40 years of Shalom

Rabbi Shalom Paul (left) holds the shofar for Rabbi Mark Fasman at Shaare Zedek Synagogue. Rabbi Paul has been spending the High Holidays with the congregation for the past 40 years. Photo: Yana Hotter

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As a noted Biblical scholar, Professor Shalom Paul travels all over the world to give lectures. But of all the people he comes into contact with, he can always tell one thing about them for certain.

“It’s only when someone meets me and says, ‘rabbi,’ I know that person is from St. Louis,” he said. “Nobody else knows of that title.”

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But they know it pretty well in the Gateway to the West, where the Philadelphia native who now lives in Jerusalem has been coming to give sermons during the High Holidays nearly every year for the last 40 at Shaare Zedek Synagogue. Paul may only come for three days a year covering Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but that represents a great deal – even if he isn’t the regular rabbi.

“He is nonetheless the most consistent rabbinic voice at Shaare Zedek in our more than a century of history,” said Rabbi Mark Fasman, one of five rabbis Paul’s visits have spanned in the four decades he’s been coming. “Even Rabbi [Ephraim] Epstein who was arguably the most important rabbi in this congregation as it was developing during the middle part of this century was only with us for 35 years.”

Paul was honored at services Saturday by the congregation for his contributions to the Conservative shul. The tradition dates back to 1973 when Paul asked Rabbi Arnold Asher, a former classmate of his from the Jewish Theological Seminary, if there was anything he could do to help out after the latter had suffered a heart attack. Asher requested Paul co-officiate at services. Obligingly, the senior lecturer at Tel-Aviv and Hebrew universities flew in to do so.

At the time, he simply thought it was a one-time happenstance.

“That started a 40-year love affair with the congregation,” he remembers.

That love affair was mutual.

“He has a way during long services to bring you back just when the mind is beginning to wander,” said Marilyn Sue Kunitz, a member of the congregation for more than a half- century. “He’s so dynamic that it’s just awe-inspiring.”

Nira Asher-Geller, widow of Rabbi Asher, has hosted Paul at the family’s home since his first visit.

“He always brings a lot of joy, joking and laughter,” she said. “We really love having him.”

Suzanne Broddon, who has been at Shaare Zedek for 54 years, wrote a tribute to the rabbi for his honoring last week. Interviewed earlier this month, she described him as a brilliant scholar of international fame.

“Over the years, several families have become so close with him,” said the Clayton resident. “He manages to make sure that he touches each family. He has great pastoral qualities also however it is really his personality and dynamic speaking which has drawn the congregation to him. We love having him come back every year. It’s like coming home.”

It feels that way for Paul as well. The soft-spoken Philadelphia native has good memories of St. Louis, which extend back to before he even visited here. He enjoyed following the Cardinals growing up since Stan Musial was a favorite player of the future rabbi.

“It was just something about him,” explained Paul, “his stance, the way he held the bat.”

Paul, who has held teaching positions since 1960 at institutions throughout the United States and Israel, has spent much of his career at Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he has twice chaired the Bible department and now holds the rank of professor emeritus. He has been a guest lecturer at synagogues and educational institutions on five continents and, at present, chairs the Dead Sea Scrolls Project.

Paul said that he has spent the High Holidays in St. Louis nearly every year since Asher’s invitation and likes to visit family back in Pennsylvania during this time as well as do a few lectures in the United States while he’s in the country. Interviewed during this trip in the Asher family living room, he’d just come in from a talk in New York and planned to do an event in Chicago before returning to Shaare Zedek for Yom Kippur.

His High Holiday message to the local congregation is a simple one.

“The importance of making a life for yourself is as important as making a living for yourself,” he said. “There are so many people who worry about making a living and forget about making a life.”

Sometimes he also gets a message in return. For his 30-year anniversary, Shaare Zedek named him a rabbi emeritus. Other recognitions however, have been just as rewarding.

“Every once in a while, a person will come up to me and say ‘I want you to know that your message changed my life’,” he said. “That is so moving and comes from the depths of one’s soul. Just for that person, it was worthwhile coming in.”

Paul notes that the longevity of the relationship between the congregation and a visiting rabbi is unusual in an age when even regular pulpit rabbis typically have highly mobile career paths. In fact, ironically, there were times when some congregants who only attended during the High Holidays thought Paul was the regular rabbi.

“There were several interim rabbis so every time they came, they would see me on the pulpit and another rabbi and they assumed that since they always saw me, I was the permanent rabbi and the other was the assistant,” chuckled Paul. “They would call up the office and say ‘Could Rabbi Paul please conduct our marriage ceremony?’”

Fasman called Paul a kind man with a good heart and an engaging, humorous style in the pulpit. He also said Paul was a rabbinic resource more often than simply during the High Holidays.

“As a rabbi, he’s been a mentor to me,” he said. “He’s been somebody who throughout the year, I could routinely call upon if I had questions or wanted some advice on something. That’s a very special thing for a rabbi to be able to have a rabbi.”

Paul said Fasman and he have good chemistry in the pulpit together and called the latter a man of integrity who is deeply devoted to the congregation.

As for Paul, his connection to St. Louis is as strong as ever. The year before his first visit to Shaare Zedek, he was a scholar-in-residence at B’nai Amoona and he’s also lectured at Washington University and Eden Theological Seminary. The last two years, he did a guest lecture at the Jewish Community Center.

Does he plan to make any changes to his sermon or style of delivery in the future?

“I think the best thing to do is ask me after the next 40 years,” he laughs.