids Moses, not for his disobedience, but because Moses, “… did not believe in me enough to sanctify Me as holy in the sight of the Israelites.” And the text continues. “Therefore, you will not bring this congregation into the land that I have promised to give them.”
If you twist an arm, you may be able to squeeze another dollar out of an unhappy stone. But if you put forward a vision of what you believe this Temple can become, an abundance of dollars will flow to you with love and admiration.
To support a strong Temple, you must ask for money. I understand that. I have done my share of asking over these years. Asking for money does not strengthen the synagogue. Having a vision and sharing that vision, that has been the key to the good things that we have been able to offer this holy congregation. In the future, when you have a vision and a plan to get to the Promised Land, the dollars will come. If not, you will remain in the desert. I know this for certain.
Of course the Temple has to be managed responsibly. But that is an extraordinarily low bar to set for our leadership. I want our leaders and I want you to believe in God and believe in yourselves and know that when you seek blessings in life you will find them and know that when you are rich in spirit and thoughtful in detail, when you have a vision, people will follow you and support anything worthy that you believe in. The challenge to leadership is not management but vision and direction and engagement with the members of this synagogue. In the past, when we were successful, we had vision and purpose and joy in serving. We had a calling. Reclaim your calling.
Nobody in the religious world every built anything of value (and I am not talking about buildings) by holding back and counting and re-counting the dollars in our accounts. As religious people, we build the Temple and we build the path to the Jewish future by dreaming big and seeing our way toward fulfilling our dream. You will be remembered for your dreams and not the numbers on the spreadsheets.
A few more thoughts as I look ahead into your future.
This congregation has had one rabbi for 27 and a half years. Let’s round it up to 28. That is remarkable. With my strengths and my weaknesses, I have picked you up most of the time and probably let you down too, hopefully not too often. You are accustomed to my voice and my vision and the gifts that I have been able to offer you. Tomorrow, I am driving a 26’ truck to Maryland to begin a new chapter in my life.
On our first night of Friendship Journey 4 this past April, Carrie Pizitz looked at me across the table in Jerusalem and said, “Jonathan, are you going to miss us?” My heart almost burst when she asked me that question. I will miss you very much. You have been my life. I have loved you all, imperfectly at times, but I have still loved you. And now it is time to for the lovers to part.
The rabbi who will stand on this pulpit next week, Rabbi Doug Kohn, is a good man. As your interim rabbi, he will be here for one year to help you adjust to Temple life without me. He will help the leadership refocus on what needs to be done for the future. He will take care of you. Trust him. Let him help you through this time of sadness and opportunity. Let him help you capture your vision for the future for my beloved Temple. He will help you set the table. You, however, are charged to prepare the meal.
And then someone new will lay claim to this pulpit. He or she will not be me. I was 35 years old when I first came to Temple Emanu-El to interview. I was young and enthusiastic and cocky and insecure. In these intervening decades, I have grown older and wiser. It would not be fair to compare the rabbi I was at the age of 35 with the rabbi who stands before you today, almost 63 years old. In 1990, the Temple took a chance on me. Who could know the future? I hope that you look back on these years with some level of satisfaction that we have all “done good” together.
But the next man or woman to assume the mantle of leadership will not be me. It is not fair to me or to the next rabbi to compare one of us with the other. Please don’t. Appreciate me for my strengths and please try to forget my shortcomings. The next rabbi will stand on his own or her own and face new challenges. Work with her. Support him. Help her to lead, especially when she starts out. Hold his hand and together create a way forward.
I want to make some recommendations to the rabbinic search committee. Find somebody you like to be with. Look for someone who gives you energy. Look for someone who you think will grow into their best selves. Find the best rabbi you can get to come here. Find the very best. Find someone you think can love you and care for you. These should be your criteria for choosing. And then Temple Emanu-El and Birmingham and the years can work their magic on your new religious leader.
The real question for Temple Emanu-El in the years to come is not who you choose as your rabbi. The real question is what kind of congregation do you want to be? Do you want to follow a vision or just muddle through the day to day? Do you want to engage a spiritual leader or hire an employee who will do your bidding? Will you let your rabbi lead you? Will this be a synagogue that loves and nurtures its rabbi so the rabbi you choose will grow and want to stay with you and will love you in return for the love you have given her or him? As I charge you in my final minutes, that is what I would like you to focus on. Can you be the kind of congregation in the future that will attract a spiritual leader and nurture spiritual leadership and keep that person here for 28 years? If you will do that, whomever you choose will grow with you in intellect, spirit, and joy. And if not, well, it will take another generation to get to the Promised Land.
In the same chapter that I referenced above, our Torah continues with these poignant words:
The whole Israelite community set out from Kadesh and came to Mount Hor. At Mount Hor, near the border of Edom, the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Aaron will be gathered to his people. He will not enter the land I give the Israelites, because both of you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah. Get Aaron and his son Eleazar and take them up Mount Hor. Remove Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar, for Aaron will be gathered to his people; he will die there.”
Moses did as the Lord commanded: They went up Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses removed Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar. And Aaron died there on top of the mountain. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, and when the whole community learned that Aaron had died, all the Israelites mourned for him thirty days.
Thankfully, nobody has died today. I am still very much alive, and so are you. But this parting is a real death of sorts. It is the end of our formal relationship. Now is the end of my leadership. Now is the time that you will move forward without me. Take stock. Take thirty days to stop and consider. Mourn for me. I will mourn for you. We are taking our leave and departing from each other.
But know that I will carry you in my heart, as you will carry me. After thirty days of mourning, it is time to pack up and continue your journey to the Promised Land. And know that when someone new leads you to the Promised Land and you arrive there and settle there and you are prosperous and lead by faith and by a vision, nobody will be happier or more satisfied or feel more complete in heart and soul than me. Nobody. And I will rejoice in the fact that even though I am sad to leave you, someone new and loving will have carried you home.