A Tough Year on the Bimah

Leading a Jewish Congregation
through a Tough Year

by David P. Stern


        This is primarily an account of the year 1973-4 when I served as president of congregation Mishkan Torah in Greenbelt, Maryland (an older account may exist somewhere, but I cannot find it). I have about 450 pages of notes from that year, but most are just running notes on day-to-day problems. There also are letters, bulletins and other notes--and memories not easily forgotten.

    Audrey and I became members of the "Jewish Community Center of Prince George's County" some time in 1964. I remember attending a special service at the synagogue after president Kennedy's assassination, in which a woman with a beautiful, soft voice sang "Taps" with Hebrew wording. Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, and as the news spread, people rushed to the parking lots to turn on their car radios. Later when his coffin lay in the Capitol Rotunda and we watched it on the B&W TV while Audrey was tending Ilana (still in the old GHI Co-Op house, though we had already bought a new free-standing one). I felt a need to participate by going down and paying my respects to the dead president, told Audrey good night and drove to Washington, parking somewhere near the Capitol.

    The line started fairly close to the Capitol and my first reaction was--good, not much waiting. A false impression: the line--and it was a crowded one--snaked away from the Capitol, I think on Constitution Avenue, all the way to Lincoln Park at 13th street NE, then around the park and only then towards the Capitol, straight down East Capitol Avenue.

    It was a bitterly cold night, but people were well disposed, chatting, getting to know each other. I remember only a few things, e.g. how a young Black woman had to leave the line, after waiting for hours, because one of her two little girls began crying (I think she was carrying it) and would not be consoled. A policeman watching the line was stomping while saying "that's all right, I am from Minnesota, it's cold there," and I myself snuck out to the Supreme Court when I just had to find a bathroom. In the end I climbed the stairs and passed by the coffin with its honor guard standing like statues--mumbling "shalom le'afaro", may his remains find peace, and then we were out on the balcony on the west side, slowly walking to our cars. It was in all a 7-hour wait, but Audrey was still up.

    We joined the synagogue not long afterwards--we had already attended High Holiday services with Cantor Pomerance in 1961. Among those who led Jewish services in Greenbelt, Pomerance was the most memorable. His day job was that of a colonel in the Pentagon, and he only came to Greenbelt for the high holiday services, which he led meticulously. I don't recall any sermons--rather, he would unexpectedly stop in the middle of some phrase in the prayer, and off the cuff would lecture on it for ten minutes or so, always with an inspiring message.

    The synagogue had a Torah scroll, and services--not held every week--were led by members, of whom I remember mostly Harry Klion. A small man who worked on decorating store windows, Harry Klion in his youth received cantorial and musical training, and had a resonant, melodic voice. What sticks in my memory was the "Hashkivenu" prayer before the "Amidah" (standing prayer), for which he had a melody unlike any I knew, segueing in the middle into the famous aria of Bizet's "The Pearl Diver" and then after a while returning to less opulent notes. I think another cantor was a young fellow, Rich Kaplan (an adopted Levi, we were told, even though the name suggested a Cohen), also a good voice.

    I don't remember much, but Audrey and I gradually drew closer. Not being religious, but coming from Israel, I felt close to Jewish history and tradition and to Hebrew culture, and that it was my duty, in a way, to promote them wherever I was. I know that in early 1967 (before the 6-day war) I took over the "JCC Bulletin" from Hedda and Herb Sachs, the big shots of the congregations (Herb was president in 1968, but they later left). About a year later the congregation hired Rabbi Maurice Weisenberg, who with his wife Nechama moved into a house in the Lakewood section of Greenbelt. I remember coming over there to hang up curtains, and the rabbi never offered to lend a hand: maybe that's the difference between Israel and the USA, I thought. Weisenberg was orthodox, but the congregation continued to be affiliated with the Conservative.movement.

    The JCC bulletin was sent out every month. Rae Algaze who earned her living as a typist volunteered to type it up, and did so faithfully, after some missteps (the mats we were given needed special handling). Rae, a Sephardi, lived to her late 80s, and was always upbeat and active, in spite of what life dished out to her, most of it bad: her husband was unpleasant and in the end they split, her daughter had mental problems and for a while was just wandering the streets (later she found a simple job). Her son Victor enlisted in the navy and died in February 1970 in an accident aboard a nuclear submarine--no one ever gave details, but a bench dedicated to his memory is now on the central plaza of Greenbelt. But personally she was like a Weeble--those little dolls with round weighted bottoms, which can be pushed off balance but always come back straight up. "Weebles wobble but don't fall down."

    I would collect the material for each bulletin (often write a big part too), then it would be put in a bag hung on the door of someone who took it to the printer, and when the printed copy came back (typed pages interspersed with pages of advertisements, which did not vary from month to month), it came to our door, and Audrey and I would sort it by zip-code regions, to qualify for low postal rates, and bundle together the chunks for Greenbelt, Silver Spring etc. It would be done in the living room, copies scattered on the coffee table and floor.
        (This is what comes from starting to write about a presidency of Mishkan Torah! The story spills out over its boundaries--and yet, everything seems to belong.)
    I don't remember all my roles in the synagogue--publicity chairman, possibly, later vice president for programs. Rabbi Weisenberg insisted that the congregation needed a name, and in 1968 I proposed the one which was adopted--"Mishkan Torah", Tabernacle of the Law. "Mishkan" (tabernacle) rather than "Temple" because we were a small local synagogue, and the original tabernacle was a humble affair too, housed in a tent. David Fisher proposed a fine alternative--"Dorshey Emet" which had a nice double meaning, "Seekers of Truth" but also means "those who demand the truth." (In 2010 I found that was also the name of a s famous Reconstructionist congregation in Montreal.)

