By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
For those of you who attended my installation here at Shearith Israel back in December of 2017, you might recall that I was installed by Rabbi Murray Ezring from Temple Israel in Charlotte, NC. Murray is my rabbinic mentor, the Senior Rabbi I worked with at the beginning of my rabbinic career, and a dear friend and trusted advisor and confidant throughout the years since. This past weekend I was privileged to return the favor and celebrate with Murray and his wife Barbara and their kids and grandkids in Charlotte as he retired from Temple Israel after 25 years of service. I was honored to be able to offer him a charge during Shabbat morning services, and I wanted to share with all of you what I shared with Rabbi Ezring and the assembled congregation, reflecting on his impact on my life and rabbinate and on his entire congregation.
It’s a real treat to be with all of you today back in this beautiful sanctuary and on this bimah that was the first pulpit I ascended when I was a “baby rabbi”. Moreover, it’s a special privilege to be able to stand before you and before Rabi Mori, my rabbi and teacher, my mentor and dear friend Rabbi Murray Ezring, to honor him on this milestone weekend celebrating his retirement after 25 years of faithful and dedicated service to Temple Israel.
Where to begin? How about we start with 5 things I learned from Rabbi Ezring in those first 5 years of my rabbinate:
1) When you write a sermon, first come up with the message you want to give and then look for the text that will reinforce that message. People want to hear about real life and want to hear Torah that is relatable and impacts the way they think and the choices they make.
2) Never be afraid to experiment when it comes to synagogue services, programming, or initiatives. Rabbi Ezring used to say he was always willing to try something once, and I have followed that advice in my own rabbinate.
3) Be accessible as a rabbi and a human being and always go out of your way to be there for, and with, people. Rabbis should not be distant from their community. The way we celebrate with a family at their simcha or are fully present for them when they are in crisis or after a loss is vital to building relationships and being the pastor congregants need us—and deserve for us—to be.
4) When clergy colleagues earn your trust, partner with them and work together to create an effective clergy team. Empower each other and encourage each other to do what each of you does best and the congregation as a whole will benefit. Among other things, this is partly why Murray gave me flexible time on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings when I worked here so that I could play in the JCC basketball and softball leagues and build important relationships that way.
5) Seek out partnerships in the interfaith community and cultivate them, and not just for the sake of educating each other and our congregations about different religious traditions. We live in a world that is much larger than the walls of any one synagogue, church or mosque, and we need to work together to make that world better. The faith community can play a vital role in that effort. The relationship Rabbi Ezring has with Dr. James Howell at Myers Park United Methodist Church and so many other local clergy has been a model for me to follow in the congregations I have served since I left here.
When I sat down in a room at JTS with Rabbi Ezring and David Miller back in the spring of 2002, I was already a finalist for several associate rabbi positions and the three of us had a frank discussion about whether Jen and I could see me taking the job and us moving to Charlotte. I told them, of course we could see it happening, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it and considering an interview weekend. But it’s important that you all know what the single biggest reason was that I chose to take this job at Temple Israel back in 2002. That reason was Rabbi Murray Ezring. Having met with several different senior rabbis that were looking for associates, and then having spent time talking with Murray that night in NY and then here during my interview weekend, I quickly became convinced that Murray would welcome me as a trusted partner and provide me the opportunity to learn and grow, and succeed and fail, as a “baby rabbi”. I knew he would be the right mentor for me. And I am so incredibly grateful for the choice I made, and for the relationship and friendship that developed between us in those 4.5 years and continued to thrive in the 13 years since. Murray and Barbara and their kids and grandkids came to Maryland to celebrate Jonah’s BM with us back in 2016, our families vacationed together in Orlando for Pesach one year, Murray and Barbara came to Dallas in December of 2017 to install me as Senior Rabbi at Shearith Israel, and they also came to visit us this January for several days. That’s not to mention the time I flew down to Charlotte to take Murray and his family out to dinner to make good on a bet after the Yankees beat the Orioles in the 2012 ALDS. Moreover, Murray and I still talk frequently and if I’m ever in a pinch and need Rabbinic advice, I’ll always pick up the phone and call him.
Being a congregational Rabbi is an incredibly demanding job, one that never really stops or yields even late at night or when on vacation. It can be exhausting and there are days when it can feel burdensome for a rabbi and his or her whole family who pay the price for the rabbi needing to be available sometimes on a moment’s notice to help with a crisis. In today’s parasha, Bechukotai, we find a juxtaposition of 11 verses of blessings God will provide us if we do what we’re supposed to do, followed by 32 verses of curses in case we choose not to follow the plan. At first glance one might think the curses—the burdens—of a pulpit rabbinate might outweigh the blessings, which at times could appear to be fewer in number. But at the end of the day the blessings that we experience as rabbis when we become an important part of your lives are so much deeper, richer and more powerful than those burdens or curses. And likewise it is a tremendous blessing for a congregation to be in relationship with their rabbi for such a long time, reflecting the importance of mutual care for each other as human beings. Temple Israel is so fortunate to have experienced Rabbi Ezring’s leadership, wisdom, wit, and warmth, over this last quarter century—yes, 25 years. We’re all better off for being able to call him Moreinu Rabbeinu, our rabbi and our teacher, and our friend.
Murray, thank you for all you’ve done for me over the years, thanks for trusting me, for laughing with me and occasionally at me, for advising me, and for being my very good friend. And thank you for all you’ve done for Temple Israel over these last 25 years of partnership. Mazal Tov to you and Barbara, to Aviva, Tami, Adam, Ron and Gil, and to Addison and Kobe of course, for reaching this amazing milestone. May the years ahead bring you as much fulfillment as these years you are concluding now. Love you, buddy.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share