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Remarkable Moments in a 50-Year Rabbinate

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 Sanford T. Marcus reflects on the importance of community outreach.

This coming year marks the 50th year of my ordination, the last class during Nelson Glueck’s tenure as president of HUC-JIR. It is also the 60th anniversary of remaining on the Brandeis University waiting list!

I had a first and last job at Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island.  I succeeded Rabbi Braude whose vaunted reputation was deserved. I was only 31 when elected Senior Rabbi of a 1,200 family congregation. At the time there was no Placement Commission to prevent my succession. When I informed my mother of this happy news, she exclaimed, “Honey, do you think you’re competent?”  She had a point. Happily, it turned out that a caring presence can trump competence. I have been over-honored through the years. I am the only rabbi to be elected to the Rhode Island Hall of Fame. I have been awarded seven honorary degrees. It is satisfying to feel that I have made a difference for good.  

I have many life-saturated memories of my rabbinic career. Two are particularly compelling. Anya Volnyskaya was a youngster in the former Soviet Union who was “twinned” with many American young girls celebrating their B’nai Mitzvah. An empty chair was placed on their bimahs in her honor. This dramatized the plight of Refusniks. Years later, Anya and her family moved to Providence. She yearned to celebrate her own Bat Mitzvah. As this festive occasion approached, she invited the six girls from around the country who once prayed for her to be allowed to leave Russia. They all came. Surrounding Anya as she began reading Torah, they joined in a chorus of the Shehecheyanu prayer. There was not a dry eye in the congregation.  

Dr. Myer Saklad led a health team to the Warsaw Ghetto after it was subsumed by fire. When he arrived, the ground was still warm. Saklad came across a human skull and instinctively cradled it in his arms. He took it home. Years later when he was dying, the doctor came with the human remains wrapped in stiff brown paper tied with string. What should he do? The week following Rosh Hashanah we gently placed it in our temple cemetery next to prayer books that could no longer be used.  I have never participated in a more moving burial.  

I have been blessed by two remarkable women. Julie was instrumental building my career and our family. She was the cherished mother of Rebecca and Elizabeth. She died tragically in her fifties. Rebecca named her son Jonah in her memory. 

Janet Engelhart brought Allison and two more grandsons into my life. Her brother said at our wedding that she is distinguished by her big heart. He was so right. Her gifts of spirit created a loving, unified family.

On the Jubilee occasion of my ordination, I have much for which I am grateful.  Rebecca is a Reform Rabbi.  From generation to generation.  Now, if I could only hear from Brandeis!

Leslie Y. Gutterman is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island, and currently serves on the CCAR Taskforce on Retirees and Sucessors.