By Rabbi Mark Glickman
November 18, 2016
What an honour it is to be here. Standing here before you as your duly installed rabbi is a privilege beyond words.
Looking around this beautiful room, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude. I am grateful first and foremost tonight to my friend, my colleague, my teacher, Dr. Gary Zola, who shared his words and wisdom with us so beautifully. I worked for Gary when I was a student, and in many ways it was he who taught me how to be a rabbi. His commitment to excellence, his love of history and of storytelling, and his deep devotion to the well being of the Jewish people continue to inspire me every day. What a thrill it is to have him here to share this moment with me.
I’m also grateful to my family who have come from so far to be here with us tonight – to my brothers, Larry and Jimmy Glickman; to my kids, Jacob, Shoshana, and Kyleigh; to my parents, Ron Glickman and Joel and Harriet Katz, a heartfelt thank you for traveling to be here tonight. Thanks especially to Caron, who travels here to be with me all the time. Her love gives me the strength to do this work, and we all owe her an enormous debt of gratitude.
Also, this moment in the history of our congregation was only made possible thanks to the efforts of scores of congregants who worked along the way in order to help us reach this juncture. We all should be grateful to the search committee, so ably led by the woman who is now our president, Betsy Jameson. It was a joy to work with you, and I am honoured to have been the one you chose to lead this congregation.
To the transition committee – led by Roz Mendelson, and powered by the work of Katie Baker, Nadine Drexler, Deborah Yedlin, as well as that of Josh Hesslein, Andy Kubrin and Ken Drabinsky– I thank you for all of your work not only to make this Shabbat a success, but also for your ongoing efforts to ensure a smooth and successful beginning to my new rabbinate here at Temple B’nai Tikvah.
I also thank our Board of Trustees, all of whom work so tirelessly on behalf of our congregation and its sacred work. We are all grateful to you for all that you do.
Thanks too to our staff – Sheila Hart, Danny Oppenheim, and Jenny Laing…not to mention the members of our support staff – Connie Harding, and Kenny Sullivan, and David Even-Har, and Phil Horovitz. Working with you every day is a real joy, and I thank you for the privilege of doing so.
Thank you to our musicians who are playing tonight, particularly to Norm Yanofsky, Katie Baker, and Deb Finkleman with whom I work on a regular basis. You add so much to our worship, and we’re all grateful to you for all that you bring to the experience.
And most of all, I thank each of you as members of this wonderful congregation. Each of you has already played a role in making my experience serving as rabbi of Temple B’nai Tikvah into a wonderful one, and words cannot express how truly thankful I am.
I stand before you in awe of the position you have appointed me to fill. Do you realize that I am the only full time congregational Reform rabbi in Canada between Toronto and Vancouver? This might not be the largest congregation in the world, but in terms of the size of my turf, I think I’ve got all of my colleagues beat.
Of course, you didn’t hire me to be the Chief Reform Rabbi of the Prairie Provinces, you hired me to be the rabbi of Temple B’nai Tikvah, and here too I stand in awe. I stand in awe because I know what this congregation is, and I have a sense as to what you want it to become, and I find the responsibility of leading it to be a task that is both daunting and thrilling at the same time. 37 years ago, thirteen families began meeting in the Bing’s living room with a commitment to building options for Reform Jewish life here in Calgary. Eventually, more of you came on board, and you hired rabbis to help lead you in your quest to build an active, vibrant community devoted to the ideals of Reform Judaism. All of Temple B’nai Tikvah’s leaders – rabbis and lay-leaders alike – have made their own contributions, and look at what you’ve built.
Look around you. Here under the canopy of creation, here in this magnificent building, you have already done so much of what you set out to do in the first place. Here at your temple, you conduct worship services every Shabbat and on every holiday, lifting your voices in song and prayer together. Here you study – both adults and children – learning the values of our people. And here you have created a center of tikkun olam – a place that is a source of healing and repair of the broken world in which we live.
I love this place. I love what you’ve done with it, and I love what I know we’re going to continue to do together.
I can’t help but think that it’s more than a coincidence that we celebrate this occasion tonight, for tonight is Shabbat Vayera. This week’s Torah portion opens by saying, “Vayera elav Adonai b’Elonei Mamre,” “and [God] appeared to [Abraham] at the Oaks of Mamre,” “Vayar v’hinei shloshah anashim nitzavim eilav.” “And [Abraham] looked up and saw that there were three people standing by him.” God visited Abraham, and what Abraham saw was three people. In fact, the first thing he did when seeing these three people was to greet them by calling them “my lords,” which in Hebrew is “Adonai.” He ordered up a nice meal for them; they assured him that he and Sara would soon be parents and that God’s covenant with Abraham would be fulfilled.
Abraham saw the presence of God in the people he met. He saw clearly that these people who showed up at his doorstep weren’t just desert vagrants, but manifestations of the divine standing right before him. This is what you’ve done as a synagogue since your very inception. You’ve been a haven from the rampant materialism of the world around us, a sanctuary of humanity in a sea of despair.
And this too is what we need to devote ourselves to as we move ahead – to creating a community that continues to recognize the divine within each of us even when it seems so hidden. We do that when we worship; we do that when we learn together; we do that when we build a world that makes real our tradition’s vision of justice and righteousness. In the few short months I’ve been here, I’ve seen you do it, and I’ve seen you strive to do it even more.
