Stephen Macht: The accidental chaplain

Amid icy rain in September 2003, actor Stephen Macht and his wife, Suzanne, were driving on the I-70 in rural east Kansas when their Chevy Tahoe hit a patch of black ice and swerved 180 degrees to face the headlights of an 18-wheeler. 

To their horror, the tractor-trailer slammed into the passenger side of their SUV, just behind where Macht was sitting, tearing off the back end of the car and sending the Tahoe thundering down a ravine into a snow-covered field. 

“But at the moment of impact, as I was screaming at the top of my lungs, I literally felt something like a large wing embrace me, even as I hit the dashboard with my forehead and started to bleed,” said Macht, a robust and youthful 71. 

Macht and his wife escaped the accident with minor injuries, but in the hospital that evening the actor found himself crying throughout the night. He’d had ample success as an actor: He got his big break in 1978 as the lead in the television miniseries “The Immigrants” and went on to play such roles as Sharon Gless’ beau on “Cagney & Lacey,” Israeli commando Yoni Netanyahu in 1979’s “Raid on Entebbe” as well as a mob attorney on “General Hospital,” named “best villain of 2007” by Soap Opera Digest. But with the accident, he found himself reassessing what he calls his “unbridled ego.” 

“It was always, ‘I’ve got to get this role or that role or I’m jealous of this person or that person,’ ” Macht said recently during an interview in his Beverly Hills home, where he has replaced his library of classical Greek texts with Judaica. “But after the accident, I realized that something had intervened to save me, and I knew I had to sanctify every moment that I was alive. And so I got up every day and said the Shakarit [morning] service to say thank you.”

What followed was almost a decade of study at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA), culminating on June 10, when Macht receives his master’s degree in Jewish studies and graduates as a Jewish chaplain. He has already performed weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals, served as assistant chaplain of the Creative Arts Temple and plans to continue his study of Hebrew, possibly to pursue ordination as a rabbi — all while continuing to act.

Macht’s primary mentor throughout the years has been Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president emeritus of AJRCA, who in a telephone interview said that the actor’s close encounter with death in 2003 “touched him in terms of his gratitude for life and his ability to negotiate crises with others who personally are suffering and to help them move through that. He is able to show great empathy for others based on his own life experience.”

Sitting under a painting of an angel in his sunny living room, Macht appeared both passionate and thoughtful as he described his own encounters with tragedy, which set him on a life’s journey he describes as “from fear to at-one-ment.”

Throughout his early childhood in a nonreligious home in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., Macht’s father, an attorney, was ill with cancer. Stephen was 9 when his father died, and he said, “I had no formula within my tradition that told me how to handle death, so I was frightened.” As a result, he nursed a burgeoning sense of bravado: “With a lot of huff and puff, I thought I was the best thing since sliced bread, which covered a lot of my feelings of insecurity and fear.”

“I get to help people recognize their own spiritual journey and to bless them for it. I can say to the mourners throughout the shivah period that our tradition talks about healthy ways to deal with death, and you will be able to process your grief.”

A glimmer of his future connection to Judaism came when the family moved in with his Orthodox grandfather, a haberdasher, in Mystic, Conn., where every morning Stephen awoke to the sound of davening. “There was a subtext that was calming, reassuring about it,” Macht recalled, adding that his only Jewish education came through a Conservative religious school, which he hated for its rote teachings of the liturgy. “I didn’t know what it was, but those sacred notes evoked in me something that transcended everything.”

Macht felt that spiritual connection again as his grandfather lay dying of a stroke some years later: “One thing I did out of nowhere was to read the Kaddish to him as he squeezed my hand just before he died,” the actor said.

Macht, who endured anti-Semitic beatings in high school, found his professional calling when he starred in plays at Dartmouth College, where he roomed with fellow thespian Michael Moriarty; he went on to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, to earn a doctoral degree in dramatic literature and theater history from Indiana University, and to teach Greek classical texts and acting at Smith College and Queens College. 

It was while studying in England that he got the call that his mother, then 56, had had a recurrence of breast cancer. Macht married his wife in the hospital ward where his mother was dying, in 1964.

The couple went on to have four children, whom they raised in a culturally Jewish home, but despite Macht’s many blessings, he continued to harbor the feeling that his happiness “was only a mirage and could disappear at any moment.”

A change began, gradually, Macht said, when he visited Israel with his family in 1980 and “walked the Bible” with a former paratrooper who urged him to return to Los Angeles and “do something good for the Jewish people.” 

Back home, the actor promptly immersed himself in charitable work for groups including The Jewish Federation and the Jewish Center for Culture and Creativity, “performing mitzvahs, although I didn’t really know what that meant,” he said.

It was only after his car accident, as well as his subsequent immersion in prayer and studies, that Macht “finally felt at home in my own skin,” he said. “I finally ‘got’ that you can suffer and also feel supported and loved by your tradition.”

Now, as a chaplain, he said, “I get to help people recognize their own spiritual journey and to bless them for it. I can say to the mourners throughout the shivah period that our tradition talks about healthy ways to deal with death, and you will be able to process your grief.”

Macht’s spiritual journey, meanwhile, has even nourished his development as a performer: “King Solomon, the prophets, and even all the great villains of the Bible, they’re all in me,” he said. “All I’ve got to do is tap that, and I’m so much more alive than I ever was as an actor.

Orthodox woman, a first

In a groundbreaking appointment, the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR,CA), has selected Tamar Frankiel as its new president, making her the first Orthodox woman to lead an American rabbinical school.

Frankiel, 66, is a professor of comparative religion and an expert on Jewish mysticism. 

