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?
- 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.