Looking Through These Windows, 1957-2017: Rabbi Norman Roman, Guest Speaker at Shabbat Celebration of 60 Years on Fairmount Boulevard

  This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, contains excerpts of the remarks of Rabbi Norman T. Roman, Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Kol Ami, West Bloomfield, MI, on the occasion of the Shabbat Service on Friday, May 12, 2017, honoring the 60-year milestone since the dedication of the Fairmount Boulevard/Beachwood building of our Anshe Chesed, 1957. He titled his presentation, “Looking Through These Stained Glass Windows: Meaningful Moments, Menschen and Memories, 1957-2017.” Rabbi Roman led the Kiddush as a child of the synagogue on May 31, 1957, and 60 years later he returned to the synagogue to reflect on the history of our synagogue’s dedication. We encourage you to share this post with others, whether by email, or by posting to social media, and to offer comments below to continue the discussion of our history.

It is a true joy for me to be here with you this evening, worshipping and reminiscing…sharing memories, prayer, song, and celebration.  My thanks to Rabbi Nosanchuk and Cantor Sager, as well as their staff, and the leadership of  this historic Reform Congregation.  In many ways, I would not be here, standing in the role of Rabbi, were it not because of you, and the legacy of Anshe Chesed.

Why me?  Why was I invited to speak tonight, honoring the 60th anniversary of this magnificent Sanctuary?  It’s because I answer to the name, Norman Roman.  And because of who called out to me …

You see, 80 years ago, in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, working with Music Directors Extraordinaire such as Max Janowski and Reuben Caplan, the beloved tenor Vocal Soloist (some called him a Cantor) of the Euclid Avenue Temple, was my father’s younger brother, Norman Roman.  He was killed in August 1944, in Normandy.  I was born (in New York City) in 1948, and given his honored name.

Four years later, we moved to Cleveland, and two years after that, my Dad, Bernie Roman (known as ‘Butz’) accepted Reuby Caplan’s invitation to join the music staff of the Congregation, as his Assistant Director.  On the first morning of Sunday School that Fall, Rabbi Barnett Brickner approached me in the hallway: “My boy, it’s good to have a Norman Roman walking the halls of the Temple again!” Rabbi Brickner stopped me in the hallway, smiled and patted me on the head, Hello, Norman.  “GOD KNOWS MY NAME!!!!” I thought, proudly.  Yes, I know there’s a sermon in that line, perhaps for some other occasion.  Tonight, however, the message is for all to realize how important it was that the Rabbi knew MY name.

In 1956-57, I watched with wide-open, fascinated eyes, as this Temple was being built.  And I have 2 distinct memories of our family’s weekly visits to see its progress, driving ‘out here’ from Cleveland Heights:  as an 8-year old, I could never figure out why we had to drive past the building on Fairmount Boulevard and then turn around, rather than just turning left into an entrance driveway; and I can recall, to this day – more than 60 years later – walking from our car on that driveway, across the front area, through the dirt and the snow, looking through the still un-paned window slats, into this Sanctuary – a sea of mud, before the flooring and the seats and the Bimah were installed.  Before the slats became the world-famous, identifiable stained glass windows and facade of this Holy Place..

To honor the memory of the first Norman Roman, Rabbi Brickner (and the Education Rabbi, Philip Horowitz), along with Reuby Caplan,  invited me to sing the Kiddush at the Dedication Service when the Sanctuary was completed in 1957 – 60 years ago.  My dear friend, Linda Maron Posner, represented the Religious School Students, joining me on the pulpit to light and bless the Sabbath Candles, and as the Shehechiyanu prayer was recited, MAGICALLY, the curtains of the Holy Ark, the Aron HaKodesh opened behind us!  It was an awe-filled moment.

Pageantry, pomp, formality and ceremony were all very important to the Reform Rabbis of the 1950s and early 60s – the Brickners, Silvers, Horowitzs, Greens and Silvermans who led our Reform Congregations in Cleveland.  The rituals they devised linked them to the sacred roles assigned to the Priests and Levites as described even in this week’s Torah Portion, Emor, and referred to by the Prophet Ezekiel in our Haftarah reading.  Our Reform Rabbis were teachers and speakers, pastors and public figures.  We were proud of them; I might even say that we not only worshipped with them, but in a sense, we worshipped them, as well.  We were grateful for the ways they blended the values and ideas of Torah and Jewish faith, with the post-war and post-Holocaust realities of the Cleveland Jewish Community.  They debated Zionism; they argued about the necessity for Hebrew to be taught and understood in our Congregations.  Their sermons and messages spoke of both the particularistic holiness of the Jewish way and the universalistic orientation we must have to all of God’s creatures. Into the mid-1960s, those Rabbinic personalities (there weren’t as yet Reform Cantorial figures in this city) impressed, inspired and motivated more than just a few of us to follow paths towards the Rabbinate, or other roles in Jewish professional life.

