Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Rabbi Robert Samuels, z"l

From the moment I picked up the phone, I always knew when Bob Samuels was calling. "Hello?" "SHALOM, JEFF," he would say, and it sounded like he was standing next to you. "BOB SAMUELS. MAH NISHMA?"

Bob's big Texas personality came through on the phone and everywhere he went. He spoke the same way to a Druze villager or a cabinet minister. He treated every person with dignity and respect.

Bob was my mentor and teacher. He brought me to Haifa in 1981 to work at the school he headed, the Leo Baeck Education Center. My actual position was advisor to North American exchange students, but when I arrived he made me cantor of the synagogue on campus, Ohel Avraham. Along with his invitation to work at Leo Baeck came a different kind of invitation — to compose new music for the synagogue and the young Israeli Reform movement. His relentless encouragement led to my writing a passel of new songs, including "Oseh Shalom," "Haporeis Sukkat Shalom," and "Yeish Kochavim."

Bob's life revolved around his family as much as it did around his work. He loved music and art, books and big ideas, the Land of Israel, and playing softball. Most of all he loved people, but he hated hypocrisy and insincerity. He could smell it a mile away and had no patience for it. He held himself and others to a high standard, a mantle he took upon himself as a Reform rabbi (and a student of Rabbi Abraham Cronbach) to emulate the prophets of Israel, to speak the truth, and to champion the cause of the powerless, a message he taught to thousands of students over the decades.

Bob made inclusion his mission. He made special efforts to bring the Druze community, living in villages near Haifa, into the school's orbit. He made regular trips to the villages to meet the families of his Druze students. He also reached out to Haifa's Arab community.

When Israel liberated the Jews of Ethiopia in the early '90s, Bob sought to acculturate the new immigrants into Israeli society. He and his students welcomed them with flowers, and, knowing that many of them were living nearby in poverty, Bob converted the school's bomb shelter into a free "grocery store" stocked with donated food, supplies and clothing.

Bob's struggles with Israel's governmental bureaucracy and entrenched religious institutions were never easy, but he never lost hope. He was always asking questions, always searching for a better way. His impact on Israel and Progressive Judaism was profound, but it was the sparkle in his eye, the way he loved you with that big Texas heart, that gave you strength and hope for the future.

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