Archive for May, 2009

Top Ten Ways to be a Great Rabbi

Monday, May 11th, 2009

 This past Shabbat, I had the honor of witnessing the “Second Bar Mitzvah” of Rabbi Bernard Lipnick, rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis. For seven years during my college and postgraduate work at Washington University in St. Louis, I was on the staff of the congregation as a teacher.

The celebration of the 83rd birthday as a “Second Bar Mitzvah” derives from a passage in the Book of Psalms in which King David proclaims the average person’s lifespan is 70 years. Those fortunate to live past that age are thought to start life anew, so thirteen years later, the time is ripe for another bar mitzvah.

Rabbi Lipnick has been associated with B’nai Amoona for 58 years, beginning as a youth educator in 1951, later becoming senior rabbi. He retired in 1991, embarking on an extraordinary “second act” that has included, among many other activities, traveling North America in a motor home, becoming a carpenter and woodworker, and serving as the “chief rabbi” on six around-the-world cruises and many shorter voyages. He is the author of An Experiment that Works in Teenage Religious Education and is currently working on a book of his sermons and articles. 

Rabbi Lipnick and his wife Harriet are beloved leaders in the St. Louis community…and dear friends to me and my wife Susie. A dozen rabbis, a Roman Catholic priest, and faculty from Washington University where he earned his Ph.D. in education in 1972, along with 600 congregants, family and guests crammed the B’nai Amoona sanctuary on Saturday morning, May 9, 2009 for the big event. When current senior Rabbi Carnie Rose asked me to introduce the Torah portion for the day, Emor, I took the opportunity to reflect on the “Top Ten Ways to Be a Great Rabbi.” Many in attendance asked for a copy of my list, and although it refers specifically to Rabbi Lipnick’s distinguished career, it is a list that may prove interesting to current and future spiritual leaders:

The first time I heard Rabbi Bernard Lipnick give a talk was at the United Synagogue Youth Regional Kinnus at the St. Louis Chase Park Plaza Hotel, Thanksgiving weekend, 1963. I had come with a group from the Omaha chapter…it was my first convention. I remember two things about the talk – he was inspiring…and he had the best “rabbi voice” I had ever heard! Four years later, I was the EMTZA Regional President…and I came to visit Congregation B’nai Amoona and spent some time with Rabbi Lipnick…and when I decided to attend Washington University, I was thrilled to make this great congregation my spiritual home.

On the third day of Sukkot, 1968, the phone rang in my apartment in the Hillel House on Forsyth where I was the student caretaker…a phone call that changed my life. I recognized that deep baritone voice immediately:

“Ron, this is Bernard Lipnick calling. We have a sudden vacancy on our staff here at B’nai Amoona and we need someone to teach the Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids. Would you like a job?”

Now, I was an 18 year old sophomore, taking a full load of classes…and although I had never taught a single class in my life, as most of you know, when Rabbi Lipnick asks you to do something, it’s impossible to say “no.”

I thought about it a minute and then said: “Well, I just taught my brother Doug to layn Torah for his Bar Mitzvah, so I guess I could do it.”

“Wonderful!,” the booming voice replied. “you can start this afternoon. Be here at 3 o’clock.”

I was so excited and honored to teach for Rabbi Lipnick, I failed to ask two important questions:

Was there a salary?

Sort of….
How many kids were in line to become Bar and Bat Mitzvah?
Beginning with Bereisheet!
I loved every minute of that experience…and since then, I’ve always had a warm spot in my heart for the Bar Mitzvah boys at B’nai Amoona!
Especially for our Bar Mitzvah boy this morning…
Because since that day, Rabbi Lipnick has been the most important mentor, advisor, and role model in my life.
And this is what our parasha Emor is all about…
It details how the kohanim – the priests – were to live their lives as role models for the people Israel…
As Rabbi David Lieber points out in Etz Hayim, the alternative name for this sedra is “Torat Kohanim,” the Priests’ Manual.”
There are instructions concerning who the priests can marry, when they can go to funerals, even how to shave. And, then, the priests are told how to lead the lay people and teach them about the calendar of sacred time – Shabbat and the holidays.
Today’s rabbis don’t have such a manual.
There is no published guide with the title “How to Be a Rabbi”…
But, I know one who “wrote the book” on how to be a rabbi…a great rabbi…and his name is Bernard Lipnick.
One of my great joys as a professor at the American Jewish University is teaching the senior rabbinical students in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. And they ask me…what do we need to know to be a great rabbi?
And I give them my Top Ten list from Rabbi Lipnick’s “book:” I like David Letterman so here is my list, beginning with Number 10:
  • Number 10: Know your stuff. Be a student of Jewish texts, of Jewish history, of Jewish peoplehood.
  • Number 9. Be a teacher. Open up the vast sea of Jewish tradition and knowledge for your students – young and adult.
  • Number 8. Craft your sermons to inspire your people. Say something on Shabbes and Yom Tov that people can use in their lives every day.
  • Number 7. Create a synagogue – a kehillah kedoshah – a sacred community of meaning and purpose. Build a “congregation of priests,” of people who see themselves as God’s partners on earth.
  • Number 6. Stand for social justice. Do not be afraid to speak out against injustice – of any kind.
  • Number 5. Love the State of Israel. Take your people there. Show them the vitality of the Jewish homeland.
  • Number 4. Love your family, especially your devoted partner in building sacred community – the amazing Harriet Lipnick.
  • Number 3. When you first retire, move to a mountaintop and build yourself a house! Show it off proudly to your visitors…in excruciating detail…down to every nail that you yourself hammered into the structure.
  • Number 2. Never retire….be there for those who need you.
  • And, the Number One thing you can do to be a great rabbi is cherish the relationships you create with your congregants and your colleagues.
You know the famous saying: “Aseh l’cha rav,u’ kneh l’cha chaver” – find yourself a rabbi and make yourself a friend” ….Is there a better summary of the rabbinate of
Bernie Lipnick?
In a few moments, our Bar Mitzvah boy will be reading from the Torah.
As the former Bar Mitzvah teacher at B’nai Amoona, I will be listening carefully for how well he says the b’rachot, how well he chants the trope. Ma pach, pashta….
I’ll bet he does pretty good….even though I was not his tutor.
No, he has been my tutor. Every major decision I’ve taken in my life – both personally and professionally – has been influenced by my teacher, my rabbi, my friend….
And for that, I will be eternally grateful.
Our Bar Mitzvah boy knows his Hebrew name. And we know it, too.
It’s Baruch…as in “Baruch” Obama…
Seriously – that’s what Barak means: “blessing…”
And that’s what Baruch means: “blessing….”
Our Bar Mitzvah on this Parashat Emor is HaRav Baruch ben Tanchum v’ Tovah
How appropriate!
For you, Rabbi Lipnick, are indeed a blessing to us all. Ad hundred and tzvanzig….may you continue to inspire us, to lead us, to teach us…til 120!
Mazal tov!


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