Spiritual journey

Visiting rabbi leads Jewish High Holy Days services

Posted: Sunday, September 20, 2009

Jews in Juneau?

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

That's the reaction Rabbi Scott Sperling said he received after telling members in a New York Jewish community he would be officiating there during the High Holy Days, which began Friday evening with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

"I am a collector of stories," Rabbi Sperling said. "I love finding out how our congregations ended up where they ended up. How people ended up in Alaska, for example, how a Jewish engineer from New Jersey ended up in Prudhoe Bay. It connects for me centuries of Jewish history. We have been a people who have wandered all over the world. I really enjoy the process of helping to solidify folks wanting to maintain their Jewish identity in a place that, stereotypically, you would not think of there being a Jewish community."

Sperling led Friday's start of Rosh Hashanah at the Synagogue Sukkot Shalom in Douglas. He will be in Juneau through the High Holidays, or Ten Days of Awe, and to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is traditionally a 24-hour fast.

"This is a time of really profound spiritual growth and introspection," Sperling said. "Traditionally, this is the time when we think of the year gone by, do a careful examination of our own soul and behavior for the year ... and try to prepare ourselves to start the New Year with a clean slate."

From his sophomore year in college, when his announced desire to be a rabbi literally knocked his father out of his chair, through his knee-deep walk among the carnage of twisted metal in the aftermath of the Six Day War between Arabs and Israelis, Sperling has found his faith through academics, adventure and awakening, he said.

"Neither of my parents was ... religious," Sperling said. "They both grew up being active in their synagogues, but it was much more on a cultural and community basis ... and yet, I found all that stuff - the philosophy and history - interesting. Initially, from strictly an academic standpoint, I had always assumed I was going to be an academic."

Sperling has a vivid memory of attending a meeting with his parents when he was 5, after they moved from the inner city of Chicago to a suburb to organize of one of the first reformed synagogues in that town. His parents were first-generation Americans and swore at least one of their boys would be a lawyer. When he was a 19-year-old student at the University of California Los Angeles, Sperling's disenchantment in political science and philosophy left him wanting something more substantial. A suggestion by a friend in the Jewish Rabbinic program to study Hebrew intrigued him.

"'You might want to give that some thought,'" Sperling recounted him saying. "That was all that he said. And for the better part of a month and a half, that was all I thought about, and then realized I really wanted to focus my attention on Jewish history, but still in an exclusively academic way. I thought I would end up being a professor of Jewish history. When I told my parents, my father was so shocked he fell out of his chair and my mother froze with her hands on her head."

After finishing his undergraduate degree, he entered the five-year Rabbinic program at HUCJIR, which specializes in the training of rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and communal workers. He said his first year there, in 1971, was a life-changing experience.

"Wow, there was so much," Sperling said. "I absolutely fell in love with the Jewish language; I loved studying the Jewish sources in the original language."

His year of studies included "walking the Bible" from the north of Israel to the Sinai Desert, on a mountain referred to in Hebrew as Har Sinai and in Arabic as Jebal Mussa (Moses' Mountain).

"I can only tell you that the experience of climbing that mountain, of coming to the crest as the sun is coming up, and having one of our professors reading from the book of Exodus about Moses receiving the law on Mount Sinai, still today, almost 40 years later, the hair on the back of my arms stand up," he said. "It was a very profound experience."

He spent the next three years at the Los Angeles campus. During his final year, he wrote his thesis in the New York campus and was ordained in 1976. His first spiritual awakening occurred during the first week of his first congregation, when he was asked to visit a terminal cancer patient more than twice his age.

"I remember tying my tie before leaving my apartment and asking myself, 'What in the world could I have to say to a person who has had all of life's experiences?'"

The man shared the common interest in 19th century Jewish history. After lengthy discussions, what became the most important to the elder statesman was that Sperling had come to visit him, and that he didn't speak of illness but instead of the man's passions in life and his family.

After being a teacher and congregational rabbi, Sperling was "kicked upstairs" to an administrative area of the Reformed Judaism denomination. Sperling spent eight years as a regional director in Washington, D.C., working with 75 congregations. He is a former director of the Union for Reform Judaism Mid-Atlantic Council and is executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Currently, he works in advocacy and education about Israel's progressive Judaism. He has visited synagogues worldwide and stood on the grounds of the Terezin concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia, where family had been lost in the Holocaust.

"On the one hand, it was a desperately sad feeling," Sperling said. "On the other hand, there was something very triumphant about the fact that I was there ... that I was a rabbi, their descendent, and my children were healthy and happy and safe in America. A peculiar mixture of utter despair at the terrifying evil this place represented and yet being able to kind of shake my fist and say 'but we are still here.'"

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