Under sheets of rain and dim flashes of lightning, nearly a thousand people packed the sanctuary of Temple Beth Am for the evening Yom Kippur service on Friday. The holiest day of the year for the Jewish community was a bittersweet celebration for the Beth Am congregation, whose senior rabbi conducted his final High Holy Days services from the pulpit.
Terry Bookman, 64, has been senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am, a reform Jewish synagogue in Pinecrest, for 20 years. He helped transform the synagogue into a vast community built on the foundations of social justice, education, outreach and collaboration.
After 11 years of serving as rabbi at Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee and two decades serving the pulpit in South Florida, Bookman is ready to retire and move to a different stage in his life. He officially steps down in June.
The rabbi’s Yom Kippur sermon was not only about forgiveness and repentance, as Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, but about completion and closure.
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Being complete, the rabbi said, is about being unburdened by the past and being present in whatever is currently happening in our lives. Being complete brings freedom, personal satisfaction and heightened level of self-expression.
“My friends, as I wind down my career here at Beth Am, I want you to know that I am complete,” Bookman said.
While Bookman’s colleagues and congregants said they were happy for him, he will be greatly missed.
“In a lot of ways he adopted me as his daughter,” said Rabbi Rachel Greengrass, who has been at Temple Beth Am since 2008.
Greengrass says the senior rabbi showed her respect and honor, and he helped build her confidence over the years. Perhaps his greatest gift, Greengrass said, is authenticity.
“He’s so himself; I think that’s the biggest lesson,” she said.
And while the rabbi may not tell his congregants what they want to hear, he tells them what is necessary for them to know, big or small.
“He told me I needed to buy new shoes one time,” Greengrass said with a smile.
Cantor Rachelle Nelson has been at Temple Beth Am for 23 years. Some of her favorite moments with the senior rabbi have been the times they have written music together.
“When I get the melody that works with his words, he gets such an incredible look of satisfaction on his face,” she said. “It’s worth every moment that I sat at the piano.”
Greengrass said the senior rabbi is leaving behind a healthy congregation with a strong leadership, dedicated congregants and a good financial base, but it was not always that way.
“I came to a very demoralized congregation,” Bookman said of his arrival at Temple Beth Am in 1994. “Their founding rabbi had retired 10 years earlier. They’d had kind of a revolving door of senior leadership that didn’t work together. Membership declined. Everything was in decline. The facilities were a mess, and it was very siloed.”
It took two years of convincing for the rabbi to decide to move to South Florida.
“I didn’t seek this big place,” he said. “I was happy where I was.”
But he saw the challenges the temple was facing and wanted to take them on.
One of the greatest challenges, he said, was to get senior leaders and temple administrators to trust in his office and to believe in themselves enough to be open to making changes.
It took nine years after Bookman’s arrival for the wheels at Temple Beth Am to start turning. It took seven years and approximately $26 million to renovate the 140,000 square-foot campus, which includes the sanctuary, day school and religious school.
The clergy worked on energizing the community around the values of Sabbath, lifelong learning and tikkun olam, or healing the world, to bind members of the temple to one another.
“We’re busting out of the place,” Bookman said.
The time it took to transform the temple added up to 16 years of the rabbi’s services. After some fine-tuning and staff changes, he realized his time was winding down.
“My vision here has been fulfilled,” he said. “Beth Am is everything and even more than I dreamed it could be when I first came here.”
The senior rabbi does not know exactly what is next for him after he steps down, and he’s fine with that.
“The answer is, I don’t know; I’m really trying to stay in the ‘I don’t know’ for as long as possible,” he said.
Bookman wants to spend the first year or two of his retirement traveling the world. He would return to Temple Beth Am and be available to the congregation, however, to the extent that his successor may need him.
In his study, Bookman recalled the teachings of Ram Dass, an American spiritual leader. Ram Dass talks about the first stage of life as a time of growing, the middle stage as a time of doing and the third stage of life as a time of being. In the middle stage, people identify themselves by what they do, and in the final stage they define themselves by who they are. Bookman identifies with this.
“Now I’d like to figure out who I’d be instead of what I do,” Bookman said. “And I’m not in a rush.”
Temple Beth Am is in the process of selecting a successor. Last year, a committee of 18 people representing all aspects of the synagogue began sending out surveys to congregants asking what they were looking for in their next senior rabbi.
About 900 people responded to the survey, and the committee held 13 parlor meetings to pool the information gathered from the surveys. From the surveys, the committee wrote the application for the senior rabbi position. The application went to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the leading organization of reform rabbis in the United States.
The committee hopes to make a decision by January or February.
Members of the congregation assert that no one can replace Bookman.
“He’s been such an important part of our faith, and he has helped instill in our family a strong sense of faith,” said Dan Farkas, 45.
His fondest memories with the rabbi are those of Sunday mornings spent reviewing prayers and songs. Farkas said Bookman has a special way in which he answers children’s questions about their faith.
“One of the children asked why Jews can’t have a Christmas tree,” Farkas said. “Rabbi Bookman handled it so well. He said it’s all right to enjoy Christmas with other people, but that it’s not our holiday.”
The Farkases have been members of Temple Beth Am for about nine years. Farkas’ daughter Remy, 15, is a sophomore at Miami Palmetto Senior High and president of the youth group at the temple. She has been going to the temple every Sunday with her dad since she was in the second grade and fell in love with the religious school because of Bookman.
“I grew up with him, and it’s so sad for him to leave,” she said.
Julianne Farkas, Remy’s mother, said Bookman made her daughter’s bat mitzvah special.
“There is no one as magical as Rabbi Bookman,” Remy said.
Dan Farkas said when he first heard the news of Bookman’s retirement two years ago, he was shocked and scared not just for himself, but for the entire congregation.
“Who could replace this man? He is this temple,” he said.
For two years the rabbi has been preparing his congregants for his retirement, and Farkas said he’s ready now.
“Shock and fear is now excitement for the future,” he said.