Traditionally, a festschrift is a collection of essays paying tribute to a scholar. A new volume, Learn. Pray. Do Justly. Temple Emanu-El and the American Jewish Experience, launched on June 1, is that — and more.
Started 10 years ago, the leadership of the Reform congregation in Westfield intended it to be a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the ordination in 1960 of Rabbi Emeritus Charles Kroloff, who served as its senior rabbi from 1966 to his retirement in 2002.
Given that an earlier book had recorded the temple’s first 30 years since its founding in 1950, it was also expected to cover the subsequent decades.
But the vision expanded. Now a few years past any neat calendar milestones, the book was redesigned to embrace larger themes of relevance not just to the congregation but to its surrounding community, the Reform movement, and other Jewish congregations facing the same contemporary challenges.
With essays from Kroloff, current leader Rabbi Doug Sagal, Cantor Martha Novick, congregational lay leaders, and other rabbis, the book deals with the enormous changes of the past few decades and the challenge of sustaining membership. Topics include devotional music and prayers, the role of rabbis, social responsibility, intermarriage, outreach, education, and the relationship with Israel.
Kroloff describes the final product as a “small miracle. It’s not comprehensive, but it conveys the ideals and the vitality that have transformed thousands of lives.”
Diana Cohen, who cochaired the process together with her husband Harold, said, “Everything that could go wrong went wrong.” Coordinating the writing, editing, funding, and publishing became so complicated, the idea was shelved for awhile — until they found their editor, former congregation member Susan Youdovin, who recently retired after a career in public relations.
Cohen and Kroloff insist it was Youdovin who honed the total concept and polished the final product. “She made it happen,” Cohen said.
Youdovin plays down her own role. She said there was a good team in place, including Barbara Koppel, who assisted in the editing, and Nina Ovryn, who served as designer, and some great contributors.
The launch party included a panel of contributors, and was intended as a light-hearted reflection on the book and the congregation. Sagal, an avid amateur boxer, announced the participants’ names ring-style. The heavyweights included congregation member Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbis Mary Zamore and Arnie Gluck, both of whom used to work at the temple; Rabbis Joel Soffin and Lennard Thal; and congregants Helaine Gersten and Steve Barcan.
Yoffie recalled a visit to the temple in 1989 by a delegation of five Knesset members. Four pronounced themselves very impressed by the Reform service they saw there; the fifth, Reuven Rivlin, said in a newspaper article that it was just like a church. Yoffie said, to laughter and applause, that “Ruby” Rivlin — who is on the short list to succeed Shimon Peres as Israel’s next president — is still opposed to religious pluralism, and should be invited back for “another look.”
He applauded Temple Emanu-El’s willingness to adapt and evolve, while upholding high standards. “Timid congregations are weak congregations,” he said.
Gersten, who grew up in an Orthodox home, said she “feared God more than I loved God.” At Temple Emanu-El, she said, she learned to experience Judaism with “love and freedom.”
The first printing of Learn. Pray. Do Justly is 2,000 copies; 1,100 of those are being given to members of the congregation. As new members join, they will receive it, too, and Sagal said he expects congregants will also buy copies (at $10 each) for their children who grew up at the temple and still hold it dear. They are also hoping that people outside the congregation will also find it of interest.
To purchase a copy of the book, contact Carolyn Shane at firstname.lastname@example.org or 908-232-6770, ext. 114.