Rabbi Selig Salkowitz (1929-2017)

Rabbi Selig Salkowitz (1929-2017)

Moreinu HaRav HaNichbad Zelig ben Shlomo Chanoch v'Ita


Survived by:

Son Joel (Eve), [Kate]

Daughter Debbie (p. Alex), [Jake, Sam]

Companion Maureen McLeod

Sister Betty, [Naomi, David and their families]


Eulogies: Paul, Maureen, Abe, Sam, Debbie, David

We gather here this morning to honor the life of Rabbi Selig Salkowitz and to offer our support and comfort to his family at this sad time.  Our hearts go out to Selig’s family.  We know that this has been a tremendously difficult year for you, enduring Marcia’s death in the spring, Lou’s death in the summer, and now the sadness of Selig’s passing.  We hope that some prayers from our tradition, some loving, reflective words about Selig’s life, and the support of family, friends, and community embracing you at this time, may offer you some solace and some strength. 

We extend our condolences to Selig's son Joel, Joel's wife Eve, and their daughter Kate; to Selig's daughter Debbie, Debbie's partner Alex, and Debbie's children Jake and Sam; and to Selig's best friend and companion Maureen McLeod.  Our thoughts are also with Selig's sister Betty, Betty's children Naomi and David and their families, as well as with all those who join with us this morning, both here and afar, in remembering a truly exceptional human being.

A few years ago, I pulled Selig aside after our Thursday afternoon Torah study class here at the temple.  I said, "Next week we're having a 6 o'clock Friday night service.  Lisa and I would like to invite you to our home after the service to share Shabbat dinner with us."

Selig looked at me intently and gently, through his glasses, and he smiled, ever so slightly.  "You know, that's a real nice thought, a traditional Shabbat meal.  It's kind of different than the rushed dinner you have before racing off to services, right?  Most rabbis don't get to experience the joy of that kind of Shabbat dinner."

I said, "You'll be most welcome.  Just please let us know if you can make it."

He looked at me, more firmly, and said, "This would be the kind of dinner where we talk, and we eat, and then maybe at the end of the meal, we pour ourselves a glass of some port, and we stay at the table and we talk some more, right?"

I shrugged my shoulders, "I'm sure we can do that."

He looked at me and smiled widely and said, "I'll bring the port.  Just remind me of your address."

And that was Selig.  Thoughtful.  Compassionate.  Insightful.  Attentive.  Always switched on.  Deeply interested in the words and actions of others.  Listening deeply, concernedly, and genuinely.  And somehow, always knowing the most constructive way to shift a conversation in a meaningful, reflective and profound way.  There were fifty years of age and life experience between the two of us, and while I saw Selig as someone to be respected, he saw me as his equal, as his colleague, and as his friend. 

The past year and a half, and especially the past couple of weeks, have been exceptionally difficult for Selig and his family, as Selig has battled ill health, and a weakening body that would not let him do what he wanted.  But his spirit, his intellect, his gentleness and his drive, kept shining through.  With news on Friday night of Selig's death, it didn't take long for word to spread far and wide, with many people recalling his loving, gentle, menschlichke impact on their lives. 

We're sad today.  We're sad for Joel and Eve and Kate, for Debbie and Alex and Jake and Sam, for Maureen, for Betty, Naomi, and David and Selig's extended family.  We're sad for Selig's friends and colleagues and fellow congregants.  And we're sad for everyone, who has lost a trusted teacher, mentor, and spiritual guide. 

But on Saturday night, after Shabbat, when the time came to compose some thoughts, another feeling passed over me.  Reminiscing about the past five years of relationship with Selig, I went over to the shelf in my dining room, and I pulled down the bottle of port that Selig had brought that night to Shabbat dinner, and I poured myself a small glass.  Truthfully, what I really wanted was to pour two glasses, and share a toast and a tribute with a very special colleague and friend. 

Even in sadness, we recognize the need to honor Selig's life, his achievements and accomplishments, and the loving difference that he made for so many people.  He knew full well that we would be sad today, but he also took exceptional pride in the holy work that he did, and even with broken hearts, we recognize and appreciate the beautiful gifts that he brought to our world. 

