In 1943, my parents were married and moved to Los Angeles. They, like so many Jews who grew up in the Bronx, travelled as far west as they could looking for economic opportunities and to escape the rigidity of traditional Judaism. Unlike many of those Jews, my parents ultimately joined a synagogue in LA—and a Reform one at that. Temple Isaiah was founded in 1947 and its first rabbi, Albert M. Lewis, z”l, came to the temple in 1948, as did Cantor Robert Nadell, z”l. My sense was that my parents didn’t want to give up on their Judaism, but were looking for Jewish connections in an environment more modern than what they had experienced in New York. I also believe that my parents were attracted to the social activism of Rabbi Lewis.
My younger siblings and I were sent to religious school at Temple Isaiah, which beginning in 1957, was led by Jack Horowitz, a transplant from Ottawa, Canada. Somewhere along the way he was joined by Sam Lebow, the accordion-playing teacher of music, and later by Bonia Shur, a young Israeli composer, who some years later, taught at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati.
I mention the staff at Temple Isaiah because they, more than anyone, were responsible for my becoming a rabbi. While Albert Lewis was lacking social skills and wasn’t a terribly good preacher, his involvement in what later became known as social action was inspiring. At the time, I was learning to play the clarinet and was invited by Sam Lebow to accompany him as he went into the religious school classes to teach the songs of the Jewish people. Jack Horowitz’s enthusiasm helped me fall in love with Jewish education, and Bonia Shur’s invitation to play in the little orchestra he was organizing allowed me to not only learn the music of the fledgling State of Israel, but also to appreciate why the founding of the Jewish homeland mattered.
In short, I came to love the synagogue. It was home away from home. It was a place where one could find common ground with fellow Jews. It was a place filled with Jewish music. It was the place that instilled in me the importance of Jewish education and Jewish identity.
I never thought of becoming a rabbi until I was a senior in college. My plan was to become a public school teacher, but as I thought about that, I realized that the synagogue was where I wanted to be. By that time, I was teaching in several area synagogues, including my own. How, I asked, could I continue doing that as a Jewish professional? Having come to admire the rabbis with whom I worked, I realized that the rabbinate would allow me to combine teaching with social justice work in a setting that felt so comfortable.
Excited by this possibility, I spoke with my own rabbi and the two for whom I worked. Rabbi Lewis advised me to choose a different career path because “synagogue boards will eat you alive.” One of the rabbis for whom I worked said that he loved the rabbinate, and then left the profession to do something else. And the third rabbi I spoke to left town soon after our conversation. Given these responses, one would have expected me to abandon my thought of becoming a rabbi, but something compelled me to ignore the advice I was given, and I applied to HUC-JIR in Los Angeles.
As they say, the rest is history. It was at the required summer ulpan in 1967 that I met Joyce, my wife of fifty-four years, as well as rabbinic students who became lifelong friends. Our year in Israel in 1969–1970 (the year before HUC-JIR’s year in Israel program began), started me down the path of involvement with our Movement there, culminating in my year as ARZA president. I was privileged to serve three congregations in Miami, Florida; Rockford, Illinois; and for thirty-two years, Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut. And, I was honored to serve on a variety of UAHC and HUC-JIR committees and boards in addition to those on which I served in the communities in which we have lived.
Yes, there have been disappointments along the way, and yes, the work ethic I adopted for myself took me away from family far too often. And yes, synagogue boards and committees were sometimes filled with people who did not appreciate what I was trying to teach them. But I can honestly say that after a career spanning fifty years, I definitely made the right decision to become a rabbi.
Rabbi Robert Orkand is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.