    I think I gave up the bulletin in 1970 to someone who turned it into a regular printed version, a small newspaper rather than typed pages, but the contents were not particularly interesting (to me, anyway), the costs were higher and after a while it folded. Meanwhile (in 1971) I taught a course in the religious school about Jewish history--preparing fairly extensive lesson plans still kept in a binder. The classes were held in the new "Karp School" built in part by funds of the Karp Brothers, two oldsters who regularly attended services, for one of them a rail was even built to help his ascend to the bimah. After a while they passed away, one by one, but they also generously donated 10-12,000 dollars for the school wing, which opened in 1970 or so. My classes were prepared with a lot of care, but it was hard to get kids interested.
        A memory of that school: when it finally opened, the builder provided keys to all rooms, hung from a board of nails on the wall of the office, each with a tag identifying the door to which it belonged. Among them was a mystery key with tag "does not open anything"--no one ever used it, but it was never discarded, either, because who knows? To me it was a symbol of many dated traditions, e.g. prayers memorized and recited though no one was sure "what they opened." It is still that way, and not just in Judaism.
    In part my problem was feeling low and sleeping badly. Insomnia affects everything one does, and I also felt unsure of my job. It did not help knowing that NASA was getting ready to lay off people (a RIF, reduction in force).

    At that time a local organization was started, "Greenbelt Cares," to counsel people with problems (it met in the unfinished church--just the basement--near where now stands the "Green Ridge House" retirement facility). I did not think it would solve my problems, and indeed meetings with counselors did not turn out helpful. But I did contact them, and started keeping a diary of sorts-- scanned into the folder "Greenbelt Cares."

The 1973 Board Elections

    That diary describes (p. 10, 15-6) the election which made me president of Mishkan Torah. The congregation was sinking fast, and all members were well aware of it. It had a deficit--income about 65,000$, obligations around 85,000 $--and membership numbers were so shaky that Rabbi Weisenberg looked for a job elsewhere, found one in Kansas City and accepted it. There was no synagogue bulletin, lecture attendance was about a dozen, and membership meetings were down to two a year, each getting a bare quorum.

    For 28 April, 1973, a membership meeting was called, to pass a new budget and elect a new board. Candidates existed for all positions but one--that of a president to replace Ralph Mollerick. Ralph himself had been negotiating with Beth Torah, a synagogue with a large building near Prince George's Plaza , led by Rabbi Mendel Abrahms. Their offer, as I remember it, was roughly--sell your building, come with the money and we will accept your members and find places for all your memorial plaques in our building.

    Audrey and I attended that meeting, and Audrey in particular insisted, that I should not take the presidency even if it was offered. Later I heard a rumor that 14 members had been offered the presidency and turned it down; my notes say about a dozen were asked during the meeting and declined, I among them. But people came back to me in particular, and in the end, Audrey said "do what you think is right" and I accepted.

    The budget presented for approval was a fake (my vote against it was the only dissent). It only managed to balance numbers by separating the building expenses from the expenses of operations--the building costs (maintenance, roof etc) were to be covered by the building fund to which each new member annually contributed $125 over 4 years. This was about 1/3 of the budgeted amount, but no one expected nearly enough new members to cover $30,000 or so. In fact, Les Klein told me, "without a rabbi, you know you can expect ZPG," zero population growth.

    I feared that unless I accepted, the congregation might not last long. Another reason was that I felt the congregation had the resources to run most of its own activities-- a rabbi did not add all that much, and his cost was high. With my Israeli schooling, I could (if required) give sermons, read Torah and do other pulpit chores (except lead services--not with my voice!). And maybe shouldering this tough responsibility might get rid of my dark moods. All these worked out.

    What I did not realize was how much work one had to invest: a new president usually has his or her own supporting party (at any level!), people who willingly share the load. I had none. I had a vague idea of working in close collaboration with 4 vice presidents--or whatever titles they would take, forming an inner committee which would share the job. But people refused. I remember sitting with Zev Hendel at Goddard lunch, by the window in the bldg.1 cafeteria, and he simply turned me down. He said something like, I appreciate what you are doing but I cannot join you in it. Ralph, former president, said he would keep me up with a financial report, but he refused closer collaboration--and his reports were short lists of numbers, on the few occasions when I got any.

    As time went on, it sank in how alone I was. In July 1974 (issue 1-12) I wrote in HaKol a poem which Audrey felt was not right, expressing feelings no one ought to have. But at time they seemed to fit my mood:


Nobody cares if I live or I die
No one of me is aware
Nobody listens whenever I cry
Or when I smile seems to care.

When I have slaved and have tortured my brain
Sweated and pushed to success
Sometimes I feel it has all been in vain
No one, it seems, could care less

Nowhere a friendly soul hears and records
Troubles and joys I have known
On this most perfect of possible worlds
I stand alone, alone.

    And a few pages later:


The altar fires have been banked
Eternal flames burn low
The lips that mumble ancient words
Their meaning scarcely know.
Empty and poor we have become
Lord, give us strength to grow

Your flocks are scattered and your sheep
Drift on roads separate
Your shepherds have forgotten how
Your message to translate
Oh, give us heart, the Lord of hosts
You who alone are great

The saving remnant in your land
Have gone through siege and hell
Through war and want their faith holds firm
We pray and wish them well
You who makes peace in heavens high
Bring peace on Israel

And may it be your wish and plan
To sprout the hidden seed
To help Your people once again
In time of dire need
To make a bright light shine once more
To rally us and lead.

