Panim el Panim (June 2021 KOL Article)

“Never before, in the history of the Jewish people…”  We don’t hear this phrase very often.  As we find ourselves in 5781, the Jewish community has witnessed a great deal in our long and treasured history.  We have even been through multiple pandemics and plagues.  But, never before in Jewish history, has a rabbi come to serve a congregation as its full-time clergy where the rabbi has, after almost an entire year, never prayed with the congregation in the sanctuary or met most of its members in person, face to face. 

As I live and mentor in the greater Jewish world these days, I am in awe of the clergy who have come to congregations during this pandemic and have yet to meet and engage congregants, panim el panim — face-to-face.  It has been hard enough for established clergy of all faiths to navigate spiritual space and congregational relationships in the past fifteen months.  But to be in a community, without being able to see or touch that community, has no historical precedent.

I met Rabbi Widzer (and Miles Roger!), for the very first time since they arrived at TBS last year, panim el panim, at Confirmation last Sunday.  We had “Zoomed” with one another and talked on the telephone, but we had never actually shared the same piece of real estate until Sunday.  And we still have not been in the sanctuary or my old office together.  We shared the beautifully created sacred space of our Temple parking lot and spoke a few feet apart with masks.

If we step back and try to wrap our brains around what this reality means, it is nothing short of mind boggling.  While we were Zooming when I was in L.A. this fall, Rabbi Widzer remarked that he has been told that people have “regular seats” in the sanctuary.  We take that for granted. I know where to find the Masons and the Kleinmans.  I know who sits on “my side” and that Marilyn Weissman is always on “Rob’s side.”  I look forward to that kind of familiarity for Rabbi Widzer by this time next year.

Kol Hakavod!!  All the honor to our “new” rabbi!  He has created a new kind of Jewish community.  He has done all he could to create connection, preach and teach, lead and learn, in the most modern and technologically advanced way.  But, we haven’t hugged him with a TBS hug.  He hasn’t “onegged” with us.  And with all the challenges, he has done an incredible job in becoming “our rabbi.”

And you, my beloved TBS, have embraced him, Karen, Judah, and Elisheva, offering welcome and acceptance.  I know they have felt your hearts and your embrace in virtual ways.  I am so glad that of all the clergy who have had to go through this in the past year, that these wonderful people have landed in such a loving place that loves rabbis and their families.  I know that has made things easier.

Yet, as things open up and we come out of hiding, like the cicadas invading our ‘earspace’ these days, it will be all too easy to try to pick up where you left off and have expectations of reopening looking like the TBS before the days of masks and social distancing.  So I write to you, as Rabbi Widzer’s first year comes to a close, to remind you that for him the reopening will be ANOTHER FIRST YEAR.  Instead of jumping into year two, there will be people to meet, hours of office time, and oneg time, and hallway time to experience.  The learning curve will continue, even as so many will want to jump back into Purim Carnivals and Bagel Bar as usual.  And I hope and pray that you will not only be patient, but consciously aware that it is up to all of you to assist our new rabbi with his transition into Minhag B’nai Shalom, even as Rabbi Widzer navigates TBS into a new, improved, different, and 21st century post-pandemic Judaism.

No one knows what the future holds in the short or long term.  We have sacrificed. Many of us have lost loved one and friends. We have all lost precious time with those we love. And “coming home” to B’nai Shalom will be wonderful, even for those of us who are still being very cautious.  What we do know, is that you have an old rabbi who still loves you, and a new rabbi who has already given you 200% during the most difficult and unprecedented time in recent memory.  I pray that you will make the time and spend the time to help him as he goes from one Shehecheyanu moment to another in the year to come.

Ashreinu! How blessed we are TBS.  Going forward, with each encounter, panim el panim, you will forge new relationships and rekindle old.  The sanctuary will be full. The hallway will overflow with bagels and conversation.  The old will be …older, and the youth will enjoy being away from screens.  And Jewish history will proceed on its continuum, from season to season, l’dor vador and panim el panim.