Selig Salkowitz was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929, to Harry and Yetta Salkowitz.  He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati, attended Hebrew Union College where he received a Bachelor of Hebrew Letters degree, and a Master of Hebrew Letters degree.  He later earned a Doctorate of Divinity at the New York Theological Seminary.  In addition, he did independent study at the Oxford Center for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, and obtained a Certificate in Pastoral Counseling from the Post Graduate Center for Mental Health in New York City.

Rabbi Salkowitz served as a Navy chaplain from 1954-1974, serving active duty in the Mariana Islands from 1954-1956, and reserve duty in the U.S. from 1956-1974.  He also served on the Central Conference of American Rabbis' Chaplaincy Committee as well as on the National Jewish Welfare Board's Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy.

Rabbi Salkowitz's other committee work for the CCAR included chairing the important Committee on Homosexuality in the Rabbinate and co-chairing the Committee on Human Sexuality. Both of these committees explored questions of the place of gays and lesbians in the Reform movement, debating both inclusion in the rabbinate and whether to officiate and recognize marriages between same-sex couples.  At the time, Rabbi Salkowitz argued, in a quote in The New York Times, for the very human nature of the matter at hand.  He said, "This is not a time for parliamentary resolutions, but for a sensitive and considered study, for discussion of the sources and their implications for the Reform movement as a Jewish religious community in the United States and its influence on world Jewry.'' At the recommendation of the Committee on Homosexuality in the Rabbinate, the CCAR adopted a resolution in 1990 allowing openly gay and lesbian rabbis in the Reform rabbinate. 

During his career as a pulpit rabbi, Rabbi Salkowitz served Temple Beth El in Providence, Rhode Island, Temple Avoda, Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and Union Temple of Brooklyn, New York (1988-1992). He was also one of the first rabbis to pioneer the interim rabbi program.  Beginning with Temple Israel of Stockton, California in 1992-1993, Rabbi Salkowitz traveled the country, serving different communities for a year at a time, helping them to transition from a long-standing rabbi to a new rabbi, and enabling a constructive healing process. 

One of those congregations was Temple Emanuel of Greensboro, North Carolina, and Rabbi Fred Guttman shared these words with me this morning:

Rabbi Selig Salkowitz served as the Interim Rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Greensboro from 1994 to 1995.  In his role, he helped the congregation define its goals and shepherded it through an extensive search process. At the time, the congregation had a very old facility that was in terrible shape and within the last few years had lost more than 80 families.  Temple Emanuel seemed to be floundering.

Rabbi Salkowitz was able to restore a sense of direction and confidence in the congregation through his incredible work with the congregational leadership. After I was chosen to be the next Rabbi, he worked with the congregation to welcome me and to help us come to mutually agreed upon goals. His advice to me was invaluable!

Because of the groundwork that he laid in working with Temple Emanuel, the congregation today is flourishing. It has built a new building and has grown by more than 200 families. In my opinion,  none of this could’ve occurred without the incredible work of Rabbi Salkowitz during that interim year.

Over the years, Rabbi Salkowitz was an incredible force for helping our movement formulate its policy on same sex marriage. As the father of a gay daughter who is now married, I am personally appreciative of all of this work. Ironically, it was at the Central Conference of American Rabbi’s  convention in Greensboro North Carolina where a resolution was passed which affirmed the right of Reform Rabbis to officiate at same sex weddings.

On behalf of Temple Emanuel of Greensboro, we would like to express our sincere gratitude to Rabbi Salkowitz for his work with us and our sincerest condolences to his family over his loss. May the memory of this very righteous man be a blessing, now and always!

At the conclusion of his career as an interim rabbi, with friends in various parts of America and the world, Selig came home to Fair Lawn, and he found a spiritual home here at Temple Avodat Shalom and at Temple Israel in Ridgewood.  He once said to me, "You will always see me here on Friday night, but you will never see me on Saturday morning becauseon Saturday morning, I prefer a good, traditional heimische daven, and after being a rabbi for nearly sixty years, I think I should be able to choose where I go on Shabbat morning." 

Selig was instrumental in the transition from Rabbi Borovitz's excellent tenure of twenty-five years to my leadership, serving as a mentor for the search committee, and he was deeply invested in the success of the new rabbi and the congregation.  Whether it was at the Kosher Nosh, over Sushi, or Mediterranean food, Selig served as a colleague, a mentor, and most especially, a friend.  He shared some perspectives from his own career, he offered some guidance and some affirmation, and he listened. 

