September 18, 2019

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, interim leader of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, had a few words to say about his ex-colleague: “The man is courageous with respect to what he believes in.” That man is Rabbi Abner Weiss, who for 15 years has served as spiritual leader for the largest Orthodox synagogue west of the Mississippi, the Beverly Hills-based Beth Jacob Congregation at Olympic and Doheny. Weiss has decided to abandon his prominent position in L.A.’s Jewish community to lend his expertise and experience to England’s budding Modern Orthodox community. Weiss will serve as academic head of Jewish studies and dean of the rabbinic seminary of Jews’ College at the University of London and will lead a congregation with a membership of 900 families.

Two weeks ago, the 61-year-old South African-raised spiritual leader was the subject of a going-away party, presided over by emcee Goldmark, at the Board of Rabbis’ Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles headquarters. In attendance were spiritual leaders and Board of Rabbis colleagues of every denomination, hailing from Etz Jacob Congregation, B’nai David-Judea, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Valley Beth Israel, Temple Beth Zion and the Jewish Home for the Aging, among other institutions. They used the deli-catered sendoff as an opportunity to salute Weiss and extend their admiration and good tidings for the longtime board member and past president (1994-96). Also present at the informal luncheon, organized by Michele Kirsch, was Bay Area spiritual leader Rabbi Mark Diamond, who will become the Board of Rabbis’ new president as of August.

The luncheon itself was definitely a lighthearted, amiable affair given for an erudite, outspoken and well-respected pillar of the Jewish community. Rabbi Yisroel Kelemer presided over motzi with some jocular opening remarks. Also providing some comic relief was Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am, who read a humorous poem dedicated to his Board of Rabbis peer. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Rabbi Levi Meier lauded his friend as a man who “struggles authentically with life and spirituality” and assigned him the loftiest title he could summon, yedid nefesh (soul friend). Shalhevet High School founder Jerry Friedman praised Weiss as not only the rabbi he bonded with when Weiss served as Shalhevet’s halachic advisor, but as his staunchest supporter when many in the observant sector of the community were opposing the very creation of the coed school.

Rabbi Allen Freehling of University Synagogue described Weiss as a rabbi’s rabbi, one from whom other rabbis could seek counsel from. And Rabbi Mel Gottlieb of Temple Ner Shalom described his dual relationship with Weiss, as a fellow clergy member and as a Beth Jacob congregant, giving a very personal appraisal of Weiss as part of “a broad progressive modern Orthodoxy that’s rare today. …[His departure] is a very serious loss.” Gottlieb continued, “He admires the complexity of human beings and understands how to articulate it. As a rabbi watching another rabbi, I watch in admiration all that he achieves.”

Gottlieb also praised Weiss’s open-mindedness: “He’s one of the few rabbis that will allow and be proud of having a Happy Minyan in his shul.”

Joshua Berkowitz, who worked as an associate rabbi under Weiss, said he “never treated me with anything less than respect and dignity,” adding that Weiss never made him do anything he didn’t want to do.

Berkowitz praised Weiss as a man who courageously stood up to apartheid following the murder of a professor. And when they traveled to Bonn, Frankfurt, and Berlin at the invitation of the German government, Berkowitz said “he could have worn a cap or a hat but always wore his kippah.”

“You had everything going for you here,” Berkowitz kidded about Weiss’s decision to leave Los Angeles.
“It must be self-masochism on your part!”

Succinctly summing up Weiss’s L.A. legacy, Federation President John Fishel told the several dozen attendees at the gathering that Weiss brought to the Board of Rabbis “a vision that was progressive” and a “commitment to the welfare of a broader Jewish community.”

“This is kind of surrealistic,” said Weiss when he got up to the dais. “I’m listening to all these eulogies, and I’m thinking, who is this guy they’re talking about?”

Weiss, who half-jokingly pegged himself as “Jewishly rightist and politically leftist,” recounted some of his “very scary” political battles with the forces of apartheid in South Africa, enduring phone taps and seeing others detained. He also shared his joy over a meeting last year with Nelson Mandela, who acknowledged his awareness of the efforts of Weiss and other Jews involved in fighting for his release.

“I’ve never apologized for having strong opinions,” Weiss told his audience of friends and colleagues. “I’m not a pluralist, but I am absolutely tolerant of people’s right to believe differently.”

Weiss also described his experience leading Beth Jacob as the defining years of his career. “Real relationships were founded,” he said. “What has surprised me and delighted me more than any rabbinical experience is that my colleagues, especially the non-Orthodox colleagues, have shared their insecurities and vulnerabilities with me. This is something I’ve never had.”

Weiss said he felt that here in Los Angeles, unlike a community such as New York, he could feel the impact made by his efforts and that living in California allowed him to be progressive and explore con-cepts he could not in New York, such as kabbalah and public meditation.

“I don’t think it could’ve happened anywhere else but California, and not because California is crazy,” said Weiss. “It’s the right place at the right time.”

Regarding his support of Friedman’s formation of Shalhevet, Weiss responded, “Why I stuck my neck out was because there were so many kids who needed the education and were being stopped from doing it on political grounds.”

“It was very encouraging. I’ve just come to really respect him and love him,” Rabbi Michael Beals of Congregation B’nai Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue in Westchester, told the Journal after the lunchtime program ended.

Later, Rabbi Weiss spoke to the Journal at length about his big move and the emotions his decision stirred in him.”When the opportunity arose, the challenge was so great. I entertained it at once,” said Weiss, “and then the wrestling and the doubts came afterward.”

Weiss, who has a five-year contract with London University to teach graduate courses and help set up model programs for Orthodox life, says, “It’s the challenge. I have an image of what a modern Orthodox community should be.”

Weiss hopes that his work in England will have positive repercussions throughout the European Jewish community. He sees the work to be done there as important for the future of Judaism; important enough for him to put aside his personal plans.

“I was really wanting to let go and make aliyah, but it’s good to feel the juices going again,” said Weiss.Yet as he prepares to trade smog for fog, Weiss evinces that even rabbis have their qualms about leaping into the unknown.

“I’m terrified,” admitted Weiss with a nervous laugh.
Goldmark believes that Weiss will do just fine in England, even though he realizes the Board of Rabbis – and L.A.’s Jewish community as a whole – will lose a very respected voice and Orthodox leader. He illustrates his point with an anecdote of a time a while back when the Board of Rabbis was considering a female executive director candidate. Following a meeting on the subject, Goldmark phoned Weiss.”I called him and said, ‘Abner, what do you feel about a woman serving as executive director?’ Goldmark recalled, “and he said, ‘If a woman can be a member of the Board of Rabbis, why can’t she become an executive director of the Board of Rabbis?'”

Goldmark then telephoned some of the other representatives of the Orthodox community sitting on the Board of Rabbis to ask how they felt about the nomination. Says Goldmark, smiling, “They asked, ‘What did Rabbi Weiss say?'”