It was a momentous and bittersweet night at the Merrick Jewish Centre last Sunday as Rabbi Charles A. Klein, its religious leader for 43 years, retired. It was a special event, attended by hundreds who share a connection with the rabbi. For many, including Klein himself, it was hard to say goodbye.
And what better way to kick off the event for the always-jovial Klein than with a crowd wave?
While many throughout the night shared their fondest memories of their rabbi, eliciting smiles and laughter, the reminder that those days are now in the past made for choked words and held-back tears.
Klein was selected as the Jewish Centre’s rabbi in 1978, and the decades since have “flashed by in an instant,” said his wife, Betty. In addition to weekly Shabbat services and holiday events, Klein presided at countless marriages, funerals, births and bar mitzvahs, and offered guidance to many in their darkest times.
He has worked side by side with several MJC presidents, many of whom spoke last Sunday. Current President Howard Tiegel, who is serving for the second time, said he was both the 19th and 23rd person to have the honor to be president alongside Klein.
“During our three and a half years together in this capacity we have exchanged over 70,000 emails and texts — plus or minus 20,000 — spoken on the phone at least 2,000 times, attended more than 125 meetings together and spent at least 500 hours sitting with each other on this bema,” Tiegel said. “Along the way, not only has he been an incredible rabbi, an incredible teacher and a wonderful collaborator, but he has also become one of my very, very best friends, and someone I deeply, deeply treasure.”
The event was organized over many months by the Klein Retirement Recognition Event committee, and featured a few special surprises at the end.
“He helped raise two generations of our congregational families, shaping the values and beliefs and instilling in our children, and even all of us, the wisdom of our faith,” said Alan Sussman, past president and co-chair of the committee.
Throughout the night, recorded interviews with Klein were played, in which he recounted his career, from the biggest challenges — like the rabbinic’s encroaching on his time with his family — to the happiest moments.
“That was hard, and to this day it remains hard,” Klein said. “I want to have some balance in my life — Betty deserves it. She deserves me not being rushed and not passing her by in the house as I’m going out to this or going out to that.”
“We sometimes take for granted that the Merrick Jewish Centre is one of the most dynamic and important Jewish institutions on the South Shore of Long Island,” said George Feld, “and indeed we have achieved a great deal over the last half-century in our community and well beyond, but it wasn’t always that way.”
In 1977, Feld became president, overseeing the search for a much-needed rabbi, one who could bring “vigor and real Jewish meaning to a divided congregation,” he said. Back then, before MJC had the bustling of congregants it enjoys today, it was in constant competition with other local synagogues.
Feld invited Klein to be interviewed by the board, and he was met by a 27-year-old, “baby-faced” man. While his lack of experience had board members harboring doubts, Klein’s passion left them impressed. “The rest, fortunately for our beloved Merrick Jewish Centre and all of us, is our incredible history,” Feld said.
Speaking on the topic of community, past President Steve Kussin said, “Perhaps most important, community makes people feel welcome. Nobody did that better than Rabbi Charles Klein. He had the magic to unite 700 families, 400 adults, countless scores of Hebrew school children and bring them together over three generations. In short, he turned them into one being.”
“When it came time for me and [my wife] Joanne to find a community in which to settle and our family, one of the main reasons we chose Merrick was to have Rabbi Klein as our rabbi,” said Charlie Skop, MJC’s ritual chairman, who has known Klein since he was a teenager.
“As I reflected on my relationship with Rabbi Klein, and just watching him through the years, it wasn’t the words once spoke, it wasn’t the words once written, it was the actions always taken,” said Rabbi Jack Dermer, who was MJC’s assistant rabbi for three years. “We know what makes you a man of wisdom is not the words — the words are the easy part. It’s the showing up day in and day out, and being there in all the ways you have been for everyone in this room.”
“He said something to me I will remember for the rest of my career,” said Rabbi Ravid Tilles, a former assistant rabbi at MJC. “He said at every given moment as rabbis, we have the potential to change people’s lives. Whether it’s a really big moment on high holidays in front of thousands of people, or if it’s just talking to one person as they sit with dread in a hospital bed, and anywhere in between.”
In an emotional segment of the recorded interviews, Klein reflected on what he would miss the most. “I’ll miss not playing my role in the unfolding of the Jewish story,” he said. “Ultimately, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Toward the end of the event, the past presidents in attendance gathered to honor Klein as the congregation’s rabbi emeritus. The sanctuary was also dedicated to Klein, and renamed the Rabbi Charles A. Klein Sanctuary.
Betty Klein — not one who is usually in the spotlight — took to the bema to toast those what have helped make MJC what it is today. “It is very difficult for me to focus on the fact that this is an evening of reflection, memories, gratitude and official farewells as Charlie prepares to retire,” Betty said. “On June 13, 1978, we arrived here and it was Charlie’s 27th birthday . . . that was the day that our story began. It was exciting, it was scary, and it was truly an overwhelming time. We never imagined then that we’d be here 43 years later. In the blink of an eye, we traveled through time from 1978 to 2021.”
“This is a pretty amazing thing — this sanctuary,” her husband told the audience. “This has been my place. I have loved walking into this shul for over 43 years.
“This lectern, this pulpit, has been my therapy couch,” he continued. “When I was moved by injustice, I spoke about it here. When I was sad, I shared my feeling from here. When life punched me, you heard my pain.”
Klein was presented with retirement gifts by the committee, including a Yankees jersey with a 43 on the back, a golf outfit and an artist’s rendition of the pulpit so it’s always close by.
A second “surprise” event is planned for Klein on Nov. 7, at 1:45 p.m., in the MJC parking lot. All are welcome to attend.
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