Selig's vision was instrumental in creating the last two years of programming for the Distinguished Speaker Series between Temple Israel and Temple Avodat Shalom.  He was delighted that last week's program was so well attended and well received, and that his program and his vision will go forward, serving as one of his many standing legacies. 

And yet, there is one moment, above all, that stands out, and with this I will finish.  Three years ago on the 2nd night of Passover, we invited Selig to join us for Seder.  Selig informed us that he would arrive late as he had other plans.  Of course, at what moment would he arrive, except after dinner, when we were ready for the 2nd half of the Seder.  There was a knock on the door, and Selig stood in the doorway, in a brown suit and tie, smiling.  What more could our daughters Hannah and Emily say, except, "Look, it's Elijah!" 

We are taught that Elijah will return someday to announce the coming of the Messiah, the coming of a perfected, redeemed world.  I can only think that Selig moved us closer to the possibility of that vision.  He touched the lives of tens of thousands of human beings and he made their world and our world a better place.  Zeicher tzaddik livracha, may the memory of Selig Salkowitz, forever endure as a blessing to all of us. 


Rabbi Selig Salkowitz z”l

Remarks at his funeral, Temple Avodat Shalom, 11/7/17


Our teacher Rabbi Salkowitz left this world with a sense of wholeness, completeness, unity and peace.  In our last conversations he was so happy to hear how well that the Second Annual Rabbi Selig Salkowitz Distinguished Speaker Shabbat went just a week ago, a vision of his to bring a Reform and Conservative congregation together to learn about our different approaches to Judaism.  He felt good about the direction that the two congregations were moving that he cared so much about.  He loved nudging me and Rabbi Jacobson to do more, and he felt good about the general direction of Liberal Judaism.  Debbie will remember this conversation as we sat with together just a few days ago.  Our teacher looked back further, over his career, his work in the rabbinate, his pioneering model of the interim rabbinate, his efforts and toil on behalf of the community, and took the liberty of smiling and admitting: “I think I did good.” 

I sat in awe at the accomplishment of this great man.  Who of us will be able to do so, to look back at the end of our days and say, “I think I did good.”  It is far more common to look back with regret.  Among rabbis, especially in this period of religious attrition, it is natural for us to fret over the unrealized visions and worry about the empty seats.  Our rabbi saw the seats that were filled.  He saw the life. He saw the joy.  He saw the wholeness, the completeness.  And he did so with grace.

I was so honored when Selig Salkowitz became a regular Sabbath worshipper at my congregation in Ridgewood.  Here was a distinguished senior colleague, and of another denomination than mine, who was happy to become a part of our family.  But what I did not expect, at his stage of my career, was to find another mentor, another role model, another spiritual parent. 

My teacher Rabbi Salkowitz would give me that nod and smile when he liked what I was saying.  And he would tell me right away when he did not approve of something.  His willingness to criticize made his praise all the more genuine.  “I have an issue to discuss,” he would say, waiting for a private moment as we would exit the sanctuary on a Saturday morning.  His lessons were not only pointed on topic, but also poignant in what he modeled:  that friends should not let concerns linger.  Say what you have to say, so we can go to kiddush and eat.  His was always the path towards wholeness and completion, unity and peace.

Thankfully, my teacher’s corrections were few and his smiles many.  And he cared about my happiness, my sense of fulfillment.  Knowing that the rabbinate can be a lonely place, he would remind me of how I was making a difference, of how important my work was.  Of how it made a difference to him.  He genuinely cared about me and Alla, and we cared about him.  He would always say at kiddush, “Let’s find a time to get together” but would always follow it up with “when you get back from x or when you finish with y.”  He was aware more than anyone else of the pressures on a rabbi’s time and energy, and was always conscious of not adding to the burden of the office.  How fortunate I was to have had a such a wise and caring mentor who wanted to listen, who knew how to hear, and could give the purest most elegant words of encouragement and strength.

