On Friday night, April 8, 2016, my Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, MA (where I am the Emeritus) celebrated my 50th year in the rabbinate with a special Sabbath service. In my response to various speeches, I shared with the congregation the following words:
I have had two major existential crises in my life. The first one occurred when I was in high School in Istanbul, Turkey. I must have been in my early teens when I realized that I was not growing taller. When I complained about it to my French teacher, she, a little old lady that she was, told me, “You measure height from the shoulders up.” That was a revelation to me. From her words I derived the lesson that if I wanted to be successful in life I needed to develop my mind. So, I committed myself to my studies and did very well in High School. In fact, I became the valedictorian of my class.
The second crisis happened in law school (again in Istanbul) when I realized that I wanted to do something else than practicing business law. What shall I do? I was very much influenced by my father who was a good Hebraist and an accomplished structural engineer. I was not good at math. My brother, on the other hand, was the brain of the family, and not surprisingly he became an electrical engineer. I was good at humanities, and needed to find an avenue for myself. So, with the help of a neighbor who was a liberal Rabbi, my mother’s unswerving love and my father’s passion for Jewish studies, I decided to become a Reform Rabbi in the USA, even though I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish environment. I must been a rebel even then.
I entered the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Cincinnati, Ohio) in 1961 with a great enthusiasm for my newly elected profession. Looking back, I must say that I have been very fortunate. I took a few calculated risks in life. I married a wonderful woman, Ines; I carefully chose the University of Pennsylvania for my graduate school; was thrilled when I became the father of two wonderful children, Daniel and Deborah, and am now grateful to have four grandchildren, Ariella and Dalia, Avi and Talya, who fill me with joy. I was particularly happy to become the Rabbi of great synagogues, first in Buenos Aires, then in Glencoe, Ill, and finally at Beth Shalom, in Needham, MA (suburb of Boston) where I spent 23 productive years of my life. It was in Needham that I really learned how to become a Rabbi in the full sense of the word. Through the help of many of my wonderful past presidents, I was able to put Beth Shalom on the national map, and made sure that Jewish knowledge was based on solid foundation and liberal thinking. I am now thrilled to see the growth of our temple under the rabbinic leadership of Rabbis Perlman and Markley. I can’t wait to see our new building (now under construction) in the Fall of 2016.
Now that I am 77 years old, I have short-term projects. I am looking forward to Ariella’s confirmation this coming June, Avi’s Bar Mitzvah next April, 2017, Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah in Feb. of 2018, and then Talya’s Bat Mitzvah…she is still 8 years old and we don’t have a date yet. I also plan to continue to teach at Framingham State University. It gets me out of the house (Ines is happy about it) and allows me to do what I love best, namely, teaching. Personally, I am now looking at age 80. If I live to be that old, I will set up further short-term projects.
In the meantime, I enjoy the life Ines and I have together, love spending time with my grandchildren here in the Boston area, playing soccer with Avi and acting as a student in Talya’s imaginative class.
I enjoy studying with my rabbinic colleagues on Monday morning, helping my adopted synagogue in Barcelona, Spain, as well as writing, blogging, lecturing and teaching at different places, and doing some traveling to interesting places around the world.
Life is a journey, taken step by step. And I have been among the luckiest people in the world who has had the opportunity to do what I love best.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
April 11, 2016