“Love is Blue” was playing on the radio as I drove home from HUC on Clifton Avenue after the lottery was over and my number guaranteed that I would “volunteer” for the U.S. Army. Chaplaincy school was now on the horizon, and Fort Belvoir, Arlington National Cemetery, and Vietnam were in my future. Of course I didn’t know all that as I opened the door of our apartment in Clifton Village, I just felt sorry and angry for Eileen, our newborn son and me – a lamb on its way to slaughter.
But life has a way of imparting its own truths and healing is a presence too often recognized retrospectively. If I lived in a different time or were a different person then, I would be talking about God here. Maybe I still am. Because a Lieutenant from Mississippi, a Private from Brooklyn, a Captain from Minnesota and countless others taught me what it can mean to be called “Rabbi”, present in the jungles of their confusion and fear, connecting us all to each other, to whatever the word God or Jewish meant to us in that seductively lush and dangerous setting.
The Placement Commission of the CCAR gave me a bonus when I came home from Vietnam. I was eligible to apply for a “B” congregation even though I was only two years out. Eileen gave me even a better one when our two-year-old looked up from his crib that first morning and said: “That’s my Daddy”. I guess even in an age of reel-to-reel tapes sent back and forth from Nha Trang to New Jersey we found our way to each other.
My first pulpit was in Springfield, New Jersey. Temple Sha’arey Shalom was looking for someone to follow a powerful, socially active, controversial and adored Rabbi. Do we ever know what we are walking into? They taught me to love and listen. There was no “incoming” to dodge but plenty of battles to navigate as divergent visions of what the past meant for their future collided. The Army served me well. “KISS” Keep It Simple Stupid. Be there as consistently as you can; stand tall and true to yourself and your understanding of the Jewish continuum. But don’t be afraid to cry together, laugh together and dream even as you “never let them see you sweat.” We lived there almost twelve years; our family and our congregation growing and maturing, nurturing each other in times of strength and weakness.
I was in the middle of working towards an MSW in Pastoral Counseling from Wurzweiler School of Social Work when Temple Israel of West Palm Beach called to ask if I would consider interviewing for their congregation. Sometimes things are just meant to be and since I was conducting a wedding in Del Ray Beach two weeks later, I said – yes – if you can make it happen within that time frame. The interview took place in the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach over breakfast with 30 people. Talk about first impressions! A 28-year-bumpy, frustrating, exhilarating, challenging journey began that day. It was filled with new opportunities for growth some of my choosing some chosen for me. The position propelled me into community activism both in our Jewish Federation and the Interfaith Arena. In the meanwhile I was invited to serve on the Reform Pension Board where I am now Vice-Chair. An unexpected blessing, my years on the RPB have linked me with lay and professional people who care deeply and religiously for the professionals and congregations of our Reform movement. It taught me how the sacred flows into the secular; how a shared vision and commitment can become God’s work.
I retired in 2008 to a new chapter. I spent two years learning to become a Jewish Spiritual Director. The Hasidic and Mussar masters informed my heart as my Judaism evolved finding a new home in my soul. With a friend and colleague from the Episcopal tradition we became lecturers at Florida Atlantic University’s Life Long Learning Centers as well as the Palm Beach Fellowship of Christians and Jews. In my Jewish communal life, I serve as a consultant to the Synagogue Institute of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, working in synagogue transformation and leadership initiatives.
I have been very lucky. My Episcopal friend corrects me when I use the word “lucky”: “Blessed, Howard – blessed.” My life is full; my cup overflows.
Rabbi Howard Shapiro is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate at the upcoming 2018 CCAR Convention in Orange County, CA.