Shaare Emeth pays tribute to rabbi heading to Texas

BY ROBERT A. COHN

Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Every seat in the Stiffman Sanctuary at Congregation Shaare Emeth was filled for Shabbat services as the temple paid a “fond farewell” and tribute to Rabbi Annie Belford for her five years of service and spiritual leadership. Rabbinic colleagues and lay leaders of the congregation joined to praise Rabbi Belford’s compassionate approach to rabbinic service, her role in the temple’s healing services and her skills as a teacher of the weekly Torah Class. Rabbi Belford has accepted the position of rabbi of Temple Sinai in Houston.

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Rabbi Jim Bennett, senior rabbi of Shaare Emeth, said that when he asked Belford what kind of farewell function she preferred, she suggested a Friday evening Shabbat service where her colleagues and many friends within the congregation and the community could exchange best wishes with one another. During her five years at Shaare Emeth, Belford endeared herself to hundreds of members, many of whom praised her sensitivity and ability to effectively relate to people of all ages and backgrounds.

“I was honored to serve on the search committee that interviewed Rabbi Annie,” said Lotte Zinner, longtime member of Shaare Emeth and a regular participant in the temple’s weekly Torah class where Belford and her colleagues rotate teaching. “What impressed me was that Annie never claimed credit for her own God-given abilities. Instead, she expressed appreciation to her teachers, fellow rabbis, mentors and friends. It did not take us long to decide to offer her the position.”

During the service, words of tribute were also offered by Rabbi Bennett, Rabbi Andrea Goldstein, Cantor Seth Warner and Ken Birenbaum, who was recently elected congregation president. “Tonight we gather in celebration and gratitude,” Rabbi Bennett said, “not only for the gift of the Ten Commandments and the Torah, but also in gratitude for the gifts of Rabbi Anne Belford, with whom we have shared five years that were filled with blessings. It is a bittersweet night, as we share sadness that she will be moving, but we also come together with Rabbi Belford and her family, not only our deepest gratitude, but our fondest wishes that their journey in life ahead will continue to be filled with blessings.”

Rabbi Bennett recalled that five years ago he, Rabbi Goldstein and then-president Ken Kleban traveled to New York to interview students being ordained at the Hebrew Union College. “When we interviewed Rabbi Belford, we knew at that moment we had found the person we wanted to join us at Shaare Emeth, to join our community, and our family.”

On the bima with Rabbi Belford and her Shaare Emeth clergy colleagues during the service was her husband, Rabbi Ari Vernon, who has served the St. Louis Jewish community as a former director of the Jewish Community High School of the Central Agency for Jewish Education, and as spiritual leader of the Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community. Rabbi Vernon participated with Rabbi Belford in monthly healing services at Shaare Emeth.

Rabbi Goldstein pointed out that the Torah portion for the week of the service, Parashat Bo, contains the ancient priestly benediction which God told Moses to tell Aaron and his descendants to confer on the Israelite people for all time.

“I thought that the priestly blessing offers us an opportunity to reflect on the blessing that Rabbi Belford has been in our lives,” said Goldstein. “We have often said that Rabbi Belford feels that every Torah portion is her favorite. We are grateful to Rabbi Belford for bringing Torah to life for us, and for sharing the breadth of her knowledge and her love of Judaism, and Jewish values which she reflects in her daily life.”

Rabbi Belford said, “In talking to everybody about what I wanted for tonight, I asked that it be sweet and simple, and that is what I will try to do now. I can only say that it has been a privilege to be part of the Shaare Emeth family…I feel blessed not only for the incredible gift of being touched by you, and I thank you for opening up your lives to me. I will always treasure the relationships I have with all of you. There are so many of you who mean so much to me, and I also appreciate the way you welcomed Ari and our family.”

Rabbi Belford also thanked her clergy colleagues and the professional staff as well as the general membership. “You have all taught me so much, and I love you all.”

Following her remarks, Rabbi Belford received a sustained standing ovation from the many hundreds of members and other friends who attended the service.

Said Marvin Plattner, who regularly attends the temple’s weekly Torah class, “Rabbi Annie is not only a great rabbi and teacher, she is a truly righteous person, reminding me of the lamed vovniks, the 36 righteous people who are said to be among us at all times to model ethical behavior and a love of Torah. We will miss her and wish her well at her now post at Temple Sinai in Houston.”