Beth-El celebrates Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger’s ‘silver’ tenure

On Saturday, May 2, Beth-El Congregation will honor Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger’s  25-year tenure in Fort Worth with an evening gala event, featuring cocktails, dinner and dancing with the band Blu-Print.
“Since Rabbi Mecklenburger’s arrival, Beth-El Congregation has grown tremendously,” said Event Chair Julie Diamond. “Our congregation’s size has increased, our religious school has experienced exponential growth and so has our congregational religious programming. That’s due in large part to the rabbi.”
The gala honoring Rabbi Mecklenburger is part of Beth-El’s annual “FUNdraiser.” This year’s committee also includes Louise Appleman, Jill Clay, Marilyn Englander, Judie B. Greenman, Sandy Hollander, Laurie Kelfer, Susan Luskey, Marilyn McGee, Carol Minker, Trudie Oshman and Margie Zentner.
Rabbi Mecklenburger’s maternal grandfather, Abraham Feldman, was a rabbi, as was his uncle Murray Blackman. Much of Mecklenburger’s office “library” at Beth-El is comprised of his grandfather’s classic religious texts. Growing up in a Chicago suburb with a mother who was a rabbi’s daughter, Mecklenburger says that he “started talking about being a rabbi before I even knew what I was talking about.” He was involved in temple youth groups, and attended the first Union for Reform Judaism camp in Oconomowoc, Wis. (now camp Olen-Sang-Ruby).
He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Cincinnati in 1968, and was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972, along with classmate Sally Priesand, the first female Reform rabbi. In 1984 he came to Beth-El from Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Mecklenburger arrived in Fort Worth with the difficult task of replacing Rabbi Robert Schur, who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Schur’s 30-year tenure as rabbi, from 1956 to 1986, is the longest in Beth-El’s history.
“Ralph came to us a ‘full-grown’ rabbi, and was willing to serve in a secondary role, allowing our beloved Rabbi Schur to begin his retirement with dignity and grace,” said Louise Appleman, a past Beth-El president who was part of the original committee that interviewed and hired Mecklenburger. “I will always be grateful to him for that.”
While coming to Fort Worth from the Midwest was a culture shock, it wasn’t as much as Mecklenburger expected.
“I’m a left-leaning centrist,” he said. “I was considered conservative in Ann Arbor, and I’m considered liberal here. I haven’t changed; it’s just a change in environment.”
There were some unanticipated blessings to his move south.
“Religion is a high-status occupation here,” he said. In Ann Arbor, the university professorship frowned on his teaching classes because he didn’t have a Ph.D. But in Fort Worth, Mecklenburger has been welcomed as an adjunct faculty member at TCU’s Brite Divinity School for over two decades, teaching courses in Jewish-Christian dialogue. He’s also been the commencement speaker at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Additionally, Mecklenburger has found it easier to address congregational issues of concern in Fort Worth.
“In a university community like Ann Arbor, issues get talked to death,” he said. “In a business-oriented community like Fort Worth, people lay out the issues, a board makes a decision and we move on.”
Mecklenburger didn’t try to change things all at once, but change is apparent — and welcome. For instance, when he arrived at Beth-El, the congregation, as he says, “pretty much shut down” during the summer.
“There was no sermon, no oneg — it was mostly Kaddish,” he said. When he was growing up, the oneg “was as much a part of the Sabbath experience as the service.” So, gradually, he developed and nurtured a cadre of lay leaders, as well as a cadre of cantorial soloists to help lead the services. Any child raised at Beth-El during Mecklenburger’s tenure knows that treats and fellowship await after the service, and they’re not disappointed.
Mecklenburger also presided over Beth-El’s crosstown move in 2000, although he’s quick to give credit to the larger committee of organizers, donors and fundraisers. The “old” Beth-El Congregation shared a block with Broadway Baptist Church and the community’s emergency youth shelter.
