Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2020, March 22-25 in Baltimore, Rabbi Irvin Ehrlich recalls his rich personal Jewish history and remarkable career that took him oversees and back.
I grew up in a small South Georgia town. “Shabbat” services were every other Sunday evening, as our congregation of eighteen or so families did not have a full-time rabbi, but would invite the rabbi in a neighboring community to visit. (One of our rabbis was Julius Kravitz, z”l, who later was on the faculty of HUC-JIR in New York, and who led our 1963 summer program in Cincy.)
We were CLASSICAL reform. Caps intentional. Never would a kippah be allowed! Once I was old enough to go to temple, I never missed a service. One of my earliest memories was sitting in the pews, and opening the Union Prayer Book, of blessed memory. I would look at the title page, and was in awe that the publisher was the Central Conference of American Rabbis. I could not imagine a more august group. Never did I think that my life would take a path that would lead me to being a member for 50 years. And never have I considered myself to be “august.”
During my early rabbinic career, I led worship from the Union Prayer Book. Later came the Gates series. And then, just a few months before my retirement in 2008, I introduced Mishkan T’Filah. I am not lamenting these changes, for I see them as clear examples that our Reform Movement is alive and changing. The English of the UPB still moves me, but the words of the scholars of our Movement today also speak my heart.
My rabbinate has always been in small communities; perhaps this is because of my childhood. That means that in the pre-Internet days, I was often quite isolated, but somehow, I was aware of the changes that were happening, and I always understood that my responsibility was to take my flock, no matter how small, and to create an environment where they would be comfortable wherever they went.
After ordination in 1970, I served in Lincoln, Nebraska and Springfield, Ohio before entering the United States Air Force as a chaplain. I was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany; the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs (twice); the Military Air Lift Command headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois; Royal Air Force Mildenhall in the United Kingdom; and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. After twenty years of active military service, I retired and became the founding rabbi of Temple Beit Torah in Colorado Springs.
I now have the luxury to sit in the pews and experience worship led by the talented and caring clergy team at Temple Beth El in Madison, Wisconsin. This has afforded me the opportunity to become more personally involved in prayer. I no longer worry about what’s on the next page. One of the most wonderful observations is the level of participation by the congregation. The Jew in the Pew is much more involved; the UPB model of “Congregation” responding to “Leader” is no more. We all chant the V’ahavtah and the prayers of the Amidah. Beth El has a Team Torah consisting of lay members who chant Torah. (I’m the only member of the group who reads Torah; I never learned to chant!)
Like life, like any rabbinical career, there have been ups and downs. I cannot do anything about the unpleasant times, but I can relive and get pleasure from the joys. Such as uniting couples in marriage and watching them grow into families. (The first couple I married in the summer of 1970 will celebrate 50 years this summer!) Vivian and I served tea to Prime Minister Begin when his plane stopped for fuel in England. I’ve led High Holy Day worship in the Rashi Synagogue in Worms, Germany. And I have participated in many little “common” moments that are a part of being a rabbi and involved in the life of congregants. I’ve spent hours in hospitals just being a presence in a time of great stress.
Upon retirement I discovered NAORRR, and found great joy in being with colleagues, some who were longtime (but not “old”) friends, and I’ve made many wonderful new ones who have had similar rabbinical journeys. When I attend the annual NAORRR Convention I always remember that I was blessed to have two study partners of blessed memory at HUC: Howard Folb, z”l, and Jonathan Plaut, z”l. Their early deaths left a void that has affected me greatly. May their memories be for a blessing.
Irvin Ehrlich was ordained at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati in 1970. He is the Founding Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beit Torah in Colorado Springs. He and his wife, Vivian Mitzman, live in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. he has three children, 11 grandchildren, and 1 grandson-in-law.