B’nai Amoona salutes Rabbi Josef Davidson

Rabbi Josef Davidson speaks at a 2015 Hunger Seder held by the Jewish Community Relations Council. 

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Rabbi Josef Davidson is more Jose Oquendo than Michael Jordan.

Even though Davidson, like Jordan, came out of retirement, to become an assistant rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona, he says he did not do so to be the rabbi, but rather to serve as a “utility player.” Hence, more Oquendo, who in one season with the Cardinals played every position except catcher, than Jordan, who in 10 seasons led the National Basketball Association in scoring.

But unlike Jordan, who twice came out of retirement, Davidson expects to remain on the sidelines rather than again return to the pulpit when he retires later this month.

“Last time, it was a retirement to reinvent myself,” said Davidson, 68. “The intention was to do something completely different, to make a career change or go in a different direction if I was going to stay in the rabbinate. I don’t have that illusion of reinventing myself this time; it is to really say I have done this for 40 years and it’s time to retire.”

Over more than a decade at the Conservative congregation in Creve Coeur, Davidson filled a number of different roles: b’nai mitzvah tutor; instructor in adult Jewish education; trumpet player in the B’nai Amoona house band; and interim senior rabbi while the head rabbi was on sabbatical. 

“What I needed to do here was to be available and play whatever position needed playing; and there is not as big a need right now for a utility player, which makes it easier for me to step back,” said Davidson, who moved to St. Louis from Chattanooga, Tenn. 

He and his wife, Barbara, a registered nurse, came to St. Louis in large part because a daughter lived here with her family, in addition to other relatives. Another daughter has also since moved here. 

Davidson had spent 14 years at his previous synagogue and wanted to work outside of a congregation, perhaps in chaplaincy or for a nonprofit organization. When that didn’t work out, “B’nai Amoona was a life saver,” he said.

“In many ways, it fulfilled the desire for reinvention. I had never been able to do anything but be the only rabbi, and this was an opportunity to work as part of a team and that took some reinvention,” said Davidson.

When asked what accomplishments he is most proud of from his time at B’nai Amoona, Davidson mentioned a Shabbat morning Torah study group. It had met sporadically but Davidson said to others, “We need to do this every week or it’s not going to work.”

The group, where participants study that week’s Torah portion in-depth, has since become a staple of Shabbat.  “I don’t know if we would have built that interest in Torah if we hadn’t done it regularly.”

Linda Spitzer Gavatin participated in an adult bat mitzvah class led by Davidson. She recalls that during the first session, he  made a mistake — and then a second mistake — when reading a Torah portion. He said, “Welcome to my last day as a rabbi,” joked Davidson.

She and other participants had been nervous about the class, but at that moment, “the whole place laughed and we were totally put at ease. It’s just the kind of guy he is,” Spitzer Gavatin wrote to the Jewish Light.  She is one of the organizers of a retirement celebration for Davidson on Sunday, June 11(see infobox for full details). 

Davidson said he would stay involved at B’nai Amoona, including tutoring once a week. He plans to spend more time playing the trumpet and trying to “grow as an amateur musician.” 

“At my age, you are young enough to enjoy retirement and old enough to merit it,” said Davidson. ”I have loved working at B’nai Amoona and we look forward to being members for many years to come.”