October 22, 2019

Winds of Change

In a social hall filled for a community Passover seder, Rabbi Mark S. Miller summons the children in
attendance to open an outside door to welcome the prophet Elijah. One of the holiday’s enduring rituals is pouring to the rim an extra cup of wine in anticipation of a late guest, the prophet supposed to herald freedom.

“See, Elijah was here. The wine has gone down this much,” says Miller, raising a half-filled glass. “Who doesn’t believe the rabbi?” he asks, peering out over rimless glasses.

“Me,” a red-haired girl sings.

“Only my own family,” Miller grumbles to no one in particular.

The scene distills much about Miller, 54, who has spent nearly his entire career as the spiritual leader of one of Orange County’s largest synagogue, Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm. He and his wife, Wendy, who have five children, are to be honored May 18, a celebration of both their 25 years of marriage and his 25 years with the Reform congregation, a feat of unusual stability among Reform rabbis. An orchestra, auction, commemorative journal and $180-a-person four-course meal are planned at the Four Seasons Hotel.

His stature and now-gray full beard give Miller a regally commanding, Talmudic presence. Yet, it is his self-deprecating sense of humor, such as his seder comeback to a cheeky daughter, that leavens his scholarly manner and wins over students and youngsters. Among Bat Yahm’s 700 families, Miller is revered for beautifully crafted, accessible sermons, for inspiring b’nai mitzvah students without talking down to them and for being a community ambassador in whom they take pride.

Among his peers, though, Miller concedes to be a loner, who is known for hewing to conservative religious and political beliefs that put him to the right of the prevailing views held by most other Reform leaders. At the most recent annual meeting of the largest rabbinical organization in the nation, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Miller recalls feeling repulsed by a call to pray for Palestinians as brothers.

“I’m with Netanyahu,” Miller says, referring to the former Israeli prime minister. “I think there will never be peace, that the Arab world will never be satisfied with the granting of land, that every strategy is a tactic and that force is the only language they understand.”

“I’m kind of a dinosaur,” Miller admits.

The conservative camp was not always Miller’s home. As a young adult, he studied politics at American University in the nation’s capital and worked for three years on the staff of Walter Mondale, then a Minnesota senator and supporter of liberal causes such as school integration, migrant worker protection and tax reform.

The Six-Day War brought Miller’s political conversion. At a time when armed Arab forces concentrated on Israel’s borders, the threat heightened his own sense of Jewish identity. The war’s outcome inflated his pride.

As a boy growing up in Chicago’s public schools, Miller still remembers insults during games of dodge ball. “All the balls came at me,” he says. In high school, he also recalls walking out when his class read Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” “It felt good to take a stand,” he says.

Even before pursuing rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati, his beltway experience was enlightening about how distant career politicians are from their constituents. “I wanted to have an impact generationally,” Miller says. “Not a lot of rabbis get to do it.” Few from his rabbinical class achieve such rootedness, say colleagues, giving Miller the satisfaction of officiating at weddings of children he named. Such stability also permits him the latitude to make annual Israel trips (though not this year), and go to ball games, rock concerts and his children’s school functions.

While congregants generally adore their rabbi, temple boards often are at odds with the spiritual leader, who also is expected to excel as orator, administrator and psychiatrist. Miller and Bat Yahm’s trustees apparently have avoided fractious divisions in part because of ideological symmetry: the county’s conservative bent matches his own. Though just 29 when arriving at Bat Yahm in 1977, Miller’s devotion to traditional rituals and practices has only intensified, says Elliott Mercer, a radiologist and president of the temple’s trustees.

At the same, Reform Judaism has experienced a seismic shift in its adherents’ practices. In 1999, the rabbinical leadership approved new guiding principles that for the first time encouraged observance of traditional rituals such as wearing kippot, keeping kosher and the wide use of Hebrew.

Such practices were set aside at the movement’s founding in the late 1800s partly to accommodate an influx of European immigrants who spoke little Hebrew, says Rabbi Richard N. Levin, director of the Los Angeles school of rabbinical studies at HUC-JIR, the reform movement’s seminary.

But a revival of traditional practices, bred by the popularity of Jewish day schools started in the 1970s, forced rabbinical leaders to revise their platform, only the fourth since the movement was started. “Today’s bar and bat mitzvah kids read and chant more Hebrew than their parents,” Levin says.

Says Miller: “The Jewish community is catching up with me.”

As a measure of how far he takes tradition, Miller proposed that a mikvah (ritual bath) be part of a $6 million expansion Bat Yahm began two years ago. A second chapel and social hall, an educational wing and amphitheater, though, are a higher priority and are to be finished before the mikvah and a fountain, Mercer says. The size and scope of the expansion has stirred more debate than any other issue, he says. To accommodate growth, the temple is currently considering potential candidates for an assistant rabbi.

Only three other Reform synagogues in the nation boast a mikvah, which is increasingly used before weddings and High Holy Days, and as a requirement for conversion. Currently, converts to Judaism under Miller’s tutelage are “reborn” in a dip into a mikvah at the University of Judaism, the Conservative movement’s seminary in Los Angeles.

“Women have expressed a great desire to utilize the waters of the mikvah for traditional purposes,” Miller says, referring to a purifying ritual by ancient women undertaken after their menstrual cycle and before resuming marital relations. Bat Yahm expects to rent use of the mikvah to other synagogues.

“It would be a boon to Orange County,” says Rabbi Alan Henkin, the southwest regional director for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which includes portions of five Western states.

Bat Yahm reflects Miller in other ways, too. The temple was among the first locally to recruit well-known speakers, who certainly have contributed to a collection of author-signed volumes in Miller’s study. He is a voracious reader of Judaic history and politics.

He also generously shares his scholarship. As the need arises, he replies to the local newspaper, the Daily Pilot, with reasoned, erudite commentary. Miller has taught an undergraduate Judaism class at UC Irvine once a year since 1983, his own mitzvah (good deed). Over the same 19 years, he also informally tutored after Friday night Shabbat services an estimated 2,000 students visiting from Vanguard University, a Christian liberal arts college in Costa Mesa. “I know many of the churches now directed by students that learned from Rabbi Miller are taking their congregations to visit their local synagogues,” says Nancy Heidebrecht, a former Vanguard professor. “He has impacted a part of the Christian community in ways no other could have done.”

“He is a few things we didn’t know about,” adds Winnie Ross, a past Bat Yahm board president who chaired the search committee that hired Miller.

Art with biblical allusions, evident on temple doors, its sanctuary’s walls and within its arc, all reflect Miller’s own vision executed by different artists. During annual Purim festivals, the rabbi sports a cape, pulling surprises from hidden pockets and delighting children. More than satisfied smiles, though, are expected from the youth who graduate from Miller’s confirmation classes. He exacts an “ethical will,” requiring students to put their values, rather than their possessions, in writing.

“One boy told me he never knew what it meant to be a Jew until he took the class,” Ross says.

For a devout man who prefers scholarship to schmoozing, that may be tribute enough.