Two Rabbis In Mississippi Separated by Twenty Years

A surprising connection brings even more meaning

On November 17, 1995, I became a bar mitzvah. As the son of highly-active laypersons, I admirably performed my duties at a Friday night service (I was o comfortable up there, the rabbi sat down—perhaps a portent of things to come). One of the last “Classical Reform” b’nei mitzvah to happen at my home synagogue, after the Friday night service, I had all of Saturday “off.” Before beginning the party on Saturday—the theme of which was Al Sh’loshah D’varim; did I mention I grew up to be a rabbi?—it was time for hav’dalah.

My parents saw this as an opportunity to honor a family friend. In 1989, Rabbi Allan Schwartzman had retired to the Sarasota, Florida. He sometimes filled in at local reform congregations when his colleagues had an emergency, and he became friendly with my family. I remember we would go over to his house and talk, and vice-versa. I don’t know if he was advising my parents on how to raise a future rabbi or what, but when the time came to honor him at my bar mitzvah, we did so by having him lead the hav’dalah service.

I remember sitting with him before I went off to college at Tulane University, and he gave me some last bits of advice before I “left the nest.” His kindness made him approachable and trustworthy, as a rabbi and a friend.

Many years later, I was ordained as a rabbi and attending a golf fundraiser, the Delta Jewish Open, for the first time. As I wandered the halls of the historic Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, Mississippi., I noticed a familiar, albeit much younger, face on the wall. Staring back at me was the photo of none other than Rabbi Allan Schwartzman!

I asked the president of the congregation about Rabbi Schwartzman serving the community, and he informed me that Rabbi Schwartzman was in Mississippi for thirty years. As it turns out, he served both Greenville and Vicksburg before he retired to Florida! It was a fantastic coincidence, and I immediately snapped a photo of his congregational picture and sent it to my parents. The current rabbi, Rabbi Debra Kassof, led us in hav’dalah that evening, I could feel myself transported across space and time. The candle burned bright, with the memory of a previous hav’dalah mixing in with the same moment.

Sadly, Rabbi Schwartzman passed away this summer. I only found out because I happened to get a copy of the Greenville synagogue’s newsletter. In the printed newsletter is a short and heartfelt recap of the rabbi’s time on this earth. I can tell by the stories shared there that the synagogue members recall about him that he was well respected for his compassion, scholarship, and spiritual reverence.

While I’ve only been here in Mississippi for five years, and thirty years seems like a long way off, Rabbi Schwartzman offers a model of a rabbinate in a location not traditionally seen as a “Jewish powerhouse.” I find my work rewarding—both within the Jewish community as well as outside it. Knowing the impact he had, by devoting the majority of his career to small Jewish communities in Mississippi, is heartening and humbling.

I always look forward to the Delta Jewish Open, for the fellowship and the time on the golf course. But this year when I head to Greenville, it might be a little bit different. This year, I might linger a little longer, looking at the photos of past rabbis. This year, I might stare at the hav’dalah candle and wonder if it’s dimmed a tad. This year, though I am now an ordained rabbi, married with a family of my own, living in Mississippi— I will, once again, be thirteen years old, in Florida, following the lead of Rabbi Allan Schwartzman as we sing to separate the holiness of Shabbat from the mundaneness of the rest of the week.

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