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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved. 


 

June 15, 2018  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Rabbi Birnholz looking forward to life as congregant

By BRUCE LOWITT Jewish Press

He’s not really leaving. Relocating is more like it.

“Donna and I will definitely be participating here – as congregants,” Rabbi Richard Birnholz said. “The difference will be instead of sitting on the pulpit I’ll sit in the congregation with my wife.”

After 31 years as the rabbi at Congregation Schaarai Zedek (Gates of Righteousness) on Swann Avenue, during which membership at the Reform synagogue doubled to its current 1,100 families, Rabbi Birnholz is retiring, handing the reins to former associate Rabbi Joel Simon.

“I think I’ll be giving a sermon on the High Holy Days, probably a sermon from time to time,” said Birnholz who will assume the title of rabbi emeritus. “I won’t have an advisory role. Rabbi Simon needs no advice from me. Part of my joy will be watching what he does, and continuing to learn from him and to kvell over all the new things that he does and the ways he does them.”


Rabbi Richard and Donna Birnholz when they arrived in Tampa in 1987. Rabbi Richard and Donna Birnholz when they arrived in Tampa in 1987. With their children in Tampa and Vero Beach, the Birnholzes will be sticking close to home for the most part. Besides, he said, they’re not travelers. Occasional visits to national parks is about the extent of it.

“I like woodworking, and Donna and I love gardening,” he said. “Plus, we have 47 years of stuff we’ve accumulated that we have to go through, to decide what to toss and what to put to good use. And we’ll have more time to socialize.”

A rabbi is responsible for a lot of official socializing, as well as the usual daytime and middle-of-the-night emergencies. The 73-year-old Birnholz will be able to pick and choose the former, with less of the latter.

He came to Tampa in 1986 from Jackson, MS, where he had led a synagogue of 250 families for 13 years.


Rabbi Birnholz in 1992 with the late Rev. A Leon Lowry, a Tampa civil rights leader and Hillsborough County School Board member. Rabbi Birnholz in 1992 with the late Rev. A Leon Lowry, a Tampa civil rights leader and Hillsborough County School Board member. Rabbi Birnholz was in Jackson at the tail end of the civil rights movement and at a time when overt anti- Semitism was prevalent. There were times he felt it necessary to wear a bulletproof vest and carry a .38-caliber pistol.

Just before he left Jackson, he said, “the Nazi party called and told me, ‘We’re going to burn down your Jew church and all your Jew businesses.’” Nothing ever came of it. But in the years before his arrival in Mississippi, the synagogue and the rabbi’s house were dynamited by the Klan “and in ‘73 they burned crosses on the lawns of a number of my congregants and on two occasions Klan night riders shot up the front of the temple.”


Rabbi Birnholz was selected as a torch bearer in 1996 as the Olympic flame wended its way through Tampa on its way to the Atlanta Games. Rabbi Birnholz was selected as a torch bearer in 1996 as the Olympic flame wended its way through Tampa on its way to the Atlanta Games. His experiences in Jackson as well as an assistant rabbi in Memphis made Rabbi Birnholz well suited to succeed Rabbi Frank Sundheim when the pulpit at Schaarai Zedek came open, said Carl Zielonka, a member of the rabbinic search committee. Zielonka’s father, David Zielonka, had been Schaarai Zedek’s rabbi from 1930-70.

“(Birnholz) was a good Southern boy…. I thought he’d be a perfect fit for what at the time was a real Southern congregation,” Zielonka said.

“I saw it as an opportunity to take a congregation that was doing well and hopefully to enable it to flourish,” Rabbi Birnholz said.

He also saw something else in Tampa – the city as a whole. “There was a degree of religious apathy that I had never experienced before. It seemed like people moved down here in order to give up their prior life and interest in causes and wanted to be more laid back and just enjoy life rather than worry about issues.”


Rabbi Birnholz, left, with Rabbi Joel Simon, who will be assuming the senior rabbinate at Schaaraii Zedek, having a little fun while publicizing a youth group event in 2010. Rabbi Birnholz, left, with Rabbi Joel Simon, who will be assuming the senior rabbinate at Schaaraii Zedek, having a little fun while publicizing a youth group event in 2010. Schaarai Zedek was a classical Reform congregation when he arrived. Congregants didn’t necessarily wear a yarmulke (neither did he in those early years) and the prayers were primarily in English, and the congregation was happy with that, he said.

