Standing in the midst of a long line on Friday afternoon, as it wrapped around Lexington Avenue at 55th Street and reached all the way toward Park Avenue, one saw curious passers-by wondering what the attraction was. Especially when people in line referred to their having “the hottest ticket in town.”
Turns out that ticket was not for a rock concert or movie premiere. It was for a Friday evening Shabbat service at Central Synagogue honoring Peter Rubinstein on his leaving his post as senior rabbi after 23 years. More than 1,300 people filled every seat in the sanctuary, and when the rabbi appeared at precisely 6 p.m., when the service began, he was greeted with spontaneous and extended applause.
The outpouring of affection lasted throughout the service as congregation presidents, past and present, paraphrased Rabbi Rubinstein’s “love letter” to the congregation from his sermon of last Yom Kippur, expressing their love in return.
In remarks posted on the synagogue’s website, David Edelson, the current president, explained that “this service is not about saying goodbye. Rather, it is about reflecting on and celebrating all that you have meant to us. It is about thanking you and reiterating our love for you.”
Central Synagogue’s former president, Howard Sharfstein, presented the rabbi with a book of 18 of his most memorable sermons; he noted on the website that Rabbi Rubinstein gave the congregation “hope and strength” following the devastating fire of August 1998 that destroyed the sanctuary, and at difficult times like the 9/11 terror attack and the financial crisis of 2008. “You challenged us to become better people, more highly valued people. You showed us how to be better Jews, and how our faith must be part of our lives every day that we have the blessing of breath.”
Rabbi Rubinstein is known as a leader not only of the Reform movement but in interfaith work, in part through his association with the Manhattan-based Auburn Theological Seminary, whose board he chaired.
During a 10-minute video that featured colleagues, family and synagogue officials, Rabbi Rubinstein was described as a man of humility, a change agent who saw potential in his congregation and challenged its members to strive for excellence.
Other honors included the naming of the chapel in Rabbi Rubinstein’s honor; a fund in his name for “the renaissance of Reform Judaism”; and a “flash mob” of students dancing to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl’s soaring rendition of “Higher Love.”
Rabbi Buchdahl, who is giving up her position of cantor at Central Synagogue to succeed Rabbi Rubinstein, led the rousing Kabbalat Shabbat service with her clear, ringing voice.
Rabbi Rubinstein announced last year that he would step down from his post June 30 of this year. Last month he was named director of Jewish community programming at the 92nd Street Y.
In his moving remarks at the conclusion of the service, also posted on the synagogue’s website, the rabbi thanked the congregation for its affection, for allowing him his “missteps” and “failures,” and for always being at his side. He closed by saying the evening was “not about loss. It is something about heartache, but above all it is about truth and the wonder of what you and I have done together. Together — and we must never forget that.”