The members of the new board were:
                         (See: Log Scans > JCC Bulletin > JCC Misc--011.pdf)
    David Stern, President
    A. David Spevack, Exec Vice Pres.
    Mrs. Marion Ballard, V.P. Programs
    Lucille Baker, Treasurer
    Relda Wallach, Corresponding Secy.
    Lilian Kleinberg, Recording Secy.
    Frank Pearlman, Financial Secy.
          Board of Trustees:
    Joseph Stregak, Chairman
    Jordan Choper, Children's Ed.
    Murray Shapiro, Adult educ.
    Julie Lipton Religious co-chair
    Lester Klein Religious co-chair
    David Pomerantz, Ways & Means
    Ruth Horlick Publicity co-chair
    Muriel Weidenfeld Publicity co-chair
    Zev Hendel, Israel Ctee
    Lawrence Knee, Bldg & Grounds
    Stuart Wolf, Membership
    Ralph Mollerick, President, ex-officio
    I gladly let go of any responsibility where I knew it would be picked up by others. Finances, for instance--Zev Hendel was willing to handle them (without consulting me), together with the secretary Bunny Nasoff (and also past treasurer Stu Metro, who stayed and helped). Any other president might have insisted on controlling the money or at least knowing how it was spent--but I felt that without the rabbi on the payroll, we'd probably do OK. Another responsibility I gladly delegated to Ralph Mollerick (or was it Joe Stregack?) was renting out the Rabbi's house, which was now on Lakeside Drive. The tenants he found were a bunch of young people who (as it turned out) neglected the place. But I felt it was just too much extra responsibility for me.

The Summer Campaign

    In fact, Mishkan Torah did much better than ZPG, adding about 40 new member families over the year (starting with some 150) -- losing 32, mostly by normal attrition (numbers are from my report to the incoming president, Dr. Steve Forster). Only one left because of the absence of a rabbi, Les Klein. The strategy was to keep regular services going, keep the congregation informed, try to involve people, and ratchet up activities and publicity. Any lecture provided an opportunity to get our name in the papers and post colored notices in public locations. Also, the bulletin was restarted, now named "HaKol", made as readable and interesting as possible, and sent for free to as many potential members as could be found, perhaps the most important way of presenting a positive image.

    All these worked out. It was a bit like the story Josephus wrote about the Roman siege of Jotpathah (wherever that may have been)--the inhabitants were terribly short of water, yet women were instructed to hang wet washing where the Romans could see it, to fool them into thinking water was plentiful.

    The prime tool for activating members were committees. On paper, every board member was expected to head some committee (publicity, membership, religious, fund raising, building, children's education etc.) but in fact, almost all committees existed in name only. I insisted on them being reorganized, and just to make sure that happened, sat in at many of their meetings and took notes, allowing me to later ask their leaders what was done about this and that. It made me rather unpopular (and kept me out of the house too often, to Audrey's dismay)--but I stayed informed and the committees became active. I also kept my own minutes of board meetings--a habit later continued in other organizations too, e.g. the AGU History Committee. In none of the committees in which I participated (anywhere) can I ever recall a recording secretary who kept track of more than a small fraction of what was said,

    The last meeting of the outgoing board--date now lost--was particularly discouraging. I had expected Ralph Mollerick to quickly wind up old business and hand the meeting over, for there was no lack of future issues to worry about. But it did not happen. Instead, practically all the time was devoted to the basement below the school, where old furniture had been stored. Some teenagers had broken in, smoking and sitting on the soft chairs--they may even have started a small fire, not sure--anyway, the Greenbelt police found them there, arrested them and was ready to press charges, and now the question arose what position the congregation should take. Rhea Cohen was particularly outspoken that the youths should not be charged, that leniency be shown because of their age, etc. I don't remember how it ended, except that the discussion used up all available time, after which I stood up and announced an additional board meeting in one week, to discuss the future.

    Not too long afterwards I went to the synagogue with hammer and nails and nailed shut the thick plywood sheet which served as door to the basement, opening to the inner yard.

    We got a publicity break when the Rudermann Torah was acquired. Elaine Ruderman grew up in Syracuse New York, which used to have a large Jewish population and several synagogues. Around 1927, to raise funds, the synagogues bought a traditional hand-written Torah scroll and raffled it off to members. Her father or one of his family members won the raffle, and the scroll was carried with great hoopla to his synagogue and used in services.

    Since then the Jewish community of Syracuse had dwindled and most of the synagogues had gone dark. However, the raffle scroll remained, and Elaine finally went up to Syracuse and retrieved it (it is now with her daughter's congregation in Leesburg, Virginia). It was brought to Mishkan Torah, and the story got picked up by local papers.

