Unconditional Love and our Temple

Sermon delivered April 16, 2010, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


My grandfather, Shelton Block, was born into Congregation Beth Israel in Houston in 1908. My grandmother – Sabina Loewenberg Block, or Yaya, as I called her – joined Beth Israel as his bride in 1935. March 30, would have been their seventy-fifth wedding anniversary and consequently more or less the seventy-fifth anniversary of their joining Beth Israel as adults.

Much to my grandmother’s dismay, though, their membership was interrupted. In 1943, a schism rocked Houston Reform Jewry. Some of you here may remember it. Beth Israel adopted “Basic Principles,” as they called them, declaring that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality. These “Principles” rejected Zionism altogether.

In retrospect, repudiating the hope for a Jewish Homeland should have been unthinkable in the midst of the Holocaust. Times were different then, and a majority of Beth Israel’s members felt that the Jewish people would be more secure in Houston, and in America, if they did not support a Jewish State. They feared that their non-Jewish neighbors would turn to them and say, “Now you have your own country; go and live there.” Anti-Semitism was still very much in fashion in this country in those days.

Nevertheless, about a third of the Beth Israel membership opposed the “Basic Principles.” Some of them felt so strongly that they left the congregation. They founded a new synagogue, Congregation Emanu El. As their Rabbi, they called Rabbi Robert I. Kahn, who had served Beth Israel as Assistant Rabbi, but had been passed over for the top spot because of his Zionist tendencies. Some who left Beth Israel joined Emanu El because their Zionism. Others switched synagogues out of loyalty to Rabbi Kahn.

My paternal great-grandfather, Max Block, was an ardent supporter of Rabbi Kahn. Clara and Max Block promptly resigned from Beth Israel and were founding members of Emanu El. Their son and daughter-in-law, my paternal grandparents, reluctantly followed suit.

As a result, my father received his early Jewish education at Emanu El. My grandmother, though, always saw herself as a Beth Israel member. She was eager to return to her Houston synagogue home. My grandmother had a problem, though. My dad’s Bar Mitzvah was approaching. Max Block had died, but it was too much to ask Clara Block to attend her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah at Beth Israel. Consequently, my father celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Emanu El. The very next day, a Sunday, he attended Religious School at Beth Israel.

What drew my grandmother back to Beth Israel? Had anti-Zionist ideology ever attracted her, the issue was moot by the time she rejoined. Israel was established in 1948, two years before my father’s Bar Mitzvah. The previously anti-Zionist Rabbi Schachtel urged his congregants to accept and support the Jewish State in the wake of the Holocaust. Beth Israel leaders went from writing the anti-Zionist “Basic Principles” to standing next to Golda Meir when she came to Houston to raise funds for the fledgling Israeli military.

Perhaps my grandmother wanted to go back to Beth Israel because her friends were there. But she had plenty of friends at Emanu El, as she would to the end of her life. Indeed, she ultimately lived in the same retirement building with Rabbi and Mrs. Kahn, and she deeply valued Rabbi Kahn’s friendship.

Yaya and I spoke of the matter from time to time, but I never got a clear answer as to why she had been so eager to return to Beth Israel. The answer, instead, has come from spending the last eighteen years here with you, at Temple Beth-El. I have come to realize that my grandmother went back to Beth Israel simply because it was her Temple. Whether she liked the “Basic Principles” or not, whether she preferred one Rabbi or the other, Sabina Block belonged at Beth Israel; so she chose to belong to that congregation once again, and then to the end of her days.

But I said you had given me the answer, not my grandmother. I speak of you who are loyal members of Temple Beth-El, now for a half century or more. For some of you, counting from the day you became an adult member seems artificial: You have been members of Temple Beth-El from the hour of your birth. For others, equally loyal, this Sanctuary has been your synagogue home from the time you married, or from the year you moved to San Antonio. After fifty years or more, all of you are natives.

A cynic might say that tonight we honor you merely for endurance. That’s unfair, even false. On the other hand, you have endured a great deal.

You celebrate the legacy of Rabbi Jacobson, as do I. Among his legion accomplishments was the role he played in the desegregation of San Antonio. That movement was peaceful, thanks to Rabbi Jacobson and his clergy colleagues. On the other hand, the desegregation of San Antonio was not always quiet. Rabbi Jacobson’s role was not uniformly appreciated by members of the congregation. Some lay leaders counseled him to be silent on the issue. Some feared that he might divide the congregation.

Not long ago, a past President who served with Rabbi Jacobson told me that, from time to time, he would ask Rabbi Jacobson if a forthright stand could be avoided on this issue or that. For this particular past President, desegregation wasn’t the issue; but Rabbi Jacobson was resolute on numerous matters of social justice. The President feared that Rabbi Jacobson’s bold articulation of his views, however courtly, might divide the congregation. Rabbi Jacobson’s counsel, though was wise. He responded: “The congregation is strong.” Rabbi Jacobson carried on; the congregation remained united as it grew.

You celebrate the legacy of Rabbi Stahl, as do I. Among the plethora of advances Rabbi Stahl brought to our Temple during his 26 years as Senior Rabbi, I am struck by the seriousness of his purpose. In an age when Reform Rabbis were dropping standards right and left, Rabbi Stahl has held firmly to principle. Today, the benefits are clear: A Bar or Bat Mitzvah at Temple Beth-El is not a pale show. Instead, our young people demonstrate mastery of Torah and skill with Hebrew. At rates unknown in other synagogues, our teens continue in our Religious School through Confirmation.

I know, because I was here for ten of those 26 years, that Rabbi Stahl’s resolve was no more popular than Rabbi Jacobson’s forthrightness in his own day. Don’t get me wrong; many of you cheered Rabbi Stahl’s standards. Others did not. Rabbis do not cherish saying “no” to their beloved congregants and dear friends. And dues-paying members may expect to get their way. Be that as it may, throughout the years of Rabbi Stahl’s leadership, our Temple grew by every standard one can measure. Membership soared. Programs and services multiplied, for the good of our members and our entire community. We rededicated this Wulfe Sanctuary, enlarging and beautifying our historic facility for the glory of God.

Our congregation has not merely avoided division and dissolution. Temple Beth-El has not merely survived. You who we honor tonight have not merely endured your half century or more of membership. Instead, Temple Beth-El has thrived as a unified beacon of Reform Judaism, shedding God’s light upon an ever darker world, into the 21st Century.

Just as I asked my grandmother why she returned to Beth Israel, I could ask you: This holy congregation, with all the disagreements, with all the changes: Why has this Temple succeeded so brilliantly?

I stand before you tonight to affirm that we know the answer. I see it radiating in the countenance of each long-time member we honor tonight.

Like partners in a long-term marriage, you and your Rabbis have sacrificed for one another and you have compromised with one another. Even more, you have loved one another, when you agreed and when you did not.

Even God and the Children of Israel have been through difficult times. The Israelites often rebelled. God and the people were exiled from one another for many years. And yet, God says to the people in the words of Isaiah: “For a little while I forsook you, but with vast love I bring you back.”

No doubt, in a half century or more, each of you has felt distanced, at least once or twice. Whether it was an unwelcome new prayerbook or your dues were raised, if you’re like most people, for a brief moment at least, you became unenthusiastic about your Temple. And yet, in great love, with God as your shining example, you have taken your Temple back. You have said, “Beth-El is my Temple. And I belong at Temple Beth-El.” You have lived this love, each of you and Temple Beth-El, for a half-century and more. May we and our Temple enjoy fulfilling and unconditional love, for a lifetime and beyond.

Amen.

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