The Rabbi knows my name! – I would tell my friends.  This man of spirit and dignity, of integrity and knowledge and decency, knows my name; knows and appreciates what my thoughts and doubts and questions and goals might be!  Cleveland, as much as any community in North America, has been blessed with Rabbis who knew and accepted the power that they have to make our Jewish identities stronger and more meaningful.  To help us reconcile the feelings we had about being American and Jewish.

As I looked through the windows of this and other Sanctuaries, I no longer saw only mud on the ground, I saw learned men of scholarship, conviction and principle.  The next generation of Rabbis who led our community: Horowitz and Lelyveld, the younger Silver; assisted by Broude and Perlmutter and Friedman and Kiner and Roberts.  They also inspired and motivated us – not just on the Bimah or in the classroom, but on marches, at demonstrations, in the newspapers.  They were advocates and fighters: for Israel, for Soviet Jews, against the Vietnam war, for civil rights and equality.  Some of them spoke the ancient words of prophetic tradition in Hebrew as well as in English, some sang, even with guitars being strummed alongside shofars being sounded, some staked out very radical positions, challenging the silence or the indifference of many around them.

But they all, in one way or another, shared the words, and not just with me: We know your name!  Do you know who you are! Know your history and the imperatives of being a Jew (some called them Mitzvot).  They quoted Pirkei Avot: know from whence you came, where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give a full account. And the Rabbis were then joined by other colleagues, Cantors & Musicians like Levine and Smith and Bushman and Sager and Isaacson, Educators like Brilliant and Braverman and Bennett and Sorin, even youth workers and camp directors.  All of them saying: We know your name.  We know what you are capable of doing as a Jew.  Do you?

Each of them, and so many more – speaking to me, for they spoke to all of us.  Our Rabbis and Teachers and Leaders who committed themselves to the 20th and 21st century mission of fulfilling the roles described by Ezekiel in this week’s Haftarah:

“They shall guide my people, they shall teach them to distinguish between holy and profane, and to know the difference between pure and impure.  They shall guard my Torah and my laws, at every moment when there is the chance to witness for good.”

Honoring all of them, the influence they had on me, and the faith and identity they had in me (after all, God knows my name!), I was ordained as a Rabbi in 1975, just 2 months shy of 31 years after Cantor Norman Roman died in France.  I returned to Cleveland for 5 years, to serve Brith Emeth Congregation and Am Shalom in Lake County, as well as being appointed Rabbinic Dean of NELFTY.

Then, 3 years in Santa Monica, California, and in 1982, moving to the Northwest suburbs of Detroit, a community quite similar to Cleveland’s Eastside.  I’ve been in the Congregational Rabbinate there for more than 35 years, having also been an Adjunct Instructor in Religious Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy for almost 20 years, serving as the Rabbinic Dean of MSTY, and as quite a few Fairmount Temple alumni are aware, spending several weeks each summer as Faculty at the NFTY Kutz Summer Leadership Camp in Warwick, New York.

And it was just about 36 years ago next month (double-chai, for those of you, like me, who are fascinated by gematriya) that I first taught a High School student named Rob Nosanchuk.  I am proud to say that I was one of his Rabbis during the years when he looked through the windows of Sanctuaries and he decided that, since I knew his name, and knew what he was capable of, this was a path he could and should follow.  He is a great, dynamic, knowledgeable and caring Rabbi; he will lead you well.

Before this was Fairmount Temple, or Euclid Avenue Temple – this Congregation was known as Anshe Chesed, people devoted to and blessed by a sense of constant lovingkindness.  It is my prayer, that the Chasidim of this community, those who live their lives so blessed, will continue the legacy, the strength, and the faith of those who came before you.  And that you will, in turn, inspire and provide for the generations who will be looking through their windows, into their world and future for Reform Judaism.  For after all, God knows all of our names…     Amen.