    In addition, we tried to schedule free lectures every two weeks, open to anyone--given, of course, by volunteer speakers. Again they put our name in the papers, bringing many people to Mishkan Torah and inevitably, some new members. This included:

       "Traveling with Cousteau" by Locke Stuart, GSFC, May 24,
       " The Bible as Literature" by 2 teachers of Montg. Cty. who taught it, June 4
       Pat Goss on "Honesty in Car Repair", June 17
       " Prison Reform" on July 1 (by two inmates released for the evening),
       Jaylee Mead on "Exploring the Planets" on July 15,
       Meeting with candidates for the PG Board of Education, August 12,
        John Calhoun 26 August,
       Herbert Miller on "Corruption in Government" 26 October,
    Calhoun's talk was an interesting experience. He worked at NIH and was known for his experiment on over-population in laboratory rats--put a few pairs in a well-furnished space, then as their number grew, kept them fed and supplied, but provided no additional space. As a result the mice became crowded, then suffered nervous break-downs, some retreated to corners or isolated themselves, breeding declined tremendously and the entire population crashed. It was a famous experiment (written up in "Scientific American") and I felt happy to secure the speaker--but when he arrived, he was drunk, and the talk ended up in shambles.

    And so forth. "HaKol" took a lot of effort--I contributed a president's column, articles, book reviews, typed a Hebrew section (on my Hebrew typewriter) and even drew a cartoon "Twinkle", where Jews where drawn as 6-pointed stars and non-Jews had 5 points. For instance, two armed groups facing each other across a valley--6-pointed stars on one side, 5 pointed on the other and one of them twice as tall as the rest. Another star tells him "watch out for the kid with the slingshot!"

    I also wrote at the time prayer for the high holidays, a poem.

    Most of those projects worked, though some needed considerable pushing. When I assumed office, certain rabbinical candidates were still scheduled to visit and demonstrate their abilities in weekend services, but none seemed right--Rabbi Beigel was too shy, Rabbi Kraus wanted more pay than we could afford, and in the end, Mishkan Torah elected to go without a rabbi, as I had hoped. The Conservative seminary kept tight control on its candidates and would not help us locate any (until later in the year, when help was no longer needed). We did hire a rabbi to conduct high holiday services, Rabbi David Mogilner of Philadelphia who stayed (I think) with the Len Cohen, one of our token Sephardis, and his wife Rhea. Mogilner headed the Camp Judaea organization, and a few years later he died unexpectedly, still fairly young. I tried to get some guidance from him, and can't say it was a success. From notes at the time:
        Rabbi Mogilner--a big, bearlike man of indeterminate age (must be around 50), black hair that takes 10 years off his age and a sharp, professional mind. In our army he is a colonel, coming--through the Machinery Which Mover Bigger Things--to this small outpost of ours, held by a few sergeants and corporals and a handful of not-too-select troops. Here we sit, feeling isolated from the main body (which we are) and hoping for some advice, which we get (though not too directly), and some professional service. The latter is given as a matter of course--but the one time he mentions our name he mistakedly says "Mishkan Tefilah," [tabernacle of prayer] which suggests we did not figure largely in his thoughts. And we hoped for some sort of encouragement, which never arrived, maybe because that tall wise man knew we are really expendable, that if we went broke or else rose above the threat of bankruptcy, neither of these mattered much for the bigger task for which he was responsible.

        Is he a warm man of a cold man? I don't know. Insight, dedication, yes he has these, and five kids and a wife that works and full commitment to a job which he does not take too lightly. But he does not really want to get too close to us, one feels that, too. He knows his prayers well, and knows enough of the world and Israel that one must admire his faith, because it is certainly not the naive traditional faith which dissolves in too much education. A religious person who might well move to Israel, if he wanted to follow his own private destiny and duty there, while little Mishkan Torah would either sink or swim.

        On Thursday evening I spoke to him for about 2 hours. Some of what he said:

        Our negotiations with rabbis--not profitable and not well planned. First, we should be honest in what we offer, not give rabbi's past salary--state we offer $14,000 plus house which is OK for beginner and all we can afford. Not say "open for negotiation" as we do now--then we get a man like Kraus asking for too much. (He asked about our candidates, and I told him, though much already seems known to him).

        (and so on, more notes)
    These notes were dated 29 September 1973, and on Sukkot another candidate came--Chayim Listfield, who I felt he was more suitable than others but a bit too concerned with own welfare, and not enough intellectually stimulating. Some people liked him, and he later got another job in our area.

    The high holidays of 1973 were marked, of course, by the start of the Yom Kippur war by Egypt and Syria. As so often happens, the news percolated slowly to the congregation throughout the day, and when it finally did, all we could do is wait and watch the news, the survival of Israel was suddenly in question. Arieh Levi left his wife JoAnne and flew to Israel to rejoin his old unit, though he received no call-up. People were glum--we certainly were--and the Nixon administration seemed too cagy. I cannot remember much now--but there should be letters around, somewhere. In issue 10 of "HaKol",p. 38, May 1974, I imagined standing as sentry on Mt. Hermon, the peak overlooking the Golan heights:

The Lights of Damascus

"The dwellers of Sidon call the Hermon "Sirion", and the Emorites call it 'Snir'." Deuteronomy ch. 3, v. 9

    The lights of Damascus
    They shimmer and glow
    Out of the wide darkness
    That stretches below
    The chill wind blows firmly
    The cold stars shine clear
    The home is so distant
    The enemy - near
    This night lasts forever
    This war never ends
    I wish it were peacetime
    At home among friends
    I wish it were peacetime
    To build and to grow
    No more standing guard here
    Amidst dark and snow
    Somewhere lights are flashing
    Somewhere cannon boom
    Alone I am standing
    Alone in the gloom
    The lights of Damascus
    To me wink and glow
    Out of the wide darkness
    That stretches below.    

