Rabbi Zemel's 30 Years at Micah
At the Ask the Rabbis session on Yom Kippur afternoon, a congregant inquired of Rabbi Zemel: What has made you the happiest during the last year? The question remained on his mind and several days later he said, "Coming to Temple Micah every single day, even when I have a headache. That's what makes me happiest. It is a great environment. What I do is very exciting. I love Temple Micah."
Without prompting, in a separate conversation, Louise Zemel, his wife of 29 years, concurred: "If your spouse goes off to work happy every day, what else can you ask for? It's wonderful.
"Rabbi Zemel and Temple Micah have both grown and changed a lot in the nearly 30 years that he has been our rabbi--much of the change driven by him. In partnership with the congregation, for example, he moved the temple to its own beautiful new home, specially designed by member-architects; updated and enlivened religious services; transformed Micah's education system; and reached out to underserved constituencies, including interfaith families, youth and young adults, and the gay community.
And he's not finished. He has now embarked on developing a positive, coherent Jewish "story" relevant for 21st century American Judaism. "I feel I'm at the beginning of an amazing, creative period for myself. There are really interesting challenges in front of us," he said. "And I believe Micah is entering a great period, on the cusp of a new golden age."
Daniel Goldman Zemel, 30 years old, and his soon-to-be-wife Louise Sherman arrived at Temple Micah in July 1983, from Minneapolis, where he had been assistant rabbi at Temple Israel and she had just graduated from college.
"When I came, I thought I would stay the typical five to seven years and then go on to someplace else," he said. "I had no idea I'd still be here 30 years later." Added Louise, "The fact that we've been here for 30 years says a lot about the congregation."
From the beginning--even at his job interview--Rabbi Zemel knew Micah would be special. "What really drew me in were the people in the interview. I had the impression that they wanted to find something in Judaism," he said. "And the congregation wanted someone who could understand all the different constituencies within it. Although they didn't use the term in those days, they were already thinking in terms of the `big tent' and I liked that.
"Members of the search committee also saw something exceptional in the young applicant. "He was clearly very smart, and I was very impressed by his sense of humor," the search committee's co-chair Celia Futrovsky (now Shapiro) recalls.
In retrospect, the rabbi said, "I couldn't anticipate what I was going to do, but I can say that the congregation was very open to creating a true partnership with me. I was motivated by the notion of figuring out what a synagogue should be and Micah has been not only comfortable with letting me experiment but takes pride in it."
He drew much of his inspiration "as a rabbi and as a Jew," he said, from a grandfather he never knew, Rabbi Solomon Goldman, a prominent Conservative rabbi who died several months after Rabbi Zemel's birth. "He was a strong, committed Zionist leader who simultaneously believed in creating a truly American Judaism. He believed that the synagogue was the center of Jewish life. His scholarship was breathtaking,"Rabbi Zemel said. "I inherited from him a restless temperament," he continued. "He was the one who wrote that the prayerbook should be `dynamited, not simply revised.'"
So, it is no surprise that Rabbi Zemel's motto is, "If it's not broken, break it."
He doesn't accept the status quo," Rabbi Esther Lederman said. "That's one reason I came to Micah. He is constantly questioning, constantly thinking, constantly striving in a good way."
For example, he looked at our education system and said it was broken, not working and asked what can we do?" Mary Beth Schiffman, Micah's current president, explained. He set up an education task force "and I was chair. At one of the first meetings, he was asked, what are we trying to achieve, and he said that he wanted our education program to create a Jewish mensch, an ethical Jewish person and that to do that everything was on the table." Out of that task force came Machon Micah, our revolutionary approach to Jewish education.
But not all innovations were that straight forward. Some required a wrenching personal reappraisal. For example, when he arrived at Micah and for more than two decades thereafter,
Rabbi Zemel refused to officiate at interfaith weddings. In 2009, he decided to do so under certain circumstances."I think that represented a huge evolution in him," Nancy Elisburg, temple president when he was hired and a member of the search committee, said. "I think it was his biggest change."
Several years earlier, in the fall of 2000, he had invited non-Jewish spouses to his home and formed a group that met periodically to talk frankly about questions and problems non-Jews faced in making a Jewish home and raising
Jewish children. He followed that by inviting non-Jewish spouses to the bimah on Yom Kippur and offering a blessing for them. This practice has become one of the most moving Micah rituals of the High Holy Days.
The culmination came in January 2009, when Rabbi Zemel sent a four-page letter to the entire congregation that, as he wrote, "addresses one of the greatest personal and religious decisions I have made in my career as a rabbi." He continued, "I have wrestled with this question for a very long time--for many years."
What finally changed his mind, he wrote, was the growing disengagement of Jews ages 22 to 39 and his fear for the impact of this alienation on the future of American Jewry. "As we look to the future, a fully American Jewish community will have to be as open and attractive a community as it can possibly be," his letter concluded. "I have come to understand that an interfaith marriage that begins with rejection by the rabbi may have difficulty building the kind of `open and attractive' community that we all hope for. And that is the phenomenon that I wish to end."
Other projects and innovations paralleled and developed from his wrestling match with interfaith marriage, for example, his focus on attracting and keeping Jewish youth and those in their 20s and 30s within the fold. And so did his mammoth current endeavor, creating a new Jewish narrative.
He has been helped and guided in approaching this challenge by the other great influence on his life, his teacher and mentor, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Jewish seminary that Rabbi Zemel attended.
The old Jewish narrative of victimhood, Holocaust, guilt, punishment, every generation being worse off than its predecessor, no longer works for American Jews who live and thrive in freedom and plenty. So, the new narrative must be positive and optimistic. "We can no longer only look out of the rear view mirror," Rabbi Zemel said. To look to the future, "I think we have to bend toward young folks because they are the future," he said. But he cautioned that this generation tends to live in the moment and that can foster gimmicks. To avoid gimmicks, "the new narrative has to connect to a purpose and that purpose must tie back to Jewish text," he said, citing positive Biblical images such as the vision of the prophet Micah that swords will be turned into plowshares, everyone will sit under his vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. None of this will happen by tomorrow morning. "We are very much in a transitional period," he said.
The journey to his 30th year at Temple Micah also included much personal growth and change.
When he first arrived, "he was very much a work in progress--about 30 but looked much younger and very sweet," added Miriam Eisenstein, a search committee member.
"Having children made a difference in him," Louise said. "Losing his mother gave him a different level of empathy and made him into a better rabbi--someone people really want to go to with their problems. And people do come to Danny."
He is a very compassionate boss," Rabbi Lederman said. "He is true to his word that we take religion seriously but don't take ourselves seriously."
He is a great role model," added Mary Beth. "Danny is a mensch."
[By Shelley Grossman; from November-December 2012 Vine]