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18 Years

03/20/2014 12:13:45 PM


Rabbi George Gittleman

18 is one of those special numbers in Jewish tradition, a number that also functions as a symbol for the most essential thing we have – Chai/life! So much “life” has happened since Laura, Levi, Sophie and I arrived here 18 years ago! Words seem inadequate to express the varied, rich and deep experiences we have shared. When I arrived, Shomrei Torah was a small but vibrant congregation with two “retired” part-time rabbis and 150 families. I was the first full-time rabbi to serve the congregation and we were all trying to figure out what that meant. I had served a number of student pulpits but Shomrei Torah was my first and only full-time position since I was ordained in May of 1996. My kids were 5 months old, Laura and I were new parents, setting up house in a new town; we all grew up together! It’s been a journey of a lifetime, one I won’t try to encapsulate now. What I will do is share a few of the Chai-lights of the journey, the road we’ve walked and continue to travel to this day.

When people ask me what I am most proud of at Shomrei Torah, I always say, our lay leadership and their volunteer ethic. What an inspiration to witness the intensity and depth of talent given freely and for many years by a so many dedicated members of our community! Countless hours of work, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (literally!), given out of love and dedication to who we are and what we stand for; years of people’s lives, as if Shomrei Torah was their full-time job, when they already had a full-time job (!), donated for “the cause”; to sustain and build-up our Jewish community. Whether someone was leading services or reviewing our finances, or pulling weeds, it’s all holy work; a prayer offered up with one’s whole being in service to the Most High, manifest in the everyday. Awesome!

Another Chai-light for me in all these years of service is the intermarried make up of our community. When I left seminary, the greater Jewish world was frightened to an almost hysterical degree about the growing intermarriage rate. In a decade or two, so the line of “reasoning” went, the Jewish people would disappear, washed away with the tide of intermarriage like some castle made of sand. No doubt intermarriage poses real challenges for the Jewish community; challenges and opportunities. 90% of our families with school-age kids are intermarried and about 60% of the congregation as a whole, and rather than threatening the Jewish life we work to build and share, the non-Jewish members of our congregation are often the most active, doing their part and more to help us fulfill our mission as a center for progressive, Jewish life in Sonoma County today. This was something I did not anticipate when I arrived here 18 years ago, and something to celebrate today. While we have much to celebrate, there is at least one aspect of our shared experience that does not fit in that category; the reality that the more one lives in a community over time, the more loss we experience. It’s holy work to walk with people through “the valley of the shadow”.

It’s an honor I cherish but it does not come for “free”; there is a personal price to pay for serving, caring for and losing so many people over so many years. Our cemetery is a heavy place for me. I sometimes find myself there, not really remembering how I arrived, wandering around looking for and saying “hello” to old friends. I could swear I see them in the supermarket, or walking down the street but when I look again, there is a resemblance, a memory, but not the person…Loss is accumulative; it doesn’t get any easier, at least not for me. Still, death is a great foil for life. In facing death and comforting the bereaved I have the opportunity over and over again to appreciate and evaluate our lives and ask the question that God asks Adam; ayekkah! Where are you?

Being with families through the generations is one of the ways I know I am where I ought to be. What a gift it is to marry a young man/woman who was my Bar/Bat Mitzvah student years before. Even better to then celebrate the children they bring into the world! There is a biblical blessing that essentially says, “may you merit the harvesting of the crops you sowed, the wells you dug, the grapes you grew.” This blessing might seem strange – who else would enjoy the work of your hands? But in a world often at war, one could easily plant a crop only to have an invading people reap what you sowed. We are not at war, at least not in Santa Rosa (Barukh HaShem!), but it is not all that common for a rabbi to stay in one place, especially his first pulpit, for so long. The greatest gift of these past 18 years is the depth of relationships we have been able to forge, l’dor v’dor, from one generation to the next.

Thank you Shomrei Torah for 18 wonderful years. Hazak hazak v’nithazek/May we go from strength to strength!

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780