Curacao and Rabbi Kenneth Berger

All that time we regularly visited my parents in New York or were visited by them, and my father would jokingly call me "the rabbi." They had a friend Jack Snyder--curly, snow-white hair, his wife was a hospital dietician named Feigl (i.e. Tziporrah), and for a while he had managed a Jewish School in NYC as his contribution to Jewish education. He also had a narrow escape from lung cancer and lost one lung (before that?) and maybe that, too, directed him towards spiritual matters. Years earlier he had told me about the Reconstructionist movement, a small splinter starting a seminary in Philadelphia, followers of Mordechai Kaplan, the rabbi who introduced the Bat Mitzvah and who tried in many ways to update Judaism, without losing touch of the old traditions but not going as far from them as the Reform movement.

    Jack thought he knew a rabbinical candidate in New York, and encouraged me to get in touch with the Reconstructionist school. But I don't think the connections led to anything at the time. (Now that movement is again barely breathing: Kaplan died in Jerusalem at 102, his disciple Ira Eisenstein is also gone, and I see no new inspiration from it.)

    Anyway, my dad was a travel agent with Lindblad and arranged for Audrey, Ilana and me to join him and mother on a sea cruise on the Italian liner "Raffaelo", sailing from New York around November 12 and back about 10 days later. Audrey made an agreement with a couple of friends, Barbara and Ben Laime, to stay with our kids and theirs at our home (a year earlier they went on a cruise and we took care of their two kids), and through my father we all had choice cabins on a high deck. The cruise went from New York though the Mona passage to St. Thomas, then to Martinique and finally to Curacao.

    It was like riding on a seaborne luxury hotel. Ilana easily found friends, including a family named Caruso from Long Island whose daughter she befriended (unfortunately her dad later got hit in the eye by a flying champagne cork, and wore a bandage by the end of the trip). The food was exceptionally good, and the Italian crew kept plying us with tasty treats: the kitchen (like hell) was always open, from the 6 am early breakfast to a midnight meal and 2 am pizza. The cabin was small--but one hardly stayed in it, with so many balconies to walk on, plus a wide deck on top around the funnels, with a swimming pool that Ilana loved. The main lounge had games of chance, "races" where horse cut-outs advanced according to the toss of dice, music, entertainers... I forgot all details. We even had dinner with the captain whom we had to greet in Italian, using a phrase drilled into us in a special lesson and with a photographer recording the moment.

    The weather was mostly clear and warm, and at ports of call the routine was to lower from the davits large motor-boat "tenders", which passengers would board through doors near the water line. St Thomas was sunny, and of course we visited the local synagogue, dating back centuries and traditionally having a floor of sand, "in memory of the sands of the desert through which the Israelites wandered for 40 years." We also took a quick tour by motor coach across the ridge to the other side of the island, lined with green forested bays. Not much more to see there--it is a small island.

    Martinique was bigger, and although we landed at Port St. Louis, of course we had to visit St. Pierre, whose destruction by a volcanic outburst in 1903 (?) was justly famous. So we crowded into small bus-vehicles (like the VW microbus) and drove there, returning across the island, where we stopped and I bought souvenir wooden masks still flanking our fireplace. The volcano, Mt. Pelee, seemed peaceful enough--not even a wisp of steam--but in town one could look down into the deep pit where the jail once stood, down to the cell (now exposed to daylight) where a lone prisoner survived the blast, while all other city inhabitants perished. I recall seeing in the museum bottles deformed and contorted by the fierce heat of the glowing volcanic ash flow. And then it was time to get back to the ship.

    The plan was that the "Raffaelo" would head for Willemstad, capital of Curacao--bisected by a deep ship channel, crossed by a floating bridge which opened to let ships pass. It also had famous duty-free shops, and people were looking forward to buying there presents to bring back home.

    But it did not work that way. Because of the Yom Kippur war, Arab nations had declared an oil embargo, so oil was suddenly in short supply and the "Raffaelo", instead of going to Willemstadt (if that was the plan) docked in an oil-harbor to take on fuel, quite a few miles to the east.

    The cruise company arranged for cabs to come and pick us up, but there was a delay, during which Audrey, Ilana and I climbed up to an old fort guarding the anchorage, with a ring of rusting antique cannon. The cabs arrived, but the schedule was again upset because a rainstorm came with them, an unexpected event on Curacao which is an arid island with few trees. Parts of the road were not paved and became slick and muddy, and with so many cars trying to use it, by the time we arrived in Willemstaad, night had fallen and all stores were closed.

    "So what do we do now?" Audrey asked. I told here, "Well--it's Friday night, let us go to services!" Actually this was a rare opportunity, because Curacao had the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, "Mikveh Israel" built in 1732. It was not far away, we easily walked there over wet streets (the rain had ended), and although services had already started, we were allowed in. The custodian only insisted that I had to wear a jacket, and searched one out of the "lost and found" collection. It was far too big but I was given no choice.

    Mikveh Israel is a grand old building--with a raised platform in the middle for reading the scroll (allowing more people to hear the reading, in days before electronics), a high ceiling from which light fixtures hung on wrought-iron links, a tall ark for the scrolls and again, a floor covered with gray-black sand. As we waited for a break before taking a seat at the edge of the arrayed benches, a huge tropical cockroach walked out on it, towards the central dais. We watched it, as did probably quite a few members of the congregation. At first it marched boldly forward, then it sensed something was not quite right. Its long antennae swept left and right, it took a few more steps, again swept the air, decided going ahead was not a good idea, turned around and fled back to where it had come from.

