Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor CCAR members ordained 50 years ago or more. Here, Rabbi Alvin M. Sugarman reflects on his life and learnings in the rabbinate.
If there is such a phenomenon as a spiritual journey, I cannot think of a better way to do just that than being a congregational rabbi. For not only have I experienced my own spiritual life, but I have tasted the spiritual lives of my members. As I have stood under the chuppah, enabling two people to make holy and sacred the bond of love that will join their two souls, I too was touched by the powerful magic of their romantic love.
And again, I found myself in their presence as I participated in the naming ceremony for their tiny infant. To see the look in their eyes, to view the countenance of grandparents and at times even great-grandparents, all of whose faces radiated with a kind of ultimate joy, was a special privilege granted to me as a rabbi.
Then, before I knew it, I was standing at the door of our preschool and watching bewildered parents letting go, for the first time perhaps, of their little one as their toddler walked down the hall to his first preschool classroom. Then in the blink of an eye, I was handing each member of the kindergarten consecration class their own little Torah, which they accepted so tenderly, holding their Torah close to their hearts. Then in three blinks of an eye, I was standing next to a thirteen-year-old chanting from the Torah at his bar mitzvah.
Two or three years later, I was with this bar mitzvah boy and his classmates, participating with them in a stunningly, beautiful confirmation service they had created. Two years later, I was privileged to conduct an “off-to-college Shabbat,” praying and hoping that wherever these students went, their Judaism would live in them and that I had somehow instilled in them a desire to live a Jewish life.
The next time I might see one of my confirmands might be when they once again are standing in front of the congregation, but this time instead of reading a confirmation prayer, they are speaking about their late grandfather at his funeral, a grandfather who meant so much to them. The young man tells those gathered for the funeral how much it meant to him to hold his parents’ hands in a circle with me as together with his grandfather we repeated the Sh’ma, the last words his grandfather said before slipping into a coma and dying.
Sitting with families, listening to them speak about loved ones who have just died, about how they lived their lives, how they loved, how they struggled and sometimes failed, then strove again and succeeded, I’ve learned so much about how to live life, not just what I’ve read in books, but from sharing in my congregants’ lives.
The blessing I have received as a rabbi has brought me fulfillment beyond measure, but I am quick to note that whatever spiritual nourishment I have gained from my rabbinate would never have been possible without my life partner, Barbara, who has been by my side now for almost fifty-six years. Nor would it have been possible without the understanding and enlightened leadership of The Temple’s officers and board, as well as the deep support and understanding of our Temple family.
What I have described above, along with almost every imaginable type of counseling situation, became the heart and soul of my rabbinate.
I tried my best to keep not only the words of the prophets alive, but to turn those words into deeds, such as helping create a shelter for homeless couples and a shelter for homeless newborns and their families. What wisdom did I learn? I learned when people are given a chance to allow the goodness of their hearts to bloom, they will do so. The night before we opened our shelter for homeless newborns and their families, we had an open house for our volunteers. The infant bathtubs were placed up high so mothers would not have to bend over to bathe their babies. On the side of each tub was a little yellow rubber duck that one of our volunteers had placed there. I smiled and I think God did too.
I pray that my rabbinate has been pleasing in God’s eyes….
Rabbi Alvin M. Sugarman received his BBA from Emory University and was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In 1974 he was named senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia. In December 1988, he received his PhD in Theological Studies from Emory University.
We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.