First meeting with Vickie and our children, Leo, Sarah and Ben after my second open heart surgery
As we celebrate Chanukah in the Hebrew year 5783, I find myself looking back ten years to November 29, 2012. After a seemingly endless barrage of examinations and tests, hospital staff pushed a gurney with me on it to an operating room at the Cleveland Clinic for my second open heart surgery.
There, Dr. Lars Svensson and his medical team sawed through my chest bone, replaced an inadequately working mechanical aortic valve and sheathed a potentially fatal ascending aortic aneurysm.
I woke up the next day in the Cardiac ICU with a pump morphine drip dispenser and barely enough strength to push the button.
Physically frail and emotionally exhausted after my term as President of the World Union for progressive Judaism had ended only a few weeks earlier, I nevertheless felt strength and connection with the also once fragile State of Israel. It was on that date, 65 years earlier, that the UN voted for the partition plan that led to the creation of Israel as a Jewish state. I had often walked on “November 29th Street”, (“Kaf Tet b’November” in Hebrew) in Jerusalem when I studied there. Israel has become strong since that time, and I had faith that I would as well.
As I began to recover from my heart surgery, and wondered what adventures lay before me, I decided to finally finish the book I had begun to write but never finished, 40 years earlier. I’ve been writing since and have now published six more!
One of our first post-surgery adventures was being asked to serve as rabbi to congregation Beth Shalom Milano, in Italy from the high holidays through Chanukah, and to help with the Reform Congregation Shir Hadash in Florence, Italy on those Shabbats when Milan could spare me! What warm, welcoming communities they were and are! The President of the congregation there had heard me speak as President of the WUPJ in Amsterdam about the importance of progressive Judaism in Europe, and when I called to inquire about the position, he enthusiastically told me, “I heard you speak in Amsterdam. You’re hired!”
While in Italy, we had a visit from Pastorin Ursula Sieg, whom I had met briefly in West Hartford while she was on sabbatical and studying at the Hartford Seminary. She was determined to bring Vickie and me to northern Germany so that Vickie and I could teach about the Holocaust to German high school students, and so that I could preach in various Lutheran churches and teach at seminars for Lutheran ministers. We were fortunate to be able to do this work for 6-10 weeks for 5 years, until Covid stopped our visits.
Another visitor with whom we met in Milan was Rabbi Dr. Walter Homolka who had heard that same speech in Amsterdam, and he subsequently invited me to give the opening lecture at the University of Potsdam’s School of Jewish Theology in 2014, as well as to teach a seminar that year at the Abraham Geiger Rabbinical College in Berlin and each year after that, again until the pandemic set in.
Our present adventure is also a positive result of my time as President of the WUPJ. I was sitting in the “sunroom” of our home in Connecticut looking at two feet of snow in February of 2017 when I received a call from the wonderful Rabbi Guershon Kwasniewski in Porto Alegre, Brazil whom we had visited during my tenure with the WUPJ.
He wished to join the CCAR, the Reform Rabbis’ Union in North America, and asked me to write a recommendation for him. He impressed me greatly when we visited his community, so I was happy to recommend him.
“Where do I send the letter,” I asked?
“To the Placement Director.”
So, for the first time in several years, I rooted around the Placement List looking for the Director’s email address. Then I saw a position open that said, “Sanibel, seasonal.” It seemed to have blinking lights.
I read the description of a warm, friendly almost exclusively senior congregation, whose duties were light and seemed perfect for a retiree.
I pondered Sanibel’s warm climate as I looked at the two feet of snow piled up outside my window, and I called, “Vickie…. look at this.”
We looked at each other after she read it and decided I would apply to Sanibel. We have so enjoyed living there these past five years and serving as Rabbi of Bat Yam Temple of the islands.
As our sixth year here began, Hurricane Ian devastated our home and the church where we share worship space. We are proud of the way our congregation has responded to adversity, and we look forward to returning – though it won’t be soon – to our island home and to our synagogue’s home.
In the meantime, we have had many services on zoom, and thrillingly have begun to hold in person services, also broadcast on zoom, because the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte County graciously offered us their Community Room in Fort Myers as a worship space until our synagogue home, is repaired.
In all, it has been an enjoyable and fulfilling ten years since doctors ably repaired my damaged heart, and I am forever grateful that modern medicine has enabled me to be so fortunate and to continue to work in small ways to help repair our broken world.
Ten years later Israel is still strong, I am strong, and with God’s help we shall soon return to live and worship on our island paradise again.