    Mikveh Israel was a Reconstructionist synagogue--the congregation was too small to have a rabbi, and I think the guy who led it was also the local Shochet. In fact, there existed a second synagogue in town, with a different affiliation, but that night everyone came together here for a special occasion. Rabbi Lavy Becker, a Reconstructionist rabbi from Montreal, had made it his habit every year to circle through the small congregations of the Caribbean, preach in each, and this was his night in Curacao.

    He had an interesting message. "You think you are isolated here, far from the center of Judaism," he said. I think Curacao at the time had about 240 Jewish families. "But there are just 12 Jewish families on Aruba," the next island, "and to them you are the big center, they feel small and isolated compared to you. So I am telling you, never mind the big Jewish centers in North America, but reach out to the small community on Aruba."

    After the services the congregation held an "Oneg Shabbat" social, rather similar to such occasions in Greenbelt. One woman was quite distraught: her brother had been in the Sinai war and was missing. In a quiet moment I managed to get to Rabbi Becker and tell him about our congregation, and he said, he was staying in the big hotel in the middle of town--why don't we meet him there in the lobby a little later.

    We did, and I told him about Mishkan Torah, while Ilana (if I recall right) played around the fountain in the middle. He then thought a bit and said, he knew a young man graduating from the Reconstructionist seminary who might be just right. His name was Kenneth Berger and Rabbi Becker had thought of bringing him to Montreal as an understudy--but he would gladly see him go to Greenbelt.

    And so it was. Kenny Berger came on February 9, 1974, and spoke to the congregation about Tu Bishvat. Coming into town, he saw a sign stating "How grateful we should be for trees!" (or something similar) and he expanded on that. People liked him (see p. 297, synagogue notes II) and on March 11 a general meeting was called for approving his selection, and it passed.

    As for the "Raffaelo," a beautiful ship with Italian artwork, it met a rather ignomious end. The Shah of Iran bought it and a sister ship (the Michaelangelo?) to be outfitted as hospital ships. However, as they were anchored in the Persian Gulf--and that was I think after the Shah was deposed and after the war with Iraq had started, around 1980--Iraqi bombers set both ships on fire, and may have sunk them.

Highlights of a Year

Here are some notes made after coming back from the cruise (p. 222)
        So here I am, back from a cruise in the Caribbean Sea, undertaken with some misgivings. Well, the worst did not happen--a new round of fighting had not broken out in Israel, and maybe it's a pity it had not, because this state of no war and no peace is draining Israel's strength. But anyway: this absence was in a way an experiment to see how the congregation would do without me--to see how indispensable I really was, and to give David Spevack, as possible successor, a chance to lead the congregation on his own for 10 days, exhibiting how qualified he was to take over.

        I am not pleased with the results. Namely:

        (1) The board meeting of November 20 was attended by 5 people--Spevack, Zev, Stregack and Relda Wallach, plus Bernie Schwab who was actually not a board member. Not much was transacted beyond raising Bunny's pay [the secretary's] and listening to a financial report submitted by Ralph (who excused himself and did not attend). The report noted that we were in a crunch for $5000 in salaries to be paid in December [handwritten in the margins: "& electric bill"] because (a) only one new pledge came in and (2) dues are paid very slowly. No action on roof (another roofer inspected it but no bid yet), none on the oil tank, no organizing of "Son in Law" [a play which ended losing money] or other committee business

        .... (2) Was at services today. Poor attendance, no reader for Torah (Lenny sight-read, but only 3 lines per reader) no sermon (Dr. Forster scheduled, but did not show up).
    (and so on down the page). I was reminded of the story in the book of Exodus, of the children of Israel battling the Amalekites. Moses was overlooking the battle, and as long as he kept his arms raised, the Israelites were winning--but when he had to lower them, the Amalekites prevailed. According to the bible, two leaders were drafted to hold up Moses' arms until the fight was won, one on each side. I could have used that sort of help.

    Still, services continued, and for Bar Mitzvahs we hired various available rabbis. Dr. Ben Zion Kozlovski from Tel Aviv University was at Goddard for a sabbatical that year, staying at Springhill Lake apartments, and his son had reached Bar Mitzvah age, but he said he could not afford to pay for a Bar Mitzvah. I told him never to mind formalities, his son was called to the Torah with no rabbi present and he had a regular Bar Mitzvah--and later a small party at the Kozlovsky home.

    The president traditionally also gave a speech at Bar Mitzvahs, and presented the Bar Mitzvah kid with a copy of the Books of Moses. I still have the collection of speeches. Here is one I remember, dated May 26, 1973 (?):
        Today you join the Jewish community as a full-fledged member. Maybe you feel we are pushing the date a bit, for after all, it takes 18 years to vote or to open a credit account--it was 21 until a short time ago--but only 13 years to count as an adult Jew.

        I think the answer is that your Bar-Mitzvah is something like receiving a driver's license. A driver's license does not certify you as an expert driver--it just acknowledges that you know enough to pass the test, which consists of driving a car around the block. It's after the test that you really learn to drive, and it may take months or even years before driving a car becomes a natural habit to you. All the driver's permit says is that you have earned the right to learn all this on your own.

        Today you have earned something like this permit in your development as a Jew. You have driven around the block, you might say, and you have done very well. Now all that remains for you to do is to go out and learn the rest on your own, until Judaism becomes part of your nature, even at times when you don't happen to be thinking of it.

        So to help you on this way, the congregation is presenting you with a guidebook--the ancient book which has guided your forefathers for many generations in the past and which, hopefully, will illuminate your way in the future.