“The sanctuary was lovely, but everything else was just functional,” he said. “It wasn’t in a terrible neighborhood, but it wasn’t quite downtown and it wasn’t near where the Jews were moving,” meaning Fort Worth’s southwest side. Because many people felt it was inconvenient to travel downtown to attend an evening meeting or a class, Mecklenburger says the congregation began scouting locations that would be more conducive to the building’s being used on a daily basis, not just for Shabbat services and holidays.
Beth-El’s now nine-year-old location on Briarhaven Road, Mecklenburger says, is a “much better facility,” which now houses a school and offers meeting space to the community. On many weeknights, and almost every Sunday, the space is full.
“We built it to use,” he said. “It’s not a museum.”
In her centennial biography of Beth-El, congregation archivist Hollace Weiner noted that “politically, Rabbi Mecklenburger was as liberal as Rabbi Schur. He expanded the civil rights agenda to encompass feminism and gay rights,” through sermons and even during Beth-El’s Second Night Seder. In the community,
Mecklenburger served on the Mayor’s Human Rights Commission and the 1986 Citizens Advisory Commission on Desegregation in Public Schools.
Rabbi Schur introduced Mecklenburger to the “Cattle Country Clergy,” an assembly of relatively liberal clergy from various Christian denominations. Mecklenburger still participates in the group.
“It’s useful to have liberal clergy mutually supporting each other,” Mecklenburger said.
In addition, Mecklenburger credits the late Manny Rosenthal with connecting him to Congregation Ahavath Sholom Rabbi Emeritus Isadore Garsek and then-Rabbi Jack Izakson, with whom the new Beth-El rabbi developed “a good relationship.” He’s maintained ties with both the Conservative congregation across the street from Beth-El, Ahavath Shalom, and its Rabbi Alberto “Baruch” Zeilicovich, and Chabad Rabbi Dov Mandel as well.
From the time he moved to Fort Worth, Mecklenburger has been involved with local and national community affairs.
“He assumed a full role not only in our congregation but in the greater Tarrant County community where he has earned the respect and regard of many,” Louise Appleman said.
“I thought it might take a couple of generations for people to trust an ‘outsider,’” Mecklenburger said.
But he found that the community at large embraced what he had to offer, and put him to work.
Mecklenburger has been vice chairman of the United Way of Metropolitan Tarrant County and has served on the Fort Worth Human Relations Commission. He has chaired the Jewish Family Service Agency and was vice president of the Dan Danciger Jewish Community Center. He serves on the boards of the Chisholm Trail Chapter of the American Red Cross, the Jewish Federation and Jewish Family Service Agency, and the advisory committees of Samaritan House and the YWCA Department of Racial Equality. He is a member of the downtown Rotary Club and the Torch Club.
“Rabbi is so well respected in the community,” said Gala Committee member Carol Minker. “He’s not only very active in community-wide organizations, but he is sought out for his intelligence.”
Regionally, Rabbi Mecklenburger is co-chair of the Texas Conference of Churches’ Jewish-Christian Forum and past president of the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis. Nationally, he serves on the Commission on Worship, Music and Religious Living of the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Advisory Board for Men of Reform Judaism.
In addition, Mecklenburger is known throughout the community for both his thought-provoking sermons and his oratory. Carol Minker credits the rabbi for increasing her volunteer commitment to Beth-El, which included a stint as president of Women of Reform Judaism (formerly Sisterhood).
“In 1986 I remember his Yom Kippur sermon about everyone doing a job to ‘work for Beth-El,’” she said.
“Following that sermon, I took on the role of Sisterhood president. Prior to that, I’d never held office with Sisterhood.
“I always tell him his best assets are his funeral eulogies,” Minker continues. “He has a knack for capturing the spirit and positive attributes of the deceased. I’ve always kidded him that he did the best eulogy for an out-of-town uncle of mine whom he had never met.”

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Michael Meiselman

    Hi Ralph,
    Congratulations on such a long tenure. Time hasn’t exactly stood still has it?
    I’m living in Springfield, IL (don’t ask).
    It’s good to read the positive affect you have had on your community.
    Take care,
    Michael Meiselman

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