As Jews around the world usher in the High Holy Days beginning with Rosh Hashana on sundown Wednesday, they will gather with loved ones to hear the blast of the shofar and to partake of ancient customs around sweet-laden tables. Nowhere is tradition more important than with families who share a religious calling over generations.
As with other professions practiced by fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, it is not unusual to find rabbis and cantors doing the spiritual work their ancestors once did. And with Judaism evolving, some women are now spiritual leaders of their congregations, following in the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers.
The start of the High Holy Days make the familial connection even more special. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is the beginning of a 10-day solemn period known as the Days of Awe, which culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Oct. 4.
“On Rosh Hashana, when I’m standing up there,” says Rabbi Mark Kula of the Conservative Temple Bet Shira congregation in Pinecrest. “I really feel the bridge that connects all the generations.”
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Kula should know. His father was a cantor, his grandfather a cantor and rabbi, and one of his brothers also followed in the family business.
For the four families profiled here, including a husband-and-wife rabbinical team, the High Holy Days weave a thread of kinship that binds the young with the old, the modern with the traditional.
“We pass tradition on from one generation to the next,’’ Zalman Lipskar explains. He and his father Sholom serve as rabbis at The Shul in Surfside, a Chabad congregation that the elder Lipskar founded more than three decades ago. “That's what Jewish life is about.’’
The granddaughter of an Orthodox rabbi
From an early age, Rachel Greengrass knew she wanted to be an engineer. It seemed the natural choice for a young woman who excelled in math and science. Though she came from a long line of rabbis, she felt no particular attraction for the religious life.
At Washington University in St. Louis, however, that all changed when she took an introductory course in Jewish history.
“I learned how radically Judaism had evolved over time even as we held true to the same priniciples. It has always changed to become relevant to the times,’’ said Greengrass, the granddaughter of an Orthodox rabbi.
Greengrass didn’t become an engineer. Instead, after earning a degree in marketing, she applied to Hebrew Union College, eventually becoming the sixth rabbi in seven generations. But her ordination came with a twist. The other Greengrass rabbis were Orthodox, a branch of Judaism that does not ordain female rabbis.
And though her world view is “completely different’’ from the man who was 68 years her senior, she says she gets a special feeling when she browses through her grandfather’s books, some of which are shelved in her office at Temple Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Pinecrest.
“It’s been a real treat to read his notes,’’ said Greengrass, 34. “I feel like he’s right here with me and that I’m studying with him.’’
Greengrass, who has served at Beth Am for six years, feels fortunate her grandfather was alive when she was ordained in 2008. In fact, she received smicha, or laying of the hands, from him. He was 95.
“I cried the entire time,’’ she recalled.
A Holocaust survivor, Isidore Greengrass did not express emotions easily. But Greengrass now understands how this Polish man’s life unwittingly influenced her own career. For example, he occasionally brought her along for prayers at his small Orthodox shul. (In the Orthodox faith, women and men are separated in the temple.)
“That wasn’t done, but nobody questioned him,’’ she said. “I think he was planting a seed in me.’’
Though her grandfather considered Reform Judaism too liberal, he asked Greengrass to keep her name. Her two sons, 4 and 2, also bear the same surname — an effort to keep it going since there are no male Greengrasses in her generation.
Will the Greengrass tradition continue? “I look at Henry,’’ she says of her eldest, ‘‘and wonder that. But I know he’ll be who he is. If he’s going to be a rabbi, it’ll be his decision.’’
A husband-and-wife team
It’s been seven years since Cheryl and Andrew Jacobs have spent the Jewish High Holy Days together with their two children. As husband and wife, the two rabbis usually led services at their respective temples.
Not this year.
Cheryl is a rabbi at Ramat Shalom Synagogue in Plantation alongside Andrew. This year, they will lead services together.
“In the past the holidays have been lonely for me,” said Cheryl, formerly of Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation. “I can’t even explain how excited I am.”
On a recent Sunday, the pair played off each other as they led a group of Sunday School children in a lesson of the Shofar, a ram’s horn sounded on the holiday. When Andrew said he could hold the note longer, she quipped: “Is that a challenge?”
She took him on as the children cheered. (He won.)
The pair met about 20 years ago at the Jewish Theological Seminary school in New York in a Hebrew class. They used to sit in the back of the class and make fun of the students who were studying to be rabbis.
