At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1964, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years. In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of the members of the class of 1964.
I was born in Cincinnati at Good Samaritan Hospital right next door to HUC. My parents always said that they wanted to enroll me in the college then and there. I grew up in Los Angeles, went to UCLA, and with others from the classes of ‘63 and 64′ were blessed to have been the first to attend the LA school on Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills. So many stories to recount about those heady days, but in a different venue.
It’s about 2200 miles between LA and Cinti and I spent my entire career in Denver, which is exactly in between. My first three years were as an assistant at Temple Emanuel, a 1000 family congregation then in a city of about 20,000 Jews. By 1967 the city had morphed from western cow town to metropolis, from half a million to a million souls and then some. As Rikki and I were contemplating our next move, three young families proposed that we stay and start another congregation in the southern part of the city where new housing projects were getting underway. It was a most fortuitous decision. By our first Rosh Hashanah service we were 78 families with 125 children in the religious school.
We rented space in a lovely Congregationalist Church and held school and services there for our first nine years. (The cross on the wall? Well, think of it as a “T” for Temple.) The relationship between the two congregations was exceptional. Rev. Stu Haskins and I are still close friends. The congregants became a sort of learning, teaching, mutual adoration society. We built the sukkah each year in their courtyard and hundreds of their members came to learn and “shake.” We preached at each others services at special times, especially during national days of mourning or celebration. We raised money for Israel. We began a joint Thanksgiving service that continues to this day, the longest such interfaith service in US history between just two congregations. While Rikki and I have led over 25 congregational trips to Israel through the years, one of the most memorable was when Stu and I took 40 people from the two congregations, and for 17 days shared in accounts from both traditions as we journeyed from site to site.
In 1972, Audrey Friedman Marcus, then educational director of Temple Micah, asked if I’d like to co-author a series of 30 pamphlets entitled “Our Synagogue.” We wrote them in three sessions together and they were published by Winston Press and ultimately distributed by Behrman House. Both of us had a passion for Jewish education and were appalled at the paucity of relevant, dynamic, beautifully designed, kid friendly and teacher oriented materials then available. So we started our own publishing company. At first we called it Alternatives in Religious Education, which was the title of a monthly teaching magazine that Audrey produced for a limited market. We later changed the name to A.R.E. Publishing. Within a year, we were writing mini-courses (a novel product at the time) on Jewish Marriage, Divorce, Circumcision, Aging, Calendar, Jews in the Soviet Union, and more. We designed a game about Soviet Jewry and a learning experience about the Holocaust. We sent out flyers and to our astonishment orders came in. Rikki turned our basement into a warehouse and packed and shipped and took orders and billed. When the materials overwhelmed our garage and basement, we bought a warehouse and then a larger one. Teacher materials followed – a major multi-book Hebrew program (Z’man Likro) and handbooks galore – The Jewish Teachers Handbook, Principals Handbook, Teaching Torah, Holidays, Mitzvot, Haftarah, and more, each a gem of Jewish research and practical teaching applications. By the time we sold the company after 30 years, we had spawned many other boutique publishing ventures such as Karben Copies and Torah Aura, while in the process becoming one of the largest Jewish publishers in the English speaking world.
Meanwhile, Temple Sinai was growing. With 300 families, we bought land and built a lovely facility in our target area. A year later cracks began to appear, major costly attempts to fix the building failed, lawsuits ensued, but we had to keep the building standing to win a court case. Six years later, on the courthouse steps, we recovered every cent we had put into the building and land and bought a magnificent Denver public school building that had been abandoned due to mandated cross city busing for integration. New Year’s day 1984, as we moved into the new facility (with two foot thick walls and no cracks, we called it Fort Sinai), our eldest daughter Robin was dying. At 19, she spent her last months of strength teaching art in our preschool, and passed away quietly at home surrounded by loving family and many friends. Kaddish for the building and the child.
