April 19, 2019

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.