Above: Rabbi Tom Liebschutz and one of his final b’nai mitzvah students, Morgan Kohler, stand in front of the ark at Congregation Ner Tamid. Morgan will celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah Aug. 20.
Tom Liebschutz has been a rabbi for 51 years and says he could easily continue even as he approaches 80 years old, but the time was right for him to step down June 30.
He leaves a strong and growing Congregation Ner Tamid in West Cobb, which was a fledgling synagogue when he became its spiritual leader in 2009.
Although he had a year left on his contract, Rabbi Liebschutz and his wife, Marilyn, chose to retire now while they are in good health. After presiding over two b’nai mitzvah ceremonies this summer, his time at the Reform congregation will be complete.
“You get to be my age, and you want to go out with grace,” the rabbi said. “In the last book of Deuteronomy, it says Moses retires at the age of 120, his eye not dimmed and his strength unabated. I want to go out in that sense too.”
Rabbi Liebschutz’s career includes eight years as community rabbi/chaplain for the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, 10 years at Temple Tifereth Israel in Malden, Mass., and volunteer work at Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell. He taught Jewish studies at Tufts University, Wake Forest University, Salem College and Wichita State University.
In 2006 he came out of his first retirement to assist Ner Tamid with High Holiday services. At that time, the congregation met at Christ Lutheran Church in Marietta. Since then, Ner Tamid has secured its own location in an office park down the street from Kennesaw Mountain and has grown to around 60 member families.
In May 2015, to commemorate Rabbi Liebschutz’s 50th year in the rabbinate, Ner Tamid hosted a celebration and extended his contract for two years.
“He provided spiritual guidance for our congregation when we were just getting started,” said Matt Berenson, Ner Tamid’s former president. “The rabbi presided over the bat mitzvah of not only my daughter, but also my wife as part of our first adult b’nai mitzvah class. We hate to see him retire, but I think he was ready. I’ve had a fantastic relationship with him, and I’m looking forward to seeing where we go next.”
Under Rabbi Liebschutz, Ner Tamid has had 15 adults who became b’nai mitzvah, five conversions and three confirmation classes, and the congregation started a book club.
In a few months the congregation will celebrate the second anniversary of its home.
“The congregation has enabled me to have a resurgence after I retired from the rabbinate after 40 years,” the rabbi said. “You turn the Torah, and you keep on turning it, so it’s been a tree of life for me.”
The Liebschutzes have four grown children, Philip, Ruth, Joshua and Rachel. The couple moved to Atlanta to be closer to Ruth and grandchildren Ben, Jake and Sam, who live in East Cobb.
Rabbi Liebschutz, who is also a member of Congregation Etz Chaim and lives in East Cobb, said he will remain here to be close to family but also will spend more time in Florida, where he and Marilyn have owned a condo since 1988.
Still, the decision to retire for the second time wasn’t easy for the rabbi, who has forged a strong connection with his congregation the past seven years.
“My favorite memory of Ner Tamid has to be from a few years ago at the end of a religious school day,” he said. “The parents had started to gather in the main room, and I was talking to the entire class when a young student stood up, gave me a hug, and she said, ‘We want you to know, rabbi, that we are all your family. We are all your grandchildren.’
“It was a wow moment for me in front of about 50 parents and religious school students.”
Ner Tamid is searching for a rabbi to lead the congregation. Candidates who have led services recently include Rabbi Lauren Cohn, formerly the director of lifelong learning at Congregation Dor Tamid, and Rabbi Joseph Prass, the Holocaust educator at the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.
Rabbi Liebschutz said the West Cobb synagogue is on firm footing. Last year it added five families to the religious school, and he said he hopes that it continues to grow.
“We are truly a growing synagogue,” Berenson said. “Other than Chabad, we are the only synagogue in our area. For people in Paulding, Douglas and Cherokee counties, we’re the only synagogue in reach.”
Photos by David R. Cohen