Little did I know that when I was accepted to a new undergraduate-graduate program at HUC-JIR and the University of Cincinnati in 1958 that one day I would be sitting down to write about my experiences as a rabbi for the last 50 years. We were a handful of high school graduates then, participating in an experimental program, living at the HUC-JIR dorm while attending the University of Cincinnati. Most of us matriculated to the rabbinic program and eventually found ourselves, five years later, at Plum Street Temple in June of 1967 receiving our s’micha and blessing from Rabbi Dr. Nelson Glueck.
One of the folk songs of the day said, “The times, they are a changing,” and that was surely the case. The Vietnam war was raging. The Jewish Welfare Board, in conjunction with the various rabbinical seminaries, concluded that 15 chaplains were needed from HUC-JIR’s class of 1967. I was one of 15 who served as a Chaplain in the armed forces. The army and Ft. Lewis, Washington awaited its new Post Jewish chaplain, Capt. Robert Gan, fresh out of Chaplains school at Ft. Hamilton N.Y. With baited breath, Sheila and I and our very young son drove cross country and I reported for duty. We were determined to make the best of our new venture, not sure if I would eventually have to go to Vietnam.
Fortunately, I was able to remain at Ft. Lewis for my full two years of service. My boss there, Col. Estes, a Southern Baptist minister, wisely told me when I arrived that as the Jewish Chaplain I could run my program as I saw fit and to come to him if I had any questions. So, off I went, one of 30 chaplains at an Army Post of 60,000 including soldiers and dependents. I learned a lot, dealing with clergy of all stripes, as well as husbands and wives and young men facing the prospect of Vietnam. Times were tense and there were many challenging moments. But there was also plenty of laughter and humor, especially given my imperfect military bearing. Thankfully, most everyone was quite forgiving. I also came to realize, during those two years, that I still had much more to learn about being a rabbi in the real world. The best side benefit was the birth of our daughter at Madigan General Hospital. The bill $7.50. What a bargain!
As a Bostonian, I had never been further west than Worcester, MA before coming to Cincinnati and thanks to the Army, we were now on the west coast in the beautiful State of Washington. I remember Dr. Jake Marcus saying there was no Jewish life west of the Mississippi but we were soon to find out, as we made our way to Los Angeles after my discharge, that there was a vibrant and wonderful community there and it welcomed its new young rabbi and his family.
Temple Isaiah would be our new home and I would become the associate to Rabbi Albert Lewis. We weren’t so sure about L.A. and we said to ourselves that we would give it a try for a couple of years. We could see that it was a warm and creative place with a founding rabbi immersed in issues of social justice. Right up my alley.
I had a mentor who shared all of his responsibilities with me. He was very insightful about congregational and community life, and he passed those insights on to me. He and the congregation were very patient with my “creative” services and programs and I always felt free to experiment.
Those first tentative years turned into a lifetime, from associate rabbi to co- rabbi to senior rabbi, and thirty-eight years later I retired. I had the joy of naming children whose Mother or Father I also named. Lifecycle events always gave me the most pleasure and I came to know many wonderful families over their lifetime and mine. I came to realize that congregational life was ultimately about relationships. As I encounter congregants ten years after retirement it is still the case.
I had many excellent Assistant rabbis over the years and two wonderful cantors. I learned from my predecessor that sharing responsibilities equally is a good thing. It is good for one’s health and one’s rabbinic life. The concept of partnership between rabbis and cantor was especially important to me. So was laughter and not taking oneself too seriously.
After fifty years, I still have my hand in the rabbinate, though with slightly less pressure than when I was working. For several years we lived in Milan and then Florence, Italy where I was the progressive rabbi and we have been on several world cruises where I was part of the clergy staff. It has given me the opportunity to teach, to practice my very broken Italian, and to see incredible places around the world. This new phase of my rabbinic life came to us quite accidentally, but it has been a real blessing. To be busy after retirement is a good thing.
New people and communities have enriched our lives. All of this was only possible because fifty years ago I went to Cincinnati with my dad to scout out HUC-JIR and decided to stay. The rabbinate has embodied so much of what I wanted to do.
For me, the practical congregational rabbinate has included a bi-weekly in Morgan City, Louisiana, a high holiday congregation in St Johnsbury, Vermont, eating lunch with the troops in the field with one of my congregants- Major Bernstein, officiating at B’nai Mitzvot in Milan, and conducting seders aboard the MS Amsterdam for as many as 200 Jews and Christians.
What a life it has been. I have treasured it all, my congregational rabbinate as well as all the new adventures that have come our way. How was I to know that conjugating verbs on a surprise quiz in Dr. Tsvat’s Tanach class would lead to the challenging, meaningful and wonderful world of the rabbinate. Fifty years, kayna hora!
Rabbi Robert Gan is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate.