Retired rabbis don’t fade away, they just continue to serve
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RetirementA rabbi in motion tends to stay in motion

Retired rabbis don’t fade away, they just continue to serve

"I will always be a rabbi."

Temple Sinai commissioned a new Torah in honor of Rabbi Jamie Gibson's retirement from the Reform Temple. 
Photo provided by Temple Sinai.
Temple Sinai commissioned a new Torah in honor of Rabbi Jamie Gibson's retirement from the Reform Temple. Photo provided by Temple Sinai.

Rabbi Eli Seidman believes that rabbis don’t really retire.

“Rabbis, who really love their jobs and the mission of their jobs, retire from what they do but not from who they are,” he said.

Rabbi Sara Rae Perman agreed, quoting a magnet on her refrigerator: “Old rabbis never die, they just get gray around the temple.”

“There’s a lot of truth to that,” she said.

Seidman retired in 2020 after serving for 25 years as the director of pastoral care for the Jewish Association on Aging. After leaving the JAA, he spent time visiting Jewish patients at UPMC Montefiore and UPMC Presbyterian hospitals, as well as veterans at the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center. He also volunteered at the East End Cooperative Ministries food bank and prepared lunches for seniors at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill.

Rabbi Seidman with a visiting alligator (Photo provided by the JAA)

The rabbi’s in-person volunteer work paused, though, when he and his wife left Pittsburgh at the end of October 2021 to spend the winter with their daughter in California. The pair traveled the storied Route 66 at a casual pace, visiting big cities and small towns.

“We did all of the cheesy, corny, touristy things,” Seidman said. “We visited the big statutes and the blue whale and all the fun things and museums along the way.”

While in the Golden State, Seidman still volunteers — but virtually — conducting twice monthly erev Shabbat services via Zoom with residents of Heritage Manor and Canterbury Place, senior living facilities in Pittsburgh.

He also has turned his attention to art, trying his hand at both painting and writing poetry, a hobby he began nine years ago.

“I started writing [poems] for my own amusement,” he said. “They’re like a word puzzle that’s a fun way to express a thought.

I like to make them rhyme. Most of them have a religious tinge to them. They’re about the parsha or Jewish holidays, but some are just whimsical.”

Although he bought a paint set in Pittsburgh, it sat on a shelf for a long time. When he got to California, though, he decided to pick up a brush.

“When I came out [to California], all the things I used to do weren’t available anymore — the JCC and EECM — so I looked around and found an art store about two blocks from where we’re staying,” he said. “I’ve been taking classes there since the beginning of December and having a great time.”

Like Seidman, Perman has done some traveling since she retired from Greensburg’s Congregation Emanu-El Israel in 2016.

Rabbi Sara Perman on a trip to China in 2019.
Photo courtesy of Sara Rae Perman

“I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Shanghai [in 2019] to serve a congregation there for the High Holidays and during Shavuot,” Perman said. “I was able to do the b’nai mitzvah of five young people and then got to see a little more because we went to Beijing as well.”

Perman also sailed on a cruise with retired Conservative rabbis, although she is affiliated with the Reform movement.
The pandemic, however, ended the rabbi’s travels.

She continues to study, creating her own Daf Yomi for the last two years with a friend over Zoom, and has taken classes with the Shalom Hartman Institute. For about a year before its closing in 2019, Perman led monthly Shabbat services at Temple Beth Am in Monessen.

Since the pandemic, Perman has learned Torah trope and has begun chanting occasionally at Temple Sinai. She remains involved with the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University.

Perman continues to work to strengthen the community she served as part of both the Westmoreland Diversity Coalition and the Westmoreland Jewish Community Council.

Mostly, though, she said she is happy to be a Jew in the pew, spending her time baking and catching movies.

Rabbi Stephen E. and Lisa Steindel
Rabbi Stephen E. and Lisa Steindel

Rabbi Stephen Steindel, too, is happy to focus on life beyond the pulpit.

In 2009, the rabbi retired from Congregation Beth Shalom and moved to Boston. Steindel said that in addition to enjoying the city, he and his wife, Lisa, became frequent cruisers.

“We loved the Rabbinical Assembly Retired Association’s annual cruise each year from Florida,” he said.

When not seeing the world from the deck of a ship, Steindel served as a chaplain at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and visited seniors at various retirement homes.

Since moving back to Pittsburgh in 2014, Steindel has participated in a few life cycle events of former congregants but said he has mostly stayed out of the spotlight.

Unable to travel due to COVID, the Squirrel Hill resident has begun revisiting a collection of eulogies he gave during his rabbinate. Steindel, who served at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills before his tenure at Beth Shalom, often delivered as many as 70 eulogies a year.

