A Rabbi who could ‘reach’ me

Gail Appleson is a writer for Armstrong Teasdale LLP and freelancer who lives in St. Louis. “Dor to Dor,” is an intermittent Jewish Light series looking at various aspects of “grown-up” life and generational connections through the lens of Jewish writers living in the St. Louis area.      If you are interested in contributing to Dor to Dor, email [email protected].

By Gail Appleson

Growing up, I was always taught that rabbis were an exalted lot. These were holy men—there weren’t any women rabbis at the time—who seemed above and different from the rest of us. Bigger than life, they were learned and authoritative with a special connection to God. 

Although my parents and other congregants loved the rabbi at our young Conservative shul in the South, I guess I was just intimidated by my childhood perception of his greatness. He was a good man and a true leader, but I was too young to understand. Instead, my skittishness around rabbis grew into full-fledged apprehension when I attended an Orthodox day school. It was there, during my elementary school years that one of the rabbis who taught Hebrew constantly berated and humiliated me because my parents were founders of our Conservative synagogue. I was, in his opinion, treif

His behavior is what drove me away from Judaism as a young adult and even today, I still struggle with those memories. It wasn’t until the 1990s when I was living in New York City, that the trauma of my father’s death and the desire to say kaddish led me back to shul.

But even then, I didn’t seek out spiritual counseling. Instead, I found comfort in conjuring up fond memories of my father’s off-key voice singing loudly next to me at services. Eventually, I landed at a very large Conservative congregation called B’nai Jeshurun, where I discovered solace and spirituality in the most moving Jewish music I’d ever heard. BJ, as it’s called, has some 4,000 members. There’s a line to get into the Upper West side shul on Friday nights. And on Saturday, there are so many people that services are held in a Methodist church where congregants fill the balcony.

I went to services there for years, but never once had a conversation with either of the shul’s two rabbis.

Then I moved to St. Louis in 2005 as part of a plan to care for my ailing mother, who relocated here six months later. Since I was the first to arrive, one of my responsibilities was to go synagogue shopping in an attempt to find a shul where we’d both feel comfortable.

My strategy was to attend services at a different congregation every Shabbat. After a short time, I found myself making repeat visits to Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel. Unlike Manhattan’s BJ, there wasn’t much in the way of music during 

regular services at BSKI. Not even a regular chazzan. The draw was Rabbi Mordecai Miller.

Through his words, Miller has been able to reach me unlike anyone else. I am riveted by the way he makes the Torah come alive in his gentle and soothing tones. His insights give new meaning and relevance to my life. I look forward to Saturday morning services because he makes Shabbat real for me and I know I will take something back that will help me through the week ahead.

No, I don’t feel intimidated anymore nor do I have perceptions of a superhuman. Instead, what I see is a life coach, a friend. And, with the announcement of Rabbi Miller’s planned departure, for the very first time I can appreciate what others feel when they face the loss of a rabbi who has led their congregation for years.

Now, I understand what it’s like to know a rabbi who has become an important part of the fabric of your life. And when it comes to those beloved rabbis, they most likely didn’t get to that place in your heart because they are super holy beings who never make mistakes or see themselves as better than the rest of us. Don’t get me wrong, these cherished rabbis are definitely gifted. But the gift isn’t necessarily about their special connection to God. It’s about their ability to help the rest of us find that special connection to God.