The author of a widely used textbook on Christianity and several books on Judaism and Jewish women’s practice, Frankiel has taught since 2002 at AJR,CA, a transdenominational seminary at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center at UCLA. She has served there as dean of students, dean of academic affairs and, most recently, as  provost.

Founded in 2000 by a small group of L.A. rabbis seeking to approach Jewish study from multiple perspectives, AJR,CA trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains. It originally was affiliated with the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, but one year after its founding, the West Coast school became an independent institution. 

According to Frankiel, AJR,CA now counts 65 students across three programs, some 40 of whom are rabbinical students. 

“We’re growing into a mature institution,” Frankiel said in a phone interview. “My job is to build on the foundation and bring more people into the orbit of AJR,CA.” 

Frankiel succeeds outgoing president Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, who also is Orthodox and who led AJR,CA beginning in 2008. Frankiel was appointed to the position Jan. 9 by the institution’s board of directors following a national search.

For an institution widely considered to be liberal, Frankiel said that “it’s perhaps unusual that two presidents in a row are Orthodox or observant.” She attributed that fact to the “pluralism of the school and the respect AJR,CA has for tradition.”

Graduates of AJR,CA’s five-year rabbinic training program should be fluent in both traditional and more liberal streams of Judaism, including Reform and Renewal, Frankiel said. 

“The depth of pluralism at the academy is quite amazing. Faculty from all different denominations teach there, and it’s the way I think Jewish life should grow and develop.”

As dean of academic affairs, Frankiel was instrumental in creating Claremont Lincoln University, a collaborative initiative between AJR,CA, the Claremont School of Theology and the Islamic Center of Southern California. AJR,CA received a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles to bring faculty from the three different faith institutions together for religious and textual study. The next step, Frankiel said, will be the production of an interfaith conference.

Raised in Ohio in a non-Jewish home, Frankiel converted to Judaism in 1979. She married Hershel Frankiel, a Polish Holocaust survivor, who was becoming more religiously observant at the time they met. Together they created a traditional Jewish home and raised five children in the Fairfax district.

Frankiel earned her doctorate in the history of religions from the University of Chicago and has taught at Claremont School of Theology, Stanford University and Princeton University. 

She wrote several books on religion in America, including “Gospel Hymns and Social Religion” and “California’s Spiritual Frontiers.” Her later works include “The Gift of Kabbalah” and “Entering the Temple of Dreams,” a Jewish guide to nighttime prayer and meditation for people of all faiths, which she co-authored with Judy Greenfeld. She also is the author of “The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism.”

Orthodox woman to head ‘transdenominational’ rabbinical school

An Orthodox woman was named the president of a “transdenominational” rabbinical school in Southern California.

Tamar Frankiel, who holds a doctorate in the history of religions, will helm the Academy for Jewish Religion at Claremont Lincoln University, it was announced this week.

In a statement, the Southern California school's board said the appointment of an Orthodox woman to head the institution was “groundbreaking.”

“I am delighted to become the new leader of this unique, forward-thinking seminary,” Frankiel was quoted as saying. “The fact that our board and community chose an Orthodox woman as president is testimony to AJRCA's deep commitment to pluralism.”

According to the university's website, Frankiel is the author of several books on Judaism and Christianity, and has taught at Stanford, Princeton and the University of California, Berkeley. She previously served as the academy's provost and a professor of comparative religion.

The website noted Frankiel as a major force behind Claremont Lincoln University, the academy’s collaborative initiative with the Claremont School of Theology and the Islamic Center of Southern California.

The Academy ordains Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and nondenominational rabbis. Orthodox Judaism, which Frankiel practices, does not recognize the ordination of female rabbis.

Humility vs. humiliation

For much of his life, Rabbi Elijah Schochet disliked the idiom “God willing,” an expression used by people trying to convey that their lives are subject to God’s discretion.

After Schochet was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a series of treatments at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, his thinking about “God willing” changed. He began to use the phrase much more, he said, after struggling against a disease that humbled him.

“Humility is a quality that Judaism emphasizes to an extraordinary degree,” said Schochet, a professor of Talmud at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA), speaking during the panel discussion “Humility and Humiliation,” at AJRCA on Nov. 26.

Organized by ARJCA, a transdenominational and pluralistic rabbinic school in Los Angeles, the discussion featured renowned scholars from each of the Abrahamic traditions speaking on the importance of humility and of avoiding humiliation in their respective religions.

Joining Schochet were Kathleen Greider, professor of practical theology, spiritual care and counseling at the Claremont School of Theology, and Ozgur Koca, an adjunct professor at Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school of Claremont Lincoln University.

Tamar Frankiel, provost at AJRCA, moderated.

During the 90-minute event, the scholars pointed out how each of their leaders –— Moses, Jesus and Muhammad — was known for humility. They also addressed the need for repentance when their religions hurt others through humiliating acts.

Schochet spoke of Moses as Judaism’s “reluctant prophet,” who exemplified humility. He also discussed how words and insults can be used to humiliate and how it’s easy to overlook instances of humiliation, citing a passage in the Talmud that says if one asks an employee of a store about a product he or she has no intention of buying, that person is guilty of humiliating the employee.

Greider emphasized humility as a foundational virtue in Christianity, but acknowledged instances of Christian involvement in humiliation, such as Christians’ participation in acts of genocide and instances of imperialistic Evangelism and abuse within the Christian community.

Meanwhile, Koca spoke of the belief within Islam that “everything good in our life is coming from that source” that is God.

The event kicked off AJRCA’s “Voices of Wisdom” speaker series. The series’ next installment takes place on Jan. 24. The Claremont School of Theology and Bayan Claremont co-sponsored. To view the Nov. 26 discussion in its entirety, visit