Shalom Rav: Gates of Prayer honors Loewys for over a generation of service

After 34 years on the pulpit of Gates of Prayer in Metairie, there are plenty of stories about Rabbi Robert Loewy.

Many of those “shared experiences” were related at a gala weekend on May 11 and 12, celebrating Loewy’s retirement from the pulpit and “promotion” to rabbi emeritus.

His many accomplishments over those years were recounted, and recurring themes throughout the weekend included the importance of Jewish summer camp, and Loewy’s efforts following the levee breach after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The weekend was themed “Shalom Rav,” after the prayer that is sung in the evening service. While the prayer’s translation is “a great peace,” it can also mean “Shalom, rabbi.”

As a theme, “It’s a lot better than ‘out with the old, in with the new’,” Loewy commented.

Loewy recalled how his childhood at summer camp was where he first heard the now-common tune for “Shalom Rav.”

Rabbi Howard Laibson was guest speaker for the Shabbat evening service on May 11. Loewy met Laibson during the summer of 1967, when Laibson was president of the Southern California Federation of Temple Youth, and Loewy was president of the Long Island Federation of Temple Youth.

In 1981, Loewy was associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in Houston, and Laibson was the newly ordained rabbi coming there to be the assistant rabbi. “A fast friendship has been made ever since,” Loewy said.

Laibson said when the Southern California boy arrived in Houston, he was “completely out of my element and had no idea what I was doing.” Loewy took him under his wings and showed him the ropes.

“He mentored me. He mentored me really well, and thoroughly,” and through that experience Laibson said he “truly became a rabbi.”

Loewy later commented that while he learned Judaism at the seminary, it was also at Emanu-El where he learned how to be a rabbi. The two moved on at the same time, with Laibson heading to New Mexico and Loewy arriving in Metairie during the summer of 1984.

It was mentioned that Loewy did a filmed tribute for Laibson’s 60th birthday, which was a fundraising gala for his congregation. Loewy was in a tuxedo and bow tie, but then the camera panned down to show him in shorts and flip-flops.

During the service, Gates of Prayer President David Dulitz recounted Loewy’s accomplishments.

“Who would have thought a nice Jewish boy from Long Island would wind up not only being a rabbi in the South, but would remain in the South, New Orleans in particular, for the next 34 years,” he mused. “They made New Orleans not a stop, but made it their home.”

He said Loewy focused on education for all ages, and was a strong proponent for a city-wide youth group instead of smaller, individual chapters at each Reform congregation. “The process was challenging… but eventually a stronger program emerged.”

Loewy encouraged outreach to unaffiliated young adults outside the walls of the synagogue and strongly promoted the benefits of Jewish summer camp.

Dulitz also spoke of Loewy’s actions following Hurricane Katrina. “It was during this time that Rabbi Loewy shone brightest” as a “constant, steadying and reassuring presence.”

He had the “foresight and empathy” to help Beth Israel, New Orleans’ Orthodox congregation, whose facility was completely flooded and rendered unusable. Beth Israel moved into space at Gates of Prayer, remaining there until their new building next door was completed in 2012.

Dulitz also credited Loewy with helping secure the long-term financial future of the congregation, including urging the creation of a rabbinic endowment fund. “Today, the fund has grown to well over $1 million,” Dulitz said.

Loewy also promoted the capital campaign to expand the building in the late 1990s. Among the improvements was an expansion of the lobby, and Dulitz announced that the lobby is being named in Loewy’s honor.

“The lobby serves as the gateway to the sanctuary, the spiritual center of the synagogue,” he said.

Loewy has been a passionate advocate for Reform Judaism, and said Gates of Prayer is a stronger congregation because of its connection to the movement. For evidence, he said, one need only look at December 2005, when he addressed the 5,000 delegates at the Reform biennial, talking about how the movement was sustaining the New Orleans community in its time of need after the storm.

“As your rabbi, it was the most challenging time I have faced, and perhaps the most fulfilling,” he said.

“A synagogue is not an island, but an integral part of a larger Jewish community,” Loewy said, noting that “we have made the West Esplanade corridor a model of respect and cooperation among Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Chabad congregations, a model for the entire country.”

On Shabbat morning, a parade of Loewy’s former B’nai Mitzvah and Confirmands led the service, with Rabbi Judith Lazarus Siegal, who grew up at Gates of Prayer, giving the d’var Torah.

The morning was “all about you,” Loewy told the crowd.

The night before, Loewy related that because he had been asked, he counted that he’d done 430 baby namings and brisses, 172 weddings, 607 funerals, 80 conversions, with a little over 400 B’nai Mitzvah and Confirmation students.

The next morning, he added to the total as there was a baby naming during the Shabbat service.

While the numbers are interesting, he said, “It’s what they represent that is most important. Hundreds of personal connections.”

In introducing Siegal, Loewy said how meaningful it was to watch her grow “from Bat Mitzvah to colleague.”

Siegal, who heads Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Fla., spoke of the week’s portion, saying in this world, reward and punishment are not always dependent on one’s actions.

Because one is never sure if he or she will be rewarded or punished for actions, one has the opportunity to choose and “do the right thing because it is right, not for any reward or advantage.”

Siegal commented, “What a perfect parsha to read and teach on this Shabbat as we honor our rabbi, who has led his life and taught all of us to lead our lives with the strong moral ethics taught in the Torah.”

She concluded with the top 10 things Loewy “has taught us,” citing his influence on countless people at Gates of Prayer, Jacobs Camp, the greater community and the Reform movement as a whole.

