SPIRITUAL LEADER: Retiring after 30 years at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, Rabbi Vernon Kurtz looks back at an amazing career

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz says his greatest fringe benefit of manning the bimah for 30 years at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park is witnessing the progression of life cycles of his congregants.

“It’s one of the benefits of staying a long time at one community,” said Kurtz, who will retire soon. “You’re participating in weddings after being at their b’nai mitzvahs and then naming their children.”

All the while, Kurtz has had the fulfillment of teaching many of the same people. But it’s never a one-way lecture on Torah or life. He says he learns as much from his students as they learn from him.

“I’ve enjoyed teaching, seeing people who study with me grow ‘Jewishly’ Some have become rabbis or educators themselves. Or they’ve made Aliyah.

“You not only become a better teacher, but also a better student yourself. People opened me up to new concepts. They ask if I have read this book, or this article. Nobody knows everything.”

In 2013, marking his 25th anniversary leading Beth El, he published a book, Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion,” a compilation of his sermons. He published two sermons on almost every Torah portion with the goal of representing his understanding not only of the lessons of Torah, but also the lessons of life.

Kurtz took seriously the admonition to educators of “publish or perish.” He also authored teshuvot for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly while publishing articles in periodicals and books. Adding to Kurtz’s resume is his status as senior rabbinic fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem.

The third part of the three-decade-plus satisfaction of Toronto native Kurtz is his community work.

He is past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the International Association of Conservative Rabbis, and was a member for many years of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. He served for 10 years as a member of the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism. He has served as president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, the world-wide Zionist organization of the Conservative Movement.

Rabbi Kurtz, pictured with refusenik Natan Scharansky, has long been involved in the issue of Russian Jewry. He calls his visit to the then Soviet Union in 1983, “a life-changing event for me. It taught me to be grateful for my freedom and my Jewishness. Those 10 days, I still reflect on.”

As the spiritual leader of Beth El, Kurtz said “my goal was to bring a sense of religious values to the community, to put cultural and social action decisions into a Jewish context.

“You always want to do more. You’d like to have a better effect on bringing different aspects of the community together. I’ve worked with colleagues of all denominations. You build bridges.”

His community work extended all the way to the Soviet Union, during his pre-Beth El days.

“In June 1983, I visited ‘refuseniks,’” he said of Soviet Jews of the pre-Gorbachev era who were not allowed to emigrate to Israel. He knew he had to possess eyes in the back of his head as an activist U.S. rabbi with a likely KGB tail on him.

“It was a life-changing event for me. It taught me to be grateful for my freedom and my Jewishness. Those 10 days, I still reflect on.”

He is still involved in the lives of Russian Jews. An associate member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency, Kurtz currently serves as deputy chairman of the Russian Speaking Jewry Committee.

Now Kurtz will ease off his always-busy schedule.  Author of a regular Torah column in Chicago Jewish News since the newspaper’s inception 24 years ago, he will file his final entry in December when he becomes Beth El’s rabbi emeritus. But he will not hover over his successor. Kurtz and wife Bryna will move to Israel.

“A long time ago I worked out a contract that would end in 2019,” he said. “I’ve been in the rabbinate 42 years and it’s time to slow down a bit.

“One of my dreams is to live in Israel. We want to both do that while we’re (physically) well. We have children in Israel and Boston, grandchildren in both.”

Kurtz’s impending retirement coincides with Beth El’s 70th anniversary. Both will be celebrated the weekend of Nov. 2-4 with a Kabbalat Shabbat dinner on Friday, a special Kiddush luncheon on Saturday and a gala dinner honoring the Kurtz’s on Sunday.  

As a part of the event, Beth El historian Mort Steinberg has created a new book, “Tradition by the Lake: A Historical Outline of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El,” which will be distributed at the dinner.  “The book was written so that the efforts and dedication of the founders would not be lost,” said Steinberg. “Future generations will come to understand what it took to create this institution and their works will live on.”  

Beth El officially was founded in 1948 as the first Conservative congregation on the North Shore. Over the years, the synagogue has become a leader in the Conservative movement, in the American Jewish community and in Jewish and humanitarian causes throughout the world.

The synagogue’s roots go back to 1944, and Benjamin and Gertrude Harris, who maintained a Torah scroll in their Glencoe house and regularly conducted  traditional religious services. Within two years, some two dozen families participated in the informal congregation activities held in makeshift quarters up and down the North Shore. Those initial meetings planted the seed which eventually would grow into Beth El. Articles of incorporation were filed in 1947.

A seven-acre estate was purchased in 1948. The new synagogue had been a lavish 20-room residence designed by the architect Earnest Mayo and built in 1911. Original owner Edward Valentine Price had called it “Bonita Vista” because of its stunning views overlooking Lake Michigan.

Kurtz is central to Beth El’s history. He has had the longest continuous service as its rabbi. The proud educator does not lack for sheepskins. Kurtz received his bachelor’s degree from York University in 1971, his master’s degree and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1976 and his doctor of ministry degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary (1981). “That allowed me to get involved in the inter-faith community,” Kurtz said of his first doctorate. He also received a doctor of divinity degree (Honoris Causa) from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003.

Kurtz alighted at Beth El in Aug. 1988 after heading up Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago. He took seriously the concept that “Conservative” did not mean unchanging.

In ensuing years, Kurtz developed a strong youth program, actively and personally promoted adult education. He encouraged the establishment of Beth El’s own Hebrew High School program. He also implemented progressive changes in religious services and ritual based upon serious attention to Jewish law.

In 1999, Kurtz oversaw the “Guaranteeing Our Future” campaign, which significantly enhanced the congregation’s endowments. He helped articulate the Beth El Mission Statement, originated in 1995, which appears in every issue of Beth El’s monthly bulletin.

All his work netted Kurtz some of the top awards in Judaism. He is most proud of the 2010 Julius Rosenwald Award from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Rabbi Kurtz, center, became rabbi at Beth El in 1988.

Kurtz should also get an informal award for being a combination of witness and analyst of the changes in Jewish society in the Chicago area and world-wide along with changes, not always for the better, in social mores.

“Geography has changed,” he said, with Chicago Jewry scattering in every direction compared to quantifiable neighborhoods and suburbs of his younger rabbinate.

“It’s so dispersed,” Kurtz said. “Even suburbs are a series of (different) neighborhoods.  Northwest is different than the far west. Back then, there were a greater number of people living in an area centered around a synagogue or a JCC. Everybody now is so far out, you don’t have as many Jewish neighborhoods. There are so many more who are unaffiliated or not involved in Jewish life. There is not as much a sense of community.”

And no, he does not apply that “community” definition to social media. “The other big difference is there was no internet or cell phone,” Kurtz said. “I remember mimeograph machines. Social media has made a difference. Used right, it’s a tool. But it’s not a community. Facebook friends are not a community. You need to be involved on a personal basis. Parts are stronger, parts are weaker.   Life is changing so quickly. We’re still learning how to deal with (social media).”

Rabbi Kurtz said he particularly enjoyed the teaching aspect of being a rabbi, noting he learned as much from his students as they learned from him.

On-line trolling has not made discourse civil. Although Kurtz said he is “apolitical” in his public comments and sermons, he is a strong endorser of “values” and “civil dialogue.”

“I think it’s absent in political life, American life, Jewish life,” he said. “There is a lack of respect, a lack of listening to people. It’s just easier to type in (social-media comments). We have lost respect for each other.

“We live in silos. We listen to news we want to, talk to people we want to. I gave a sermon a week ago on the ‘concept of truth.’ In the Ford vs. Kavanaugh controversy, everyone (in the U.S. Senate) was decided on their side before the testimony, except for four or five swing votes.”

Much of one-side-or-another rhetoric has spilled over to civil and religious discourse in Israel, where Kurtz will continue his longtime Zionist, Conservative and pluralist activism.  He made his first trip to Israel for a 10-month-tenure as a student in 1971. In recent years, Kurtz has visited Israel three to four times a year.

Israel still is the modern miracle of the Jewish people,” he said. “I am the first generation in 2,000 years that doesn’t know a world without Israel. That’s a gift.

“That doesn’t mean I’ll accept everything the government of Israel does or every policy. But I still love Israel as its mission, Hebrew as its language and the culture. It’s only 70 years old.”

The American Jewish community Kurtz soon will leave behind has a future that will need to be stoked by his educational successors.

“Education, education, education,” he said as the Rx needed to keep the next generation of Jews participating in cultural and religious life.

“We have to continue to offer better educational outlets for young people.  Get more people in day schools, more in summer camps. Have outstanding Hebrew schools and high schools, and have more trips to Israel.

“Education is the key. When Jews make decisions, they shouldn’t make them in a vacuum.”

Kurtz himself has seen and done so much in his long career as a rabbi, has so many deeply-felt feelings about Judaism and the world of 2018. If you get back to him at this time in 2019 in Israel, the smart bet is he won’t be sitting around, just getting a suntan. 

He’s a man who sounds like he rested only on Shabbat, but even then likely never stopped thinking and dreaming. Otherwise, he appeared to be a 24/6 type. And he says he wouldn’t have traded any of his experiences.

“All have allowed me to be a better person, a better Jew, a better rabbi.”

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