In My Mind's I

What a weekend! I’d returned to the farthest south suburbs of Chicago (which border northwestern Indiana on their east and flow almost seamlessly into Illinois’ downstate farm country) for a three-day celebration of my old congregation’s 65th birthday.
The decision not to wait a decade for the more traditional Diamond Jubilee at 75 was a judicious one: There are still a few who were among the synagogue’s founders back in 1944 — and who will probably not be with us 10 years from now. These “pioneers” were all survivors who recreated in their new homeland the minhag of their old temple. To this day, a choir of member volunteers takes to the bimah every Yom Kippur afternoon to sing an elaborate eight-part a cappella version of the High Holy Day Kedusha — in German!
There isn’t a lot of Jewish life here in Chicagoland’s southernmost outpost; such vitality thrives much further north. But the spiritual leader of this little congregation numbering just under 200 families is the new president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Her formal installation was part of the weekend’s Shabbat morning service, and she used the “ceremonial yad” presented to her then as she read the day’s Torah portion.
The Haftorah was chanted by the rabbi emeritus; he turned the pre- and post-blessings over to the girl and boy who were the congregation’s most recent b’nai mitzvah. How fitting that this text included the great line: “And the child grew, and the Lord blessed him.” The same spirit of intergenerational recognition and involvement permeated the entire weekend whose theme was “Tapestry,” a tracing of the many threads that have gone into weaving the symbolic synagogue fabric of today.
Called for aliyahs were groups: all who ever served as presidents of temple, men’s club, sisterhood; all who ever taught a class of children or adults; all who ever sang in the choir; all who ever … well, you get the picture. Sometimes there were more folks standing on the bimah than sitting in the sanctuary’s newly upholstered chairs.
At the Friday night service, instead of a sermon, kids from the religious school came forward one by one to pose questions about congregational history, with ad-lib answers flowing spontaneously from their elders. Memories … stories … even a few friendly “arguments” about what was fact and what fiction … all enlivened the occasion, took the oldsters back for a revisit of the past, brought the youngsters up to speed and sparked conversations that extended the oneg Shabbat — which featured the home-baking of 15 congregants — to well past its usual wind-up time.
What happened at Saturday’s Kiddush luncheon was even more fun, if that could be possible. The sisterhood had asked its members to participate in a most unusual cook-off, and so a long table was filled with very large pans of varied, tasty treats for this congregational “Kugel-Off,” which supplemented the more usual salad buffet offerings. And a recipe booklet was provided for everyone to take home, too.
How could things get better? Ah, that’s the beauty of a small institution with big intentions. The Sunday evening dinner was held in a local country club. There were no speeches except for very brief thank-yous and acknowledgments from the rabbi and the president, the chair of the weekend. And instead of any formal program, there was precious time for everyone to wander about, greeting old friends and making new ones. There was also great background music and some dancing, because this little temple is spiritual home to six doctors who make Jewish music together as “The Klezmedics.”
But all activity hushed when Matt Lipman picked up his viola. The 17-year-old congregant and his parents live near Governors State, one of the newer schools in the Illinois university system; he attends Crete-Monee, a public high school little known outside its own geographic area. But Matt may well be the one who makes it famous. He’s already won a number of prestigious competitions — one of which awarded him the $10,000 to purchase the fine instrument he now plays; he’s performed on stage at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and was leaving the next morning for summer study with Itzhak Perlman.
Appearing in a bright red long-sleeved shirt and khakis instead of the more usual performer’s tux, he cheerfully announced, “I’ll play eight pieces. Maybe nine, if you clap a lot.” Then followed some Heifetz … some Fritz Kreisler … a Hungarian Rhapsody … and enough clapping for two encores.
What a wonderful way to end a truly wonderful weekend!

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