Rabbi Mordecai Waxman-who more than anyone else shaped Temple Israel into a major force in the Conservative Movement during his 54 years of leadership of one of Great Neck's largest congregations-announced plans to retire within the coming year.
Temple Israel Rabbi Mordecai Waxman represented American Jews when he greeted Pope John Paul II in Miami in 1987.
"Reaching the decision to step down from my role as your senior rabbi after all these years and all the wonderful experiences, relationships and memories has not been an easy one," Rabbi Waxman said in a letter mailed to the membership, along with another from newly elected Temple President Steven Markowitz. "After consulting with many longtime members, my family and my health advisors, I came to the conclusion that this was the best course for both the Temple and me."
"...I intend to fulfill my current position as best I can over the next year and then assume an emeritus role," the rabbi said. "Next year, I will have concluded 55 years of service to Temple Israel-an exceptional period of rabbinic involvement with one congregation and perhaps a record. They have been rich and fulfilling years for me as they were for my wife, Ruth, and they enabled me also to be of service to the larger Jewish community."
President Markowitz, in his letter accompanying Rabbi Waxman's, said: "It must be emphasized that the decision to retire is Rabbi Waxman's and his alone. While there has been no diminution of his mental facilities or his commitment to the synagogue, he finds that physical problems are forcing him to limit his activities. We agreed that it would best serve his needs and the needs of the congregation to begin the retirement planning process now and he will, of course, play an active role in the transition. It is important that you understand that we are at the beginning of the process. Rabbi Waxman will formally step down in September, 2002 and will, at that time, assume the title and role of rabbi emeritus. Until that time, he continues as our senior rabbi with all the attendant honor, authority and responsibilities of that position."
Mr. Markowitz has appointed Temple Israel member Dr. Jerry Seiler, the former longtime chairman of the congregation's Ritual Committee and the chairman of the Temple Israel Friends of the Jewish Theological Seminary Committee, to chair a Search Committee charged with seeking a replacement for Rabbi Waxman. He also appointed members Linda and William Ackerman to head a committee to commemorate the rabbi's years of service to the congregation.
In 1997 Temple Israel honored Rabbi Waxman with a year-long jubilee celebration marking his 50 years of service to the congregation. The congregation published several books to mark the many years of service of its rabbi, a tenure virtually unheard of in the Jewish world. One publication, edited by Temple member Dr. Jerome Yarett and later by Ronnie and Marc Katz, contained tributes to the rabbi from the scores of people who were associated with him through the years. In the foreword to the book, Dr. Yarett summed up the feelings of the congregation when he wrote: "In 1947, the leaders of six-year old Temple Israel of Great Neck made the very wise decision to engage Rabbi Mordecai Waxman as spiritual leader of this congregation. In doing so, they could not foresee that, with his inspiration and guidance, this congregation would grow into one of the largest and most esteemed synagogues within the Conservative Movement. Nor could they envision that 50 years later we would be celebrating with him the Jubilee of Mordecai Waxman's arrival, and continue to enjoy his presence.
"Through the years, whether in the many study sessions, lectures, discussion groups he has led or sermons delivered, we have admired his intellectual powers, tempered with a wonderful sense of humor, and benefited enormously from this remarkable man. His prodigious memory, breadth of knowledge and oratorical skills (usually extemporaneous) constantly amazed us. Yet, in times of tragedy or stress, his pastoral skills, his concern and compassion were evident, and comforted us. Rabbi Waxman has earned our deep appreciation and affection for enriching our lives and for his devotion to Temple Israel and Judaism."
At the close of the last century Newsday published a special supplement naming its choice of the 100 Long Islanders who most shaped society. Speaking about Rabbi Waxman, it said: "In the more than five decades that Mordecai Waxman has remained in the pulpit of Temple Israel in Great Neck, the synagogue has become Long Island's largest Conservative congregation, and Waxman a national and world leader of the Conservative Jewish movement and a major figure in international interfaith dialogue.
"Waxman placed his stamp on Temple Israel and the Conservative Movement early on, becoming a champion for equal Jewish education for girls and for egalitarian worship. The synagogue, which had about 100 families when Waxman arrived shortly after World War II, has some 1,300 families.
"By the 1970s, the Conservative Movement had become the largest branch of American Judaism-the Reform Movement eventually grew larger-and Waxman became president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement's national rabbinical arm.
"As chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation from 1985 to 1987, he met with Catholic leaders, the World Council of Churches and other Christian groups. In 1987, he led a delegation of nine Jewish leaders to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II in an effort to repair the rift in Catholic-Jewish relations caused by the Pope's meeting that year with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who was accused of complicity in Nazi war crimes. Ten days after that meeting, Waxman welcomed the Pope to Miami on behalf of the nation's Jewish community.
"In 1998, the Pope named Waxman a knight commander of St. Gregory the Great in honor of his contributions to the Church and society, the first rabbi to receive the honor."
Having accomplished so much, it can't help but be asked: "Why retire now?"
"Well, if you're going to retire, you have to do it some time," Rabbi Waxman explained following the mailing of the two letters. "The real problem is a physical one," he said. "Normal activities become a problem. Sometimes, simply standing at a service becomes painful and I don't like to operate under these circumstances.
"So the question becomes not why, but when to retire and under what circumstances. This seems to be a suitable time for me and the leadership of Temple Israel. I want to see things left heading in the proper direction."
Reflecting the same tone, President Markowitz said: "We are now entering into one of the most important times of change in the history of Temple Israel. I am counting on the support and input of all members to help us write the next chapter."