By Ben Tinsley
FORT WORTH — Ralph Mecklenburger, senior rabbi of Beth-El Congregation since 1984, officially retires July 1 and will assume the role of rabbi emeritus at the congregation.
In a recent one-on-one “exit interview” with the TJP, Rabbi Mecklenburger — still an active member in the American Red Cross and the United Way — discussed many aspects of his time with Beth-El Congregation as he prepares to formally step down from the pulpit.
After Rabbi Mecklenburger announced his plans to retire, members of Beth-El Congregation voted unanimously in late January to name Rabbi Brian Zimmerman as Mecklenburger’s successor.
The well-thought-of rabbi is known for reaching across religious and racial lines to foster communication in the community.
Rabbi Mecklenburger addressed how and why he is well-known for using his position to address differences between religions, races and cultures.
“I’ve always thought it’s a rabbi’s job to be rabbi to the general community, not just the synagogue,” Rabbi Mecklenburger said. “It’s very gratifying that people are recognizing that.”
A member of Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price’s Faith Leaders Cabinet, Rabbi Mecklenburger is a longtime advocate of religious tolerance.
“One of the clergy friends I have made over the years is (Imam Moujahed Bakhach of the Islamic Association of Tarrant County) who is a wonderful person who nominated me for an award from the Fort Worth Human Relations Commission,” Rabbi Mecklenburger said. “I would say that for the communities to truly open up and have everyone get along, behavior has to be modeled after community leadership.”
One good example: In Fort Worth in June 2015, Rabbi Mecklenburger helped lead an interfaith service at Broadway Baptist Church after the murder of nine black worshipers in a Charleston, South Carolina, church.
At the time of his interview, Rabbi Mecklenburger said he expected to see many different clergy representatives attending his retirement ceremony this month.
“It’s very flattering,” he said.
Before coming to Fort Worth, Rabbi Mecklenburger served at synagogues in San Francisco, California and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
He was born in Hartford, Connecticut and raised in suburban Chicago — graduating magna cum laude from the University of Cincinnati in 1968. He was ordained a rabbi at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 1972.
In 1997 HUC-JIR awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Divinity.
Coming to Fort Worth from the northeast quadrant of the country, the rabbi said he brought with him an incorrect impression: that it takes several generations for a Texas community to consider anyone moving there from out of state as “part of the family.”
“But in fact, from the United Way to the Red Cross and one thing after another, the minute I got into town, as soon as I rolled up my sleeves and shot off my mouth, people were ready to consider me part of the leadership of this community,” he said. “And that has been satisfying in all kinds of ways.”
As a matter of fact, he was even called upon to lend his knowledge to a published book. He wrote a chapter on local Jewish history for Lone Stars of David: The Jews of Texas.
He has done other writing as well; his first full-length book is titled, Our Religious Brains.
His additional articles and sermons in many periodicals, among them Reform Judaism, CCAR Journal, The Orchard, The Presbyterian Outlook, and The Christian Century.
Rabbi Mecklenburger and his wife Ann, have two grown children, Elissa and Alan, both married. They also have two grandchildren.
On the topic of leaving Fort Worth’s Beth-El Congregation, Rabbi Mecklenburger said the experience, with the congregation’s roughly 450 members, has been invaluable.
Rabbi Mecklenburger said his tenure in Fort Worth has also been rewarding. He has adored being a part of the multiple generations of lifecycle events.
“You get to be a part of people’s lives and they feel like part of my family as well — which has been very satisfying,” he said.
Rabbi Mecklenburger said one truly rewarding period during his tenure was being present when a new building was planned and then built.
“At Beth-El, I was able to be part of the process of envisioning and the building of it,” he said.
On to other topics stemming from his unique perspective of the world, Rabbi Mecklenburger discussed how Reform Judaism in general has gone through a process of “becoming warmer toward tradition” which he also has found rewarding.
“I have been able to foster that at Beth-El, but it was already a good match from the start,” he said. “We didn’t run into anything new, we were ready to begin evolving and that has been very satisfying.”
‘An interesting transition’
Moving to the more metropolitan Fort Worth after spending eight and a half years at a rabbinate in more academic Ann Arbor, Michigan was an interesting transition, the rabbi said.
“Moving to Beth-El in a more business-minded normal city was interesting — especially finding out what the different facets were,” he said. “I really liked the congregation here and found that with the arts, the music and the rodeo, this city is a hidden gem in America. I think this is something that people don’t realize. I certainly didn’t. It goes on and on and on. This is a wonderful culture community to be part of.”
One of the first things Mecklenburger did in addition to becoming acclimated to his own congregation was reach out to establish Jewish-black dialogues and Jewish-Hispanic dialogues.
“I found it important to say how everyone should get along,” Mecklenburger said. “Then I got involved through my rabbinate in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Brite Divinity School used me to teach a course on Jewish Christian Dialogue. So I have been part of the process. I have been invited to serve on the Human Relationships Commission, which to me indicated I was appreciated in this community.”
Mecklenburger said he is a big fan of Jewish adult education.
“The idea is to do communitywide adult education and that’s why we established Tarrant County Jewish College, which is a pun on Tarrant County College,” he said. “That program hasn’t continued but we continue to do things from time to time — not as much lately as we used to, however.”
As a whole, Mecklenburger said he believes the Fort Worth area has become much more open over three decades emblematic of how America itself is evolving.
“But this is still Texas,” he said with a chuckle. “In Michigan they thought I wasn’t as liberal as I should be and in Texas I come across as a ‘wild-eyed liberal.’ It’s not that I have changed. It’s that the political context has changed.”
Mecklenburger said his synagogue has done joint Israel programs with First Presbyterian and more recently with St. Stephens Presbyterian and Jewish-interfaith dialogue with children involved in University Christian Church, Ridglea Presbyterian Church and the Islamic Association of Tarrant County.
Famous for spending as much time as humanly possible at his synagogue, Mecklenburger urges those who come after him not to do the same.
“In the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ category,” Mecklenburger said, chuckling, “I believe every clergy should take a day off. My assistant does that and it’s fine. But I never have. I have told myself if I want to do all this community work but not be accused of leaving the congregation, the congregation has to come first. That way, if there is a conflict I nobody can say, ‘Oh, the rabbi’s away doing something again.’ That can’t happen if I am here seven days a week.”
By the time Rabbi Mecklenburger retires, he will have spent more than 32 years as senior rabbi of Congregation Beth-El — a Reform congregation in Southwest Fort Worth that was founded in 1902.
“I was figuring on retiring around 65 or 66, but they wanted me to stay longer,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi Mecklenburger said one very rewarding extension was when he committed to stay around for about two years to help train Jordan Ottenstein, when Ottenstein came to Beth-El as an assistant rabbi.
“So it (the rabbi’s impending departure) got extended here and there,” he said.
However, he told the TJP, that no longer is the case.
“I admit I wasn’t in a big rush to stop, but I’m 69 now. (I’ll be) a couple of months short of being 70 when I retire,” Rabbi Mecklenburger said. “So it’s time.”