Life has its pauses; resiliency carries us onward. We soon added a beautiful new sanctuary (now bearing our family name), social hall, offices, youth lounge, and chapel to the terrific school facility. In its new space, Sinai flourished, growing to 1150 families. Assistant Rabbis and soloists were a great source of inspiration to members as well as to me. I loved to watch them grow into their talents, to see them learn to walk and then to run off to lead their own congregations. Some 20 kids coming through Sinai’s school have become rabbis, cantors, or Jewish educators. I think I’m most proud of that. I am also pleased to have been able to resurrect the joint conversion program, in which 20 rabbis of all denominations (not yet the Orthodox) teach and serve on the Bet Din. I have been the Av Bet Din for decades.
I retired in 2005 after leading the Temple for some four decades. It’s in very good hands still, building again and flourishing as I know it will. I still teach a Torah Study class there every Shabbat morning with my dear friend Rabbi Steve Kaye as we have done for the past 28 years. We do one verse a week. We just finished Numbers 15:1. We’re hoping to live long enough to get through Deuteronomy.
Writing has always been a source of pleasure for me and so I was pleased to have been able to publish two books since 2005 – Forty Years of Wondering: The High Holy Day Sermons and my first novel Holy Fire. They say the second novel is the hardest. “They” is right.
Our children Ron and Dina are married to wonderful spouses and have each presented us with two grandchildren, whom we adore. Denver has been very sweet to us in every way and Rikki and I feel most blessed to have watched the city and the Jewish community grow and thrive.
Baruch tiyeh, may it continue to do so.
5 replies on “Celebrating the Class of 1964: “Blessed to See the Jewish Community Thrive””
I am one of those whom you mentored along their way, and I am full of gratitude for your wisdom and kindness. Stan and I wish for you, Rikki and your family blessings and happiness.
Yes, Baruch Tiyeh. It has been a great source of joy and pride to be a member of Rabbi Zwerin’s Temple Sinai for almost all of its years with him as the spiritual leader; we have experienced every life cycle event together between our two families. Oy vey, imagine THAT. A hearty mazel tov,, dear Rabbi, on this anniversary of yours. Rikki and you and your family are in my prayers and thoughts very often,; I’m wishing you all good health and lots of continuing nachus. (maybe some nachos, too) Warmly, Nancy Cohen Nowak
Rabbi Zwerin, while I am now a colleague, it’s still too weird to call you anything else for you are always my rabbi. I am grateful every day to you for what you gave me – the gift of love and support as I became a rabbi almost 16 years ago. I knew I wanted to do this when I was 9 years old and you never dissuaded me. Thank you so much for always believing in me and reminding me to believe in myself! I look forward to celebrating with you this week at #CCAR14. With love and gratitude always. Heidi Cohen (was Williams, but you knew that!)
Mazel Tov to my lifetime champion teacher, Ray! It’s been a highlight of my life to have had a part in making sure that you wouldn’t leave Denver after Emanuel. The first day of my last class with you, the participants were asked why they were taking the class. When it came around to me, I said that I would take any class you taught, even if it was mortuary science! May G-d bless you and keep you able and willing to share your wit and wisdom for many, many more years!
Dear Rabbi Zwerin,
I knew Angela Gold (z”l) from San Francisco Bay Area synagogues and an annual commemorative sing-along tribute to Debbie Friedman(z”l) at Rabbi Stuart Kelman’s home.
Angela’s premature death is nothing but tragic. In hearing today’s streamed funeral service for Angela, I heard your beautifully written tribute as well and your mentioning the tragic loss of your 19-year-old daughter (to a brain tumor). While I don’t know the year rhat your precious daughter was first diagnosed. But it seems too coincidental – your young adult daughter and a young 27-/28-year-old Angela – became fatally ill with a brain tumor.
I came across a 2014 Denver Post article on the incidence of specific cancers in women and in men in Denver and certain catchment areas of Rocky Flats plant, a former nuclear weapons production facility, which is 15 miles northwest of Denver.