“We would always say we would never be rabbis,” he said, saying neither of them grew up in religious families. “We were academics.”
Andrew was getting his master’s degree in Jewish history and Cheryl was working toward her doctorate in Biblical studies. Andrew graduated in 1996 and attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, switching courses to become a rabbi. Cheryl continued at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but switched to the rabbinical program, unbeknownst to Jacobs.
They reconnected in 1997.
“We both realized we were in rabbinical school and laughed at that,” he said.
They began dating; two years later, they married. She graduated from rabbinical school in 2000, he in 2001.
When he was hired at Ramat Shalom in 2002, they moved to Florida. At the time they had a 1-year-old daughter.
Cheryl landed a job at Jewish Family Services of Broward County, running an outreach program. A couple years later she went to Kol-Ami as the associate rabbi. Late last year she left Kol-Ami; in May, she joined Ramat Shalom to head an outreach program.
Cheryl said they complement each other. While Andrew is a pulpit rabbi who works with synagogue members, Cheryl focuses on outreach, going to prisons and hospitals.
The couple’s 13-year-old daughter Abigail just had her bat mitzvah and their 11-year-old son Jonah loves sports. They are thrilled their parents are together under one roof.
“It’s much better this way,” said Abigail.
Like father, like son
Sholom Lipskar stood on a platform Sunday speaking about the importance of the Torah in Judaism.
His son, Zalman Lipskar, also a rabbi, stood below and stared.
“I love listening to him speak,” said the younger Lipskar. “I always learn something.”
The father-son duo are rabbis at The Shul in Surfside, a Chabad congregation that the elder Lipskar founded more than three decades ago. Sholom Lipskar, 67, said having a son follow in his footsteps is a “sense of fulfillment.’’
Sholom comes from a family of rabbis. His brother, Mendel Lipskar is the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Southern Africa. One of his nephews runs the Aleph Institute, which provides services for Jewish inmates and soldiers, and another nephew is a rabbi at the Chabad of Downtown Miami.
Sholom was born in Russia and moved to Toronto with his family when he was about 3. For generations, his family followed the Chabad movement. Steeped in tradition, the men wear long beards, black hats and long jackets. They observe Sabbath, keep kosher and pray daily.
While his father wasn’t a pulpit rabbi, Sholom’s grandfather was.
In 1969, Sholom and his wife were sent as an emissary of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the Chabad Rebbe or leader, to Miami Beach to grow the Chabad community. He soon found there wasn’t an active Jewish community in the Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands and Surfside area.
“Everyone thought my dad was crazy when he said he was going to build a congregation,” said Zalman.
They began meeting in hotels and then moved to a storefront. In 1991, they opened The Shul, which is now expanding. Today, the congregation has 600 families.
Zalman, 37, didn’t become a pulpit rabbi right away. After graduation, he went into the business world, but always knew he would join his father at The Shul. He began as a rabbi 17 years ago and leads the younger crowd in services and helps with outreach.
“It was my calling,” said the father of five.
Music married to faith
Mark Kula and his five brothers grew up in a family steeped in Jewish tradition. It was a home filled with music and faith – his mother was a pianist, his father a cantor.
"It was a very Jewish home," recalled Kula, the rabbi at Temple Bet Shira, a Conservative synagogue in Pinecrest.
Kula, 51, loved to hear his father sing, not only during services but also around the home. From an early age he displayed a good ear for music, but it was not a foregone conclusion that he would enter the religious life.
It really wasn’t until he was in college, majoring in psychology at Columbia University, that he recognized his calling. He read a newspaper article that sounded the death knell of cantors: “I remember asking myself, ‘How can that be?’ It’s so important and I loved it so much. I knew that at least it would go on with me.’’
After graduating, he went on to the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, his father’s alma mater, and believes he may be the first second-generation graduate of the program.
“I think that gave me a bond with my father that was unique compared with my brothers,’’ he said. “We had so much in common.’’
Young Cantor Kula often consulted the elder Cantor Kula during the five years in which their careers overlapped. They also sang duets and performed together in concerts. “Exquisite experience,’’ Kula said
Though Morton Kula died two year ago, his legacy of faith and music live on. “There is this shadow of the greatness of who my father was. I hope I measure up,’’ he said.