A young Rabbi Shalom Lewis headed South in 1978 to construct a burgeoning “buildingless” synagogue with a handful of families in remote Cobb County. What Lewis had was generations of rabbinical tradition, a grasp of history, a way of analyzing the old and new, the courage to call out what he saw, a thick skin and a sense of humor. What he got in return was the 600 families of Congregation Etz Chaim who made him “family” as he ushered them through life cycles.
Longstanding congregant Linda Weinroth reminisces, “When Etz Chaim was first formed, we only had lay leadership serving as rabbis and cantors. The Jewish Theological Seminary arranged for rabbinic interns to spend one or two weekends a month at affiliated synagogues.
“Rabbi Lewis filled that role during 1977 to 78, so we really got to know him. He spent Shabbat in the homes of different congregants. Before he was hired, we were able to watch him interact with families, including children, which was so important. He kept our students interested and engaged. His messages from the bimah were eloquently delivered. As educational director, I had the opportunity to work alongside him for 30 years before retiring, as our friendship continues.”
In December Lewis turned 70 and he concurrently transitions into the “catbird” seat as rabbi emeritus.
Join him in a retrospective of his four decades here and a look at what lies ahead.
Jaffe: What’s life now like for you?
Lewis: My days are very full. I have an idea for several books with the stories and theology I have accumulated over the years. Maybe an autobiography for family is in there too.
I have two grandchildren and one on the way — all in Atlanta. We love to travel, … recently Portugal, Spain, London, a cruise on the St. Lawrence [river in Quebec]. I’m Looking forward to Passover in Jerusalem with family. Think about not having to “kasher” a house for the eight days!
I still have my poker game rain or shine Thursday nights. No one goes broke from our betting, but we’ve had a core group for over 35 years. I can let my hair down and be one of the guys.
Jaffe: How does turning 70 impact you?
Lewis: Well, I must say it is a shock! Not long ago, I didn’t want to hang out with the “bubbe and zayde” crowd, and now I am one. The truth is I find myself in a wonderful place with a smile on my face every day. Now looking toward 80, … that’s sobering.
Jaffe: A while back Atlanta magazine chose you as “Atlanta’s Best Pulpit Rabbi.” Was that an ego boost?
Lewis: “If you receive a compliment, don’t inhale.”
Jaffe: You come from a long line of rabbis. Your father Albert was the subject of a book and movie by Mitch Albom, “Have a Little Faith.” What if you had wanted to be a dentist?
Lewis: When I was initially studying to be a history teacher, my father did not steer me in any direction. He said, “Just do an honest job whatever it is.” In my 20s I had an epiphany of what I wanted out of life. Becoming Etz Chaim’s rabbi was one of my life’s best decisions.
My father served as rabbi for 60 years in the same congregation in N.J. I’ve got a few years to go, but it would be powerfully moving to have two rabbis, a father and a son, serve only two congregations for a combined 120 years.
Jaffe: You’ve had some very “colorful” sermons that went viral.
Lewis: I would list them like this:
“Israel – With a Tip of the Kippah to Pogo” – “We have met the enemy, and it is us,” meaning the possibility of ultra-Orthodox political ascendancy with complicit politicians, I believe, is ultimately a greater threat to Israel’s security and vitality than the external threat of Israel’s hostile neighbors. Which “Israel” will prevail — Tel Aviv or Jerusalem — will determine the destiny of our homeland and of our people.
“Charlottsville is the Price of Freedom” – Sermon where I saw the threat to American freedom, to Israel and the rise of anti-Semitism as coming from the hard-progressive left more so than from the hard right.
“Ehr Kumpt – They’re coming” – A reference to a warning by Jabotinsky to European Jewry that “Hitler is coming.” I compared the Islamist terrorists today threatening Western values to the Nazi threat years ago, with a similar evil agenda. Many today do not see the danger, nor the parallel, and that is disturbing.
The follow up was “Ehr Daw: They’re here” in America, no longer overseas. This sermon raised the issue for some, “Should the bimah be used for political sermons?” My response was “What did the rabbis in Germany and Europe preach in the 1930s? Kashruth, Shabbos, mikveh, or Hitler?”
I have been blessed with a great congregation that has given me freedom of the pulpit, and though there have been disagreements, after the dust of respectful controversy settles, we are all able to move forward.
Jaffe: Why Conservative Judaism?
Lewis: I think it’s the most challenging and authentic of the Jewish streams, difficult like walking a tightrope seeking a balance between tradition and change. Today many are looking for an easy way to express their Judaism, avoiding the tight rope. On the liberal side, you can do whatever you want. On the fundamentalist side, there are prescriptions on what to do and what not to do. On the left and on the right, I don’t believe that there is as much wrestling with G-d as there is in the center.
Conservative Judaism’s theology and practice, I am personally convinced, is in the spirit historically of Moses, Akibah, Maimonides and beyond. One has to struggle to figure things out. That makes for stronger, more committed Jews.
Jaffe: How do you want to be remembered?
Lewis: Etz Chaim now has 600-plus families. I want to feel that I improved the lives of congregants by shepherding them through life’s tears and laughter. There is so much power in the special bonds created between a rabbi and a congregation that over time we become family. Having served Etz Chaim for over 40 years, we have grown up together, sharing life and life cycles. It doesn’t get any better than officiating at three and four generations of family simchas.
Rabbi Dorsch has been here three years, and we have not had one moment of friction. He understands my relationships, and I understand that he is our future. He is indeed a colleague, a friend and a mensch!
Lewis: Embrace hope and optimism, humor and the divine spirit.
If one doesn’t have a sense of humor on the pulpit, it could be big trouble.
Don’t fear getting older; we are as young as our dreams!
Etz Chaim will host a gala in May as Rabbi Lewis officially becomes “emeritus,” followed in June by a daytime event.