The rabbi said he has been working with Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center, cataloging the eulogies, written on index cards.

“All rabbis use the joke, ‘I’m finishing a book. Oh, the book you’re writing, rabbi? No, the book I’m finishing reading,” Steindel said.

Rabbi Mark Mahler began writing a book updating the 613 mitzvot at the midpoint of his rabbinate at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. He envisioned finishing the book during his retirement from the congregation starting in July 2018. Since tackling the project in earnest, though, the rabbi has realized the work would be spread across multiple volumes and decided instead that a curated website would be more appropriate.

Rabbi Mark Mahler, left, and Alice Mahler. (Photo courtesy of Temple Emanuel)

“The medium has changed but the goal remains the same: To make every one of the 613 mitzvot possible for Jews, individually or collectively, to observe today,” he said.

The task, however, has proven more challenging than the rabbi anticipated. Each morning, after meditation and prayers, Mahler is deluged by personal emails requiring his response.

“I’ve retired as senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel, but I’ll always be a rabbi,” he explained. “I still have so many relationships, and especially with the pandemic, these communications are vital. I can’t really concentrate on my personal efforts until I respond to the emails on my desktop.”

The South Hills rabbi thought retirement would provide an opportunity to travel with his wife, Alice, while allowing him to record the liturgical music he wrote and introduced to Shabbat services during his rabbinate.

Life, however, had other plans.

Mahler and his wife welcomed 2019 by spending New Year’s Eve in Paris. On Memorial Day, an accident while cutting his lawn left the rabbi with a ruptured quadriceps tendon requiring surgery. Two weeks later, a freak home accident ruptured the tendon a second time, requiring a second surgery and additional recovery time.

In December of the same year, Mahler had heart surgery. He said the time spent on a ventilator during the three surgeries has challenged his larynx and forced him to put off recording his music until his voice eventually returns.

“One of the great blessings of my 40 years in congregational life was I hardly ever missed a day’s work,” Mahler said. “With both leg surgeries and my heart surgery, I thought, ‘Thank God, I’m retired. I was laid-up for 10 weeks with my leg surgeries and six weeks before starting the journey back after heart surgery.’ If I had been employed full time, it would have driven me nuts. I can’t imagine the challenges then to the congregation.”

Mahler said when he retired in 2018, he welcomed the new chapter in his life.

“I embraced it then and continue to do so without looking back,” he said. “I’m surprised at how busy I’ve been since I retired as senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel, but I will always be a rabbi. One of my delights in retirement is to see the gifts that Rabbi Aaron Meyer has brought to the congregation and community.”

Pittsburgh’s newest rabbi retiree, Rabbi Jamie Gibson, has maintained an active schedule since he retired from Temple Sinai in 2020 after 32 years. He holds the Rabbi Jason Edelstein Endowed Chair in Catholic Jewish Dialogue at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. In his class, “Catholic Jewish Dialogue,” Gibson teaches elements of Judaism and challenges for Catholic/Christian dialogue in the past and present day.

Rabbi Jamie Gibson (Photo provided by Temple Sinai)

When not commuting to or teaching in Latrobe, a round-trip journey that occupies five to eight hours a week, Gibson serves on the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations. He was nominated to fill the seat vacated by Rabbi Sharyn Henry when she moved outside city limits.

“We take up issues that are raised by citizens about how their rights may be being infringed upon or not respected,” Gibson explained.

He also serves on the ethics committee at UPMC Magee-Woman’s Hospital and on the advisory board of the Atkins Center for Ethics Center at Carlow University.

The rabbi said he is involved behind the scenes in several other interfaith efforts, a passion he had during his rabbinate.

Early in his retirement, Gibson traveled to the Caribbean, but has been unable to travel since the pandemic. He hopes to go to California in January for a five-day retreat as part of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and to Jerusalem this summer for the two-week Rabbinic Torah Seminar of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

While maintaining a full schedule, Gibson said the slower pace allowed by his retirement is welcome and that he is happy to create space for the next round of Jewish leaders.

“The wonderful thing about retirement,” Gibson said, “is that I’m not out of the house at 8 a.m. and back at 10 p.m. I can have a more leisurely pace to my day, and that’s OK. In terms of Jewish life, it really is time for newer people to step up with ideas and perspectives. Frankly, there are tools the younger generation has that I never got in rabbinical school 40 years ago.”

The Chronicle tried to contact retired Tree of Life Rabbi Alvin Berkun, but could not reach him by press time. PJC

David Rullo at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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