        Good luck.
    On Channukah (afternoon of 12-23-1973) we had a party, open to anyone and doubling as an open house for visitors; Mark Silverstein played guitar and entertained as ventriloquist. On Wednesday afternoon, January 9, 1974, previously advertised Hebrew classes began--Rina Shmerl taught beginners and Dina Wolloch led conversational Hebrew. Again, many flyers were posted beforehand, membership was not required, the cost was $5 per person and Rina's class in the new schoolhouse was mobbed--additional chairs, and still more, had to be brought from adjacent classrooms to accommodate all arrivals.

    Then on January 26 at 8:30, a wine tasting party--$7 per couple for members, $5 for new members, 7 wines--4 from Israel, 3 from Italy (inexpensive but good)--and again, a great success.

    Much transpired that year... The Men's club held an art auction, and whoever was to get the insurance for the transport of the auctioned art neglected to do so in time. One sculpture got bumped against a doorpost and splintered--I never saw it, but those who did said it was black and ugly as sin. Anyway, the belated insurance would not cover it and the artist sued the congregation for $1000. I knew nothing of the matter until the evening before the scheduled auction, when a phone call came from Ray Krasnik, president of the Men's Club, telling the story, informing me that we go to trial next morning (now he tells me!), and what should he do?

    What could I say but "At this late hour--what do you expect me to say? I have only one advice. Since we are a religious organization, pray!"

    Prayer helped. The judge turned out to be a former mayor of Greenbelt, recognized that Ray (big in local politics) had recommended him for judgeship, and disqualified himself. The trial was postponed, and before it could come up again, the Men's club settled out of court for $300.

    Then again, I see on p. 25 of issue 1-5 of our monthly "Ha-Kol" ("the voice") a poem copied by Toby Miller from an unknown author
    Oh, hush thee my darling, sleep soundly my son
    Sleep soundly and sweetly till day has begun
    For under the beds of good children at night
    There lies, till the morning, a kid snowy white
    We'll send it to market to buy sechora        (merchandise)
    While my little lad goes to study the Torah
    Sleep soundly by night, and learn Torah by day
    Then thou'lt be a rabbi when I have grown gray
    But I'll give thee tomorrow ripe nuts and a toy
    If thou'lt sleep soundly as I bid thee, my own little boy

    Toby Miller! Naomi Barsky had painted on the glass above the school entrance door in black and gold "Mishkan Torah", only she transposed the "O" and "R" so that it read "Mishkan Tarwah" (the letter waw can double as o and oo). I think she scraped off the letters and repainted them correctly, and then some day I saw a volunteer on a ladder washing those letters, only she did it so vigorously that the letters came off again. I stopped her and we talked--her name was Toby Miller, and her little son--cute kid--was in the Mishkan Torah nursery school. I don't think she could afford membership, but washing the window was one way of repaying some of the favor.

    Her main problem was that she did not have legal custody of the boy--I think the father came and snatched him away, then she snatched him back and with the help of the Hendels had him hidden among the Chassidim in Baltimore. The father wrote in the Washington Post, how deprived his kid was--not even able to taste a hamburger, and I think in the end he got him back. Toby lived in an apartment in a Black area and was popular there--somewhere near Martin Luther King highway--but she could only afford the ground floor, and thieves broke in and robbed her belongings. She then disappeared from view, and now that I see the poem, I wonder--what happened to her, and to the boy, whichever way he grew up.

    At the end of February Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, leader of the Reconstructionist movement, came for a Sabbath. I think he stayed at the Weintraubs, a tall gentleman, very pleasant, savvy and interesting. He attended Friday night services and I think he spoke there, and then in the morning we walked to Mishkan Torah for the Sabbath services.

    Services had already started, led by Rich Kaplan. We sat in the front row, but I had no opportunity to tell Rich about the visitor, and apparently, no one else told him, either. I think it was "Shabbat Shekalim" or anyway, one of the special Sabbath services preceding Passover when three scrolls are used in the service (congregations having fewer scrolls might need a lot of rolling back and forth, but we had three). Up went the scroll, the congregation rose as it was displayed and removed, then another took its place, all done in perfect precision, while I wondered--when will I have an opportunity to present Rabbi Eisenstein?

    There was a sort of a break after the last scroll and Haftarah, and then Rabbi Eisenstein rose slowly, claimed the pulpit and introduced himself.

    "I see that you are very adept in the ritual, in the details of the prayer service," he said. "But do you actually notice what the prayers themselves say? For example, you all know the Friday night prayer, 'Lechah Dodi,' no? He hummed a few lines." (It is the most recent part of the canonical prayer book, written in the 1500s by Rabbi Luria in Safed, in the Galilee.)

    Everyone agreed. "Do you know what it is about?"

    Someone said, of course--it was welcoming "Queen Sabbath" using the analogy of welcoming a bride.

    Eisenstein said, "That is right--for the opening lines, and for the closing ones. But the prayer itself is quite different. Just read it."

    And indeed, it is different, it is a prayer about the coming of the Messiah, about the resurgence of the Jewish nation, the restoration of the Kingdom of David, all the things which Luria dreamt about in Safed, which brought him there in the first place. Welcoming the Sabbath is just the wrapper, the true message is inside. It was one of the best sermons I ever heard.
    On March 24 we organized a memorial service to Orde Wingate, buried in Arlington. He was a British general by the time he died, commanding troops which conducted deep raids into Burma occupied by Japan. To save travel time he hitched a ride on a US bomber (in Burma or northern India), it got lost in the clouds and hit a hillside. The remains of the victims could not be told apart, and since most were Americans, they were all buried in Arlington.

