What was the highlight of your time at SAMS?
It is difficult to single out one highlight as there were so many. My answer would be that one among many was the five classes I taught.
Each one dealt with difficult questions and what made each gathering so special were the questions that the students posed. They were profound and thoughtful and generated a good deal of participation from those in attendance. I found myself hearing and trying to answer queries I had never heard or thought of on these subjects. Clearly, SAMS is blessed with insightful and highly educated members. I hope they learned as much as I did at each session.
How did you find the experience of leading a much smaller congregation that you were used to in Chicago?
Judy and I loved the intimacy of a smaller community. I believe at some point I said to the congregation that there is something to be said for standing up on the High Holidays in front of 200 people rather than 2,000. Even on Simchat Torah night, there was that same feeling of intimacy. Having been with you for six weeks, we came to feel a personal connection to each person we met at services and other programs. Our congregation in Illinois is also warm and friendly, but SAMS’ intimacy was so delightful, a quality which I hope can be preserved even as you grow larger.
What impressed you most about SAMS?
While I know that for many years you did not have a full-time rabbi and had to rely on yourselves for everything, that fact that you are still, even after many years with a successful rabbi, so empowered is impressive. The members do it all from leading the dahvening, to reading Torah and Haftarah, to announcing everything during the service, to clearing the room to set out the Kiddush, to providing security (which I know is customary in the UK) and so much more. I had to do what I love to do most- teach and deliver sermons.
I was impressed to watch one of you speaking to a relatively new member and encouraging him to polish the skills that he already has in order to become a leader of the dahvening. This means that SAMS continues to empower others for the future by reaching out in a personal way.
How did you enjoy getting involved with the B’nai Mitzvah process with Emma and Benjamin?
The best part of the process was getting to know each family on a personal level by being in their homes and meeting the entire family, including household pets. We were also in each case served delicious dinners. I don’t know if this has always been the custom at SAMS, but keep it going. That interaction creates a relationship and comfort level between the rabbi (and in each case with Judy as well) which made the service much more special and personal. I wish I could have done this at Congregation Beth Shalom.
We also learned that one of the Chairs of the congregation also meets personally with each B’nai Mitzvah family and took pains as well to make sure that he/she and I did not say the same things to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah at the service.
The personal touch is what makes and keeps a community a community.
What was the most unusual thing SAMS does?
I would say with big smiles on both Judy’s and my faces, that the answer is Sunflowers. We attended one of the sessions and were awed by the number of families and the energy with which they filled the room. This was followed by a very special session of song and movement in a separate room for the youngest among them, with a uniquely talented member of the congregation leading. It goes a long way in making the entire community aware of what a special place SAMS is. What is most unusual and wonderful is that it is open to the entire community. It is multi-faith and multi-cultural, etc. which lets the larger community of St. Albans know what a synagogue means and who the Jewish community is!
I know you asked for the most unusual but in this context I would also have to mention the Sunday Morning group sing-a-long we attended on our last Sunday with SAMS. There were some 20 people there with a wonderful professional song leader. Judy and I are still singing the tunes at home but we certainly miss the accompaniment of all the other participants.
What would you say to a rabbi thinking of joining SAMS?
Before I would tell the rabbi why, I would say “Just go. You will be happy you did!” SAMS is a community which embodies the meaning of growth, not just in numbers but also in soul and spirit in all of the ways a synagogue community can provide that growth. Members are anxious to learn and the rabbi will enjoy teaching them. The Cheder is filled with delightful children and the rabbi will kvell from interacting with them. The leadership is truly committed to the future of SAMS. They know how to welcome a new rabbi and make the rabbi feel at home as they did for Judy and me, and certainly did for Rabbi Rafi over many years. St. Albans is a wonderful place to live, to raise children and to be close to Jewish schools and the growing Masorti community. And it goes without saying but I will say it anyway. London is only a short train ride away. At the end of the day it is the people at SAMS who made it for us a “second home.”
What do you miss most about SAMS?
I will have to be a bit redundant in answering this question and I know in this answer I speak for both Judy and me. It is the people we met who befriended us with such warmth and affection that when we left we felt like part of the family and SAMS is truly a family. Your commitment to each other and to the synagogue as a community is impressive. We miss all of you and so look forward to our next visit.
What advice would you give SAMS?
I could answer that question by simply saying that you should just keep doing what you have been doing for the 26 years since you began. Making people and relationships the priority has made you strong and will keep you vital and help you grow. If any prospective member or rabbi expresses any doubt about becoming part of the SAMS community, just give them my e-mail address and phone number. Judy and I will be more than happy to dispel any doubt they might have and remind them that SAMS is truly “a home for Jewish Herts.”