“I learned during my assistantship that it was important for the rabbi to always be aware of liturgical trends in the Reform movement,” Rabbi Birnholz said. “I watched those closely, and I realized that even Reform Judaism was becoming more and more traditional in its observance. So slowly but surely I added new Hebraic elements to the service that we hadn’t read or chanted before.”


Rabbi Birnholz clowns around at Purim in 1990. Rabbi Birnholz clowns around at Purim in 1990. Mark Wolfson, a longtime congregant and a past president, said Rabbi Birnholz “kind of led us there, but at a thoughtful pace that would be acceptable to the congregants. We went from a congregation that had a professional non- Jewish choir to a cantorial soloist and eventually to a cantor.”

“And he was very influential in the development of our Sunday school. I remember, growing up, before he was here, we’d read a textbook; it would be like regular school. He made it much more experiential, involving us in current events. He’d bring a celebration of Israel into the picture, talking about a Jewish topic or a story from the Bible, introducing Hebrew at an age-appropriate level, making it more interesting. I thought he was a big innovator in that regard,” Wolfson said. “And he’s been very supportive of the Reform movement’s summer camps and scholarships for kids going to Reform camps.”

Rabbi Birnholz also came up with this idea for Confirmation students: he pairs boys and girls in canoes and they navigate a waterway – it has been the Hillsborough River, Weeki Wachee River or elsewhere – and learn about relationships, how to cooperate in order to be successful in life. The rabbi paddles among them in a kayak.

He also created the idea of turning Confirmation students into teaching assistants, enabling the synagogue to grow its youth program because the youngsters were staying involved, and he supported congregants interested in starting a Jewish preschool, and hiring a full-time youth director.

And services are now livestreamed. “You can go back and see them all. They’re archived,” Rabbi Birnholz said. “What’s kind of nice is how many folks we run into who say they haven’t been able to get to temple because they’re not feeling well but with the live streaming they can pray at home along with the congregation, and can go back and find a sermon they heard and want to hear again.”

“I think if my predecessors, the senior rabbis, came back today, they would say we’re a much more Conservative congregation and wonder what happened, how did it happen – and how could we let it happen.”

There was some resistance to a few of the changes, Rabbi Birnholz said, “but I think that the leaders saw that good things were happening and decided to be good sports about it and see how things went, and as the congregation continued to grow they realized that maybe we were onto something and had a future. And I think had we not changed we would not have grown to the extent that we have.”

Not that he thinks he’s done enough.

“We’re seeing a growth in the number of baby boomers. With that growth comes people with time on their hands, who are active, healthy and looking for things to do. Starting new initiatives is tons of fun and a great challenge.

“We need more ROMEO-type lunches – ROMEO stands for Retired Old Men Eating Out,” Rabbi Birnholz said with a laugh. “We need more of that, more daytime study for folks who have trouble driving at night.

“And trips – short weekends or four-or-five-day trips around the United States of Jewish interest. And there’s a huge need for tikkun olam, projects to repair the world, to do good works with different communities. And to try to do things with Sisterhood and Brotherhood and youth groups that cross generations. I could make a fulltime career out of what I call the retired-years program.”

Rabbi Birnholz said he will miss officiating at “milestones” – baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, even funerals.

Joan Wadler, a past temple president, liked how the rabbi gave sermons “I could relate to. He knows how to make a point and tell a story to make it interesting and relevant to life.”

She also learned a lot from him about dealing with people and caring about people. “For every occasion, he has a gift for words and he knows the right things to say at the right time. That’s one of his greatest gifts and attributes that I will miss,” Wadler said.

She’s not the only one.

“If I had a vote on who’s the best pulpit rabbi in America,” Wolfson added, “and I’ve been to a lot of congregations around the country, I’d say Rabbi Birnholz has got to be among the top 10. He’s a brilliant man, writes and speaks so eloquently, his understanding of the English language, how he exudes ethos and pathos whether he’s at a funeral service or uplifting people at a bar mitzvah. … That’s one thing I’ll miss, his sermons, connecting with a topic and tying it back to Jewish values.”


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