    Of course, Wingate is remembered by Jews for the way he organized the "night squads" to pursue Arab bands in 1936-9 in British Palestine. He had a varied and distinguished military career--also in the Sudan, in Ethiopia where he led the triumphant return of Emperor Haile Selasie, and in Burma. In a way, he was a bible-inspired British soldier in the mold of "Chinese" Gordon. This was the 30th anniversary of his death: students in the Mishkan Torah school were taught about him, a dramatic reading was presented at the graveside and an Israeli journalist was also present, I think he took videos.

    Hakol continued, and I was allowed to read Torah even though I did not sing the melody, just read it dramatically. Many members preferred it that way, it was easier to follow, and I continued to do so occasionally afterwards. I remember one Sabbath when we read from the Ruderman Torah, the one won in a lottery. On several occasions, knowing the Hebrew and being able to peek at the printed Hebrew text open on the table next to the scroll, I found errors--you would call them typos, except that they all came from the hand of the scribe. Rabbi Saul Bayar was rabbi then, and after checking and confirming the error that day, ordered the scroll to be put aside and a new one brought in and rolled to the proper text. That might have been proper according to the Jewish orthodoxy, but if he had just let it pass and had later given the Torah to a scribe for correcting, everything would have been much simpler.

    I also gave sermons, and for many years afterwards, when the rabbi was away (e.g. during summer weeks) I would be called to that duty. A sampling of them is now
on the web, as is a play presented dramatically at services.

    One of the last things I did was create the Hebrew letters spelling out the name of the synagogue on its front wall. Arieh Levy, a professional welder, made this project possible. I drafted the letters--large versions of the ones I designed earlier for the clock in the back of the sanctuary, cut out of brass by Irv Baker who also (I think) made the wooden box for them. The cardboard templates were adapted from some printed Israeli font, deformed a bit so that the "Waw" and the final "Nun" looked like shofars, and the "Shin" resembled a menorah. The templates, cut from old Goddard posters, were presented to the congregation in 2010; smaller versions were featured on T-shirts which the congregation sold for a couple of years.

    Arieh cut the letters out of boilerplate, and welded to them thick pins (from rebars, it seemed), then I took them home to our porch and with Ilana's help (there exists a photo or two) coated them all with a thick layer of zinc chromate primer, bought at an automotive supply store. Over that came black enamel, and 30-odd years later, they still hold up with no rust.

    The project was never discussed before the board. Arieh and I met at the entrance to the synagogue, and standing on stepladders, we--but mainly Arieh--drilled holes in the light-colored brick (which fortunately was quite soft--while the red bricks in the back, by the garbage cans, were almost undrillable, even with carbide tips). I had epoxy putty from Sears, which included a caution that it should never be handled by bare hands. Arieh just pooh-poohed and embedded the pins with bare fingers; as far as I remember, he never had any problems, and the letters still stand firm.


Then Rabbi Berger arrived, Dr. Forster took over as president, and while as ex-president I continued many of the activities, the level gradually declined--and the summer membership drive, so successful, was never repeated. So be it. Around 2000--after many reminders by Audrey that whatever I did was rarely reciprocated--I let my membership drop.

    Before leaving the presidency, I typed a long report to Dr. Forster (Mishkan-2-158 to 164, p. 345-351) as well as a farewell to the congregation, thanking many people (HaKol (1-10)--004.pdf). But the incoming president's message in the following issue HaKol (1-11, June-74)-003.pdf) contained no word of thanks, and I remember none afterwards from any of the leaders.

    Rabbi Berger served several years, then took a pulpit in Tampa, Florida, a congregation with about 600 members. On July 19, 1989 he found himself aboard an ill-fated DC-10 airliner above Iowa. A fan rotor in a jet engine broke apart and cut the hydraulic controls, but by using the throttles to turn the plane, the pilot tried desperately to steer it and land in Sioux City. He almost succeeded, but at the last moment the plane stumbled, cartwheeled, broke apart and caught fire. Out of 297 aboard, 184 survived, but Kenny and Aviva Berger were not among them.

    As for my self doubts--many remain, but I also found new confidence. I had taken up a leadership job no one wanted and acquitted myself honorably. Interestingly, it was also a turning point in my science career--despite all the time devoted to the congregation, out of that year came articles on the Backus effect, on proton motion, on magnetic fields and more.

    Most important, perhaps, I started keeping regular notes. The "Greenbelt Cares" notes may have been a start, and the constant typing of minutes and plans for the synagogue may have delayed regular note-taking, but they were also their impetus. Starting in 1974, and more regularly in 1975, I kept regular typed notes, numbered and dated, now (2010) past page 11,700.

    I have read back issues of the newsletters from those days. In truth, I have long outgrown small-synagogue Judaism. The articles in later issues, the mutual thanks and congratulations, the small-scale activities, none now seem to be particularly inspiring any more. I guess that was a stage one goes through, before discovering the greater world and wider horizons. Yes, I still wish American Jews were in the lead of helping make this world fair, inspiring, literate, caring, with citizens mutually helping each other. But Jewish culture has slipped, and Mishkan Torah--located in an area not known for scholarship--has gradually turned somewhat mediocre. It would have been beyond my weak powers to change the process, even if I stayed a member, as I realized towards the end of my membership.

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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 3 May 2010