My mentor was particularly interested and pleased with my work as an adjunct professor at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin, Germany.  He was interested because of the work that the Geiger College is doing in rebuilding liberal Judaism in Germany.  And he was interested that a Conservative rabbi would be so engaged in the training of young Reform rabbis.  Our work here in bringing our communities together came out of the same discussions of how Reform and Conservative rabbis could work together in Germany.  But he was also interested because the Abraham Geiger College was founded in 1998 by a good friend of his, a contemporary and fellow giant in the Reform rabbinate, Rabbi Walter Jacob.  Rabbi Jacob of Pittsburgh emigrated from Germany to the US at a young age and sought ordination at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati at the same time as our teacher, served in a distinguished career as a rabbi in Pittsburgh where he still lives, but works through his retirement as the president of the Geiger College.  So Rabbi Salkowitz would say to me, “Tell me David, about Geiger, about my friend Walter’s project.”  “Tell me, David, what is it like? What is my friend Walter up to?”  And once, “Tell me David, my friend Walter wants me to fly to Germany for the ordination exercises.  I don’t think I can.”  “Why not?” I would ask encouragingly.  “Well, David,” he said, “long flights are hard for me because my legs are too long.”  Of course we both understood that the flight would be difficult for him, but he found a way to say that in a way that made me feel good about being short!  That was his gift. 

But, in a way, I brought him to Germany with me every time.  Because he was here waiting anxiously upon my return to hear my descriptions.  And also because when Alla and I would go each year to the ordination ceremonies, because then I get to kvell as I see my students graduate, we would sit at dinner with Rabbi Jacob and the topic of conversation was always our good friend Selig Salkowitz.

And so Alla and I spoke with Rabbi Jacob on the phone yesterday, speaking again about our good friend Selig Salkowitz.  Rabbi Jacob wished he could be here in person, but he sent me the following words to share, giving us a glimpse of what our rabbi meant to his equals, a privilege of perspective which none of us share:

My friend Selig Salkowitz will be remembered by us and by those whose lives he touched.  Ours was the unlikely friendship of two individuals from totally diverse background – he from the heart of New York and I from the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri -  two individuals with opposite world views -  yet the friendship continued through our lifetimes. He had the ability to understand instantly what was unique in every person, to value it and bring it to the surface. He was a true 'people person' and used this gift in his rabbinate to bring those qualities to the surface. That gift among others not only led to his friendships wherever he went, but enabled him to lead a unique and creative rabbinate.  Zecher tzadik......

Zecher tzadik, Rabbi Jacob says, we remember a tzaddik, a righteous man.

Yes, our rabbi and teacher was my teacher and my friend.  I loved him and I will miss him.  But as we feel the emptiness that he leaves behind, I am consoled by the contentedness and completion that he felt.  One of the services he rendered for the rabbinate and the Jewish people of which he was most proud, and rightfully so, was his service to the Central Conference of American Rabbis as chair of the committee that successfully brought forth the resolution in 1990 that the rabbinate embrace all rabbis irrespective of sexual orientation.  He was the rabbi of the rabbinate then, receiving and responding to all the anxious and passionate letters of colleagues on all sides of the issue.  Papers that Rabbi Salkowtiz, by the way, carefully preserved and transferred to the American Jewish Archives.  He began the committee statement that he penned, a document that is now historic in the annals of Reform Judaism, with these words: 

Jewish religious values are predicated upon the unity of God and the integrity of the world and its inhabitants as Divine creations.  These values identifyshleimut as a fundamental goal of human experience.  The Hebrew root sh-l-m expresses the ideal of wholeness, completeness, unity and peace. 

He then concludes the eloquent statement with a lesson from the Torah.  Let us hear his words now, letting him be our rabbi one more time:

Our Torah teaches that, on the eve of Jacob’s meeting and reconciliation with his brother Esau, he wrestled with a manifestation of Divinity and was wounded.  The text continues: “vayavo Yaakov shaleim,” “and Jacob arrived shaleim” following his struggles with himself and others.  Thus did he become known as Yisrael, the one who wrestles with God.  We, too, as B’nei/B’not Yisrael, the spiritual descendants of Jacob, as human beings and as liberal Jews, wrestle with ourselves and our lives to achieve a measure of sh’leimut. 

This great rabbi understood that life is a struggle but it is a worthy struggle, and can at times be wounding, but it is a struggle that can achieve wholeness, completeness, unity and peace.  God engages in that struggle with us, as we are reflections of each other.  Rabbi Salkowitz had the merit to conclude his service on earth last Friday night on the holy Shabbat.  His labors were completed, and now he rests in peace.  Alav hashalom.