The first time I was a rabbi happened in a small town in West Virginia. It was not what I had expected. I’m pretty sure it was 1965 but I am certain it was Yom Kippur because Jan Peerce, the great operatic tenor, sang Kol Nidre.
I had just found out I was going to be the rabbi there only a few days earlier.
At the time, I was in my second-year of rabbinic school (age 22) and didn’t even rate a High Holyday student pulpit. That year there were only a few but I had missed the cut-off in the student-pulpit lottery.
Then, just two days before Yom Kippur, the student who had been assigned to conduct High Holyday services in Logan, West Virginia was taken ill and confined to bed. Since I was next on the list, within only a few hours, I found myself standing in the hallway outside a sick classmate’s bedroom taking notes:
You take the Norfolk & Western to Huntington. Then you rent a car and drive through the mountains to Logan. There will be a room reserved for you at the hotel. When you get in, phone a mister so-and-so and tell him you’re the replacement rabbi. He’ll tell you where the synagogue is. Services begin at 7.
He gave me his prayer book, marked with all the cues for the organist and the choir, and explained that, when it came time for the chanting of the Kol Nidre prayer, I should reach under the lectern where, hopefully, there would be a phonograph ready to play a recording of Jan Peerce (nee: Jacob Pincus Perelmuth) singing Kol Nidre.
“Have you decided what you’re preaching on yet?” my classmate asked.
Preaching? It hadn’t yet even dawned on me that I was supposed to give a sermon!
Nervous would be an understatement. I was terrified.
Within two days, on the holiest day of the year, I found myself standing up on the bima leading a congregation in prayer. Everything went pretty much according to plan until we got to the shema. (I am not making this up.)
Before I could invite the congregation to rise—as per the dramaturgical instructions written in my prayer book—I felt a slight rumbling in the floor of the building and heard a distant roaring sound. Then the chandeliers began slowly swinging back and forth. At first, I thought it might be an earthquake. But the rumbling and the roar steadily increased. Soon, the whole building shook. The noise was deafening. Maybe I was having a mystical experience. I can only imagine what the expression on my face must have looked like.
But—and this is the crazy part—no one else in the congregation seemed to take any notice at all. Some began casually whispering to one another. Others simply closed their eyes and seemed to be meditating. Excuse me but does anyone else hear this loud roar? Pardon me, but are we concerned that the building is violently shaking? Perhaps I had slipped into an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story and a village whose inhabitants had become inured to the earth shaking and the heavens roaring whenever they declared God’s unity.
Thankfully, a member of the congregation, recognizing my dismay, came up onto the stage with a whispered explanation: A few feet behind the back wall of the synagogue—he inconspicuously gestured, right behind the five-member choir—was the main line of the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad’s coal division and, as it happened, every now and then, a two hundred car-long coal train passed by.
Fifteen minutes later, when the rumble and roar faded off into the distance, we continued our worship: Hear, O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
That winter, in my Hebrew Bible class, we read I Kings 19:12. “And after the roar there was the thin, barely audible sound of almost breathing.”
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate at the upcoming 2019 CCAR Convention.