As we look ahead, let’s devote ourselves to continuing in this great tradition. Let’s commit ourselves to continuing to build Temple B’nai Tikvah as a lifelong congregation – a hub of activity for children, seniors, and everyone in between. Let’s continue to pray together, meaningfully and with gusto. Let’s continue to study. And let’s repair the world not only by tending to the needy, but more importantly, by doing what we can to bring true social change to a world that needs it so very much.
I’d like to share a story with you tonight – the story of an encounter that occurred in the summer of 1915 between another rabbi and one of his young congregants. The rabbi was a prominent man with the unfortunate name of Moses Gries – Rabbi Gries – who served for many years as rabbi of a temple in Cleveland, Ohio called, “The Temple.”
In May 1915, Rabbi Gries officiated at that year’s Temple confirmation service. It was a grand ceremony, featuring majestic organ music, a sanctuary bedecked with beautiful flowers, and several dozen white-robed 15-year-old confirmands. During the confirmation, Rabbi Gries pronounced a blessing over the young people, presented each with his or her confirmation bible, and sent them on their way, hoping to see them back again in the fall.
One of those teenagers, however, a young man by the name of Sylvester Marx, wouldn’t stay away that long. Instead, several weeks after his Confirmation, Sylvester Marx made an appointment to come in and see the rabbi. Sitting in the dark, booklined study, speaking with a slightly nervous quaver in his voice, Sylvester explained that he had a problem. Evidently, Sylvester’s father had just done something that was becoming more and more common among American Jews back then – he had converted to Christian Science. Sylvester, however, didn’t want to convert to Christian Science. Sylvester was Jewish; he liked going to the doctor! “Rabbi,” he asked, “is there any way that a fifteen-year-old can take out his own membership in The Temple?”
Fortunately, the answer was yes. Rabbi Gries made the arrangements, and fifteen-year-old Sylvester Marx joined the Temple.
The years passed, Sylvester grew up, and in time he became a respected attorney in Cleveland. He married, had three children (the oldest of whom, Robert, would become a rabbi in 1951), and through it all, Sylvester remained a deeply religious man. He went to services every week; he led the corps of ushers on the high holidays; and before he ever ate a meal, almost inaudibly, Sylvester would always whisper a short prayer to God.
That prayer was probably in English. You see, when Sylvester grew up, places like The Temple didn’t use much Hebrew at all in their worship, nor did they teach much of it to their students.
And so, when in 1980, the congregation gave Sylvester Marx an aliyah to honor him for his 65 years of membership in the Temple, the family had to appoint one of his high-school-age grandsons to help him learn the Hebrew for the Torah blessing. Afterwards, the boy razzed his grandfather a little. “Grandpa,” he asked, “how can it be that you’ve gone to Shabbat services every week for the past 65 years, and you still can’t say “ch”?
No, I never could get my grandfather to learn that prayer very well. But we sure had a lot of fun working on it.
My grandfather, Sylvester Marx, died on Thanksgiving weekend, 1984. I was a senior in college at the time, and when I got back to school after his funeral, I found a letter waiting for me from the Hebrew Union College, informing me that I had just been accepted into rabbinical school.
Five-and-a-half years later, when I was ordained a rabbi, one of the gifts I received was a small package containing this book. The card was from my mother: “Dear Mark, This gift is from your grandfather. He would have been very proud of you today, and he would have loved to have been here….”
The book is an old bible, and inside the front cover it says, “Confirmation: Presented to Sylvester Marx by The Temple, Cleveland, May 23, 1915. Signed, Moses M. Gries”
One hundred one years ago, Rabbi Moses Gries welcomed into his congregation a young man who needed a synagogue, and partly as a result of that act, I stand before you as your rabbi tonight. 101 years ago, a fifteen-year-old Jewish kid in Cleveland mustered the chutzpah he needed to ask his Temple to make some special arrangements for him, because, to him, Judaism was important – it mattered and was worth the trouble. 101 years ago, in a dark, book-lined room some 3,000 kilometers from here, there was an encounter between a young Jew and his rabbi the effects of which would continue to ripple outward for many, many years.
If, as your rabbi, I can touch the life of even one person, young or old, the way Rabbi Gries touched the life of my grandfather, then my work here will be a success. If I can inspire even one of you to see, as did my grandfather, that Judaism is something worth working for even when the work is hard or frightening, then my work here will be a success. And if even one single act that I perform as your rabbi can ripple out through time in a way even remotely similar to what Rabbi Gries did for my grandfather, then I will consider my work with you to be an enormous success, indeed.
You see, that encounter between my grandfather and his rabbi touched eternity, and maybe, with your help, with your shared commitment to helping make Judaism live and shine here in Calgary, then together, we can touch eternity too. And if we do, well, who knows what things will be like for our own descendants 101 years from now. Maybe one of them will stand before his or her own rabbi, pleading for the opportunity to stay connected to Judaism and Jewish life. Maybe one of them will even be a rabbi, standing before his or her congregation overwhelmed with awe, gratitude, and hope as I am tonight.
O God, I thank you for the privilege of working with these people and in this community, and I pray for the strength to be worthy of the honor. As rabbi of this congregation, may my actions be sacred, may my words truly be words of Torah, and, in the years ahead, may I have the joy of growing and learning with this community, for we are B’nai Tikvah, the children of hope, in a world that needs the hope we offer so very, very much.