The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader
By Stephen Fried
Har Zion's main sanctuary makes a sensational first impression, especially in the morning when fractured light from the thirty-foot-high stained-glass windows illuminates the outer aisles. Front and center is the bimah, the pulpit, a low stage where all the action takes place. Built into its contemporary wood back wall is the Ark, the holy walk-in closet that houses the scrolls of the Torah-the five books of Moses. The Ark is flanked by boxy built-in seats, four on each side. Six are for synagogue officers and those congregants who have been given "pulpit honors" and get to sit on the bimah for part of the service. The two seats closest to the Torahs are reserved for the cantor and, of course, the rabbi.
It is a thrill for me to see Wolpe on the bimah again, the first time in nearly thirty years. Like many modern rabbis, he no longer wears the traditional black ceremonial robes for Shabbat services. In a handsome, tailored suit with an understated blood-red tallis, prayer shawl, and a small matching kippah, he looks quietly regal.
He also looks annoyed. With his furrowed brow and all his fidgeting, he looks like he's about to stand up and roar.
There must be close to five hundred people here for the bat mitzvah, already in progress. As Wolpe sits behind her, scowling, the bat mitzvah girl delivers her speech from the lectern. His lectern. She is tall for her age, wearing a plain white dress, looking poised with her long hair tied back under a white kippah. She projects with just the right amount of sentiment.
In a front row is her family Her sisters, brother and grandmother flank her father, who I recognize as Martin Landis*, one of Philadelphia's most eccentric millionaires, a major property owner and contributor to political campaigns, and one of Har Zion's biggest machers. At the very end of the row, several seats apart from the others, sits the bat mitzvah girl's mother, Michelle", wearing a smart chocolate-brown suit. Pinned to her short dark hair is a doily of white lace. I don't need a program to figure out that there are marital problems, but that fact is actually listed in the Shabbat program for those who can read between the lines. Even though the father and mother have the same last name, they are listed separately: the bat mitzvah girl, Julie*, is described as "daughter of Martin Landis and Michelle Landis." If their marriage were intact, they would be referred to as "Michelle and Martin Landis."
Up on the bimah, Julie Landis begins a litany of thanks, starting with her grandmother, whose only desire was to live to see this day. She expresses gratitude to the rabbi, assistant rabbi, cantor and Hebrew-school teacher And then she lapses into a gushy tribute to Daddy.
Looking apprehensive, Rabbi Wolpe rises from his seat and takes a stance directly behind her. As he looms, Julie continues giving thanks for "everything my father has done for me." And then she stops cold. After exchanging a private smile and nod with her dad, she turns to the rabbi to be congratulated And as she does all eyes turn instead to her mother, who is clenched in her seat, the doily on her head vibrating.
After praising her "brilliant" performance, Wolpe brings the mean-spirited spectacle to an end with a rather perfunctory presentation of a certificate of bat mitzvah, along with the traditional gifts from the congregation. Julie takes a seat next to her father, who hugs her triumphantly But she doesn't even so much as look in her mother's direction. As the hug drags on, the mother stands up and bolts out of the synagogue. A clutch of family members follows.
The sanctuary is abuzz. Usually, the rabbi would shush them. He is, I recall, a big shusher. But today, they should be abuzz.
In a moment, he begins the remarks he prepared, a lighthearted riff on the silliness of the Psychic Friends Network. In mid-sermon, however, he stops and calls the rabbinic equivalent of a quarterback's audible. When in doubt, go to the text. He segues into this week's Torah portion, Exodus 13:7-17:16, which includes the parting of the Red Sea-and the Israelites' moments of doubt and faith before the sea is actually parted
God is irritated, Wolpe explains, because the Israelites are scared and don't know what to do. God sees them on the banks of the Red Sea and says, "Hey, you wanted to be free, this is what freedom is." The point is that "we are products of our choices" in life, the quality of our relationships not so much fated as chosen. His words crackle with intensity, his anger only thinly veiled.
When the sermon ends, he gives the bat mitzvah girl and her father a cold stare. And then he appears pleasantly surprised to see that Michelle Landis has steeled herself to return, walking tentatively down the aisle back to her seat.
After the service, the leaders of the synagogue huddle on the bimah, as I approach them hoping for a word with the rabbi But Wolpe can't talk to me now. As he makes a beeline for the girl's heartsick mother to comfort and congratulate her, the president of the Men's Club turns to me and says, "That's the worst thing I ever saw in the temple. That man is scum."