Siegal and Laibson then invited Loewy and his family onto the bimah to bless them with the priestly benediction.

The Shabbat service concluded with Debbie Friedman’s “Lechi Lach,” which Loewy said was related to his Bar Mitzvah portion, “Lech Lecha.” He also said Friedman was at Gates of Prayer in 1985, for his installation.

After the service, there was a congregational picnic at Lafreniere Park.

At the “Under the Jerusalem Stars” gala that evening, Rabbi David Widzer, Loewy’s son-in-law, led Havdalah with his children, Judah and Elisheva. Widzer serves Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter, N.J.

Widzer tied the three blessings of Havdalah to aspects of Loewy’s time as rabbi, urging those in attendance to “share something special” with a neighbor before each blessing was sung.

The service marking the conclusion of Shabbat is “the service of separation,” he said, adding that this Havdalah would “mark the beginning of this separation of (Loewy’s) time between being rabbi and rabbi emeritus, recognizing what has been holy about our interactions with him, and what has been special about him and his role in our lives.”

Judah spoke of how wine brings sweetness to Havdalah, and asked attendees to talk about how Loewy “brought sweet blessings” to them.

Elisheva spoke of the variety of spices, saying “we have all had a variety of different experiences with Rabbi Loewy.”

With the candle, Widzer said, “we weave together all of the many blessings and all of the varied experiences that we have shared with Rabbi Loewy… Our world is brighter for the work that he has done and the relationships he has made.”

Despite the transition “to being just another Jew in the pews,” Widzer said, just as the feeling of Shabbat lingers into the week, “so too will the blessings and experiences that you have shared with Rabbi Loewy remain with you. He will always be your rabbi, and you and he will always carry the holiness you shared together.”

Rabbi David Goldstein, rabbi emeritus of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans, returned from New York early to attend the event. “I would have traveled from Mars to be here for you,” he told Loewy.

Goldstein commented, “it really is unusual for two rabbis living in the same community to have not one iota of rivalry or competitiveness, but only mutual respect and trust, admiration. Bob has always been a reflection of the highest Jewish standard we all aspire to.”

He referred to Loewy as a “mensch” and a “rabbi’s rabbi.”

The Loewy children, Mica, Sara, David and Karen, said it is a family tradition to do Top Ten lists for special occasions, so they did the Top Ten perks of growing up as rabbi’s kids at Gates of Prayer, adding the perks of growing up as the rabbi’s wife’s kids.

David Loewy cited camp, saying that because congregational rabbis visit camp every summer, “we were able to go to camp before we could walk, before we were aware we were at camp.”

His father’s time at Eisner Camp “was one of the main reasons he became a rabbi in the first place,” David Loewy commented, adding that 34 summers at Jacobs amounts to “a lot of fried chicken dinners.”

Lynn Loewy spoke of the Rabbi Loewy behind the scenes, affirming that he is the same at home as he is at Gates of Prayer. “He is cheerful 98 percent of the time.”

She said Shabbat is his favorite holiday, and also described his joy at celebrating all of the festivals.

Though a rabbi is always on call, “In all of our years together I have never heard Bob complain about being asked to leave the house at any hour to comfort congregants. This is his calling, and I fear he will miss this the most.”

After Hurricane Katrina and their evacuation to Houston, she said he immediately returned to Metairie to tend to the needs of the synagogue and lived upstairs in their flooded home.

She concluded, “I consider myself the most fortunate woman in the world. I just hope I feel that way six months from now.”

Anna Herman, director of Jacobs Camp, first got to know Loewy when she was a camper, and went to camp with two of the Loewy children. “To meet Rabbi Loewy is a joy that can’t be described,” she said. Coming from the small community of Dothan, “I really felt like Rabbi Loewy was my rabbi. I felt that I had an honorary membership at Gates of Prayer.”

Citing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teaching about the importance of the personality of a teacher, she spoke of “the thousands of lives he touched” at Jacobs Camp.

She concluded, “This is not goodbye, this is a celebration of all Rabbi Loewy has done for our community.”

Past presidents Lee Plotkin and Dan Silverman then took the stage for what Plotkin called “a little roasting, a little toasting, a little reflection,” having “seen first-hand (Loewy’s) incredible devotion to our congregation and our community.”

After talking about travel adventures and devotion to the New Orleans Saints, Silverman said Loewy needed to publish his 5,823 sermons in an anthology.

Plotkin thanked him for “the amazing, wonderful occasions we have shared,” and said “the work we did together after Hurricane Katrina is when we truly bonded.”

Silverman said Loewy has been involved with four generations of his family, through “numerous happy and some very difficult times.”

“When we needed him, Bob was there,” he said. “He’ll still be around as our rabbi emeritus, and more importantly, as our trusted friend.”

Cantorial Soloist Tory May, who was hired at Gates of Prayer in 1987, called Loewy “my mentor, my teacher, sometimes my parent, my work husband… my dear friend.”

She performed “How Do We Say Goodbye to Rabbi Loewy” a takeoff on “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria” from “The Sound of Music,” then called for dancing, as the Panorama Jazz Band played.

At the gala’s conclusion, the congregation presented him with a musical piece written in his honor by Judaic composer Julie Silver, performed by May.

What’s next for Loewy? Travel, certainly, but he will also continue his national and community projects.

And for the High Holy Days this year, he will be leading services — aboard the Queen Elizabeth.