Conservative Judaism Israel Obituary Rabbi

In Memory of Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer

It’s only February and already two of the influential teachers in my life have passed away. In January, my childhood rabbi (Rabbi Efry Spectre) passed away, and yesterday I learned that Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer died.

I first met “King Tut,” as he was known, in 1996 when I was working at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. Rabbi Tutnauer was serving as the interim rabbi. It was a role he filled often in many synagogues around the country. When a synagogue needed a rabbi for a year or two while they readied themselves to conduct a search for a permanent rabbi, he would “hold down the fort.” It might not have been a requirement for an interim post, but no matter where his travels took him, he always seemed to create lifelong friendships and have meaningful impacts on so many.

He told me that he and his wife Marjorie live in the Jerusalem neighborhood of French Hill, which is where my mother’s close friend lives. It so happened that my mom’s friend was in town visiting and so I asked her if she knew a rabbi from her neighborhood by the name of “Tutnauer.” She replied that of course she knew him and that her son (who’s my age) played basketball with Rabbi Tutnauer whenever he was home from the Navy on the weekends (he served on a submarine). Her son was a 6-foot 4-inches, 20-year-old who played for his high school basketball team. I told her that it couldn’t be the same rabbi who plays basketball because this rabbi is in his late 60’s and I couldn’t imagine him playing basketball with a bunch of young, tough Israeli soldiers. Boy, was I wrong!

It wasn’t long after King Tut arrived in Detroit that he asked me to “shoot hoop” with him.  He arranged for the synagogue’s maintenance workers to erect a basketball hoop behind the synagogue. Every day, he’d go out back and shoot baskets with the maintenance guys.  We played games of “HORSE” and 2-on-2, and sometimes we just shot baskets and talked.  He was a great player (and not just for someone his age). He was also a huge fan of professional basketball. To this day, I’m convinced he took the interim job here in Detroit because the owner of the Detroit Pistons was a member of the synagogue and King Tut knew he could get tickets to any game he wanted — and he did.

What amazed me about Rabbi Tutnauer was how many lessons he had prepared on various subjects. He created these 4-page source sheets, placed each one in a plastic folder, and had each folder attached to his office wall with Velcro. His temporary office was decorated with his files. He taught from these source sheets in each synagogue he served in as an interim rabbi. To this day, I still use his 4-page handout on the intricacies of the Jewish calendar.

I spent a lot of time learning from Rabbi Tutnauer when he was in Detroit.  A few years before his stint as Interim Rabbi at Shaarey Zedek, he had been a scholar-in-residence for the Detroit area’s Conservative Jewish community. I didn’t meet him during that month, but I do recall my late grandfather mentioning how much he enjoyed studying with him. One fond memory I have of him is the weekend he spent in East Lansing as a scholar-in-residence at the Michigan State University Hillel center, where I was active.  I took every opportunity I could during that weekend to talk with him and learn from him. During his stay in Detroit, he prepared me for my rabbinical school interview and was extremely helpful in providing assistance with my admissions essays.

There’s a policy that interim rabbis are not allowed to be offered full-time positions at synagogues. I wouldn’t be surprised if this rule was established because of Moshe Tutnauer, not that he would ever leave his beloved Jerusalem.  Of course, each synagogue that he served convinced him to stay for a second year as interim rabbi.

For many years after his time in Detroit, I stayed in contact with the Tutnauers via email. Moshe would send out various updates on his growing family (In addition to his biological children, he and Marjorie adopted several Ethiopian children over the years).  The last time I saw him was in December 2002 at the Conservative synagogue in his French Hill neighborhood in Jerusalem.  When he spotted me in the synagogue, he motioned for me to meet him outside. He greeted me with a bear hug and inquired about dozens of Detroit families (he stayed in touch with everyone). I mentioned that I had just read the book “The New Rabbi,” about the search for a new senior rabbi at Har Zion Temple in Philly, in which an entire chapter of the book is dedicated to “King Tut,” who had served as the interim rabbi there following Rabbi Gerald Wolpe’s retirement. He gave me the inside scoop on the latest shenanigans at Har Zion and told me some of his experiences that didn’t make it into the book.

At the time, I was in rabbinical school and serving an internship at a large synagogue in New Jersey. I was in Israel on vacation with my wife and had planned to take the time on this Sabbath morning to actually sit in synagogue and pray (something I didn’t have the chance to do on an average Saturday morning, as I was normally teaching or giving sermons). But I didn’t mind that I spent the bulk of that morning standing outside in beautiful Jerusalem shmoozing and learning from one of the greatest rabbis of our time. I am such a better person, and certainly a better rabbi, for having known him.

May the memory of Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer, a scholar, Zionist, mensch, and basketball star, endure for blessings.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Detroit Israel Michigan Obituary Rabbi

Rabbi Efry Spectre

Even as a child I felt very comfortable in my family’s synagogue. I went to nursery school in the lower level of Adat Shalom Synagogue and would attend Shabbat services with my grandfather each Saturday morning. I looked up to the rabbi and the cantor of the synagogue, and considered them to be my mentors over the past three decades. After all, they knew me as a four-year-old tot and they knew me as a rabbi. They just always seemed to be a part of my life.

And then Cantor Larry Vieder passed away in October 2008 succumbing to Pancreatic Cancer. A part of the congregation seemed to die with him. Even in his retirement, he was a staple of Adat Shalom attending the weekday and Sabbath prayer services as often as he could. The other day, his long-time partner on the pulpit, Rabbi Efry Spectre, died in his Manhattan apartment where he had retired after leading Adat Shalom for 22 years.

I developed a nice relationship with Rabbi Spectre, as can be expected since I spent a lot of time around the synagogue — Saturday mornings with my grandfather, Hebrew High School classes, youth group activities, and working in the mail room for several years. He was my teacher in the classroom, and outside of the classroom too. In college, he encouraged me to work as a counselor at Camp Ramah before applying to rabbinical school. (He even called the camp director and told him to hire me.) He stood next to me at my bar mitzvah and officiated at my wedding a decade later. In between he spoke eloquently at my beloved grandfather’s funeral, choosing just the right words to bring comfort to my grandmother and our family.

But I really got to know Rabbi Spectre after he left Adat Shalom. A couple months after my wedding, he moved to NYC as part of a sabbatical that would lead directly into his retirement. He began teaching a course in homiletics (sermon delivery) at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was studying to become a rabbi. We enjoyed many lunches together in the cafeteria (with Cantor Vieder too when he came to town for meetings), and on several occasions he took my wife and I to dinner at different Kosher restaurants in Manhattan.

I recall one Saturday afternoon when he joined us for lunch at our small Upper West Side apartment. After lunch and nice conversation, I remembered that someone taught me how Maimonides always escorted his distinguished Sabbath guests home. I felt I should walk my rabbi back to his apartment. So, we spent the next hour walking through Riverside Park on a beautiful afternoon. I probably learned more from my teacher during that walk than I did as a 10th grade teenager in his classroom.

Little did I know that the following summer, in 2001, we’d have a lot more time together for me to learn from him. Rabbi Spectre would often ask me to come to his apartment and fix his computer (or set up his VCR, Fax machine, answering machine, etc.). He was one of the most brilliant rabbis of his generation, but when it came to electronics and computers he was a technophobe. One morning before heading to the gym, I came to his apartment to install some new software on his computer. I left my gym bag on the floor by his dining room table. While I was working on his computer, he went to get something from the other room tripping over the shoulder strap of the gym bag. He went flying to the ground and broke both shoulders. I called 9-1-1, rode with him to the hospital in the ambulance, and spent the next month at his bedside. A single man with no children, he depended on me and I felt honored to help. The experience had its “Tuesdays with Morrie” moments, but I also felt guilty that it was my gym bag that put him in the hospital (and later a rehab center). Thankfully, he recovered from the injury and didn’t seem to hold it against me.

Throughout the remaining years of rabbinical school and into my career, I continued to call upon Rabbi Spectre for his insight. He was a wonderful source of knowledge and advice on a vast array of subjects. He navigated the pulpit rabbinate better than most rabbis, always seeming to be there for his congregants and still finding time to visit Israel over fifty times.

I was honored to write his obituary for the Detroit Jewish News this week. I quoted his colleagues, past congregational presidents, and his friends. They all emphasized the same qualities about Rabbi Spectre: He was an unwavering Zionist, a champion for the cause of freedom for Soviet Jewry, rigid in his observance of Jewish law, and highly regarded among other rabbis throughout the world. Many spoke of his artistic talents as a renown playwright and singer. He loved going to the theater, whether he was in New York, London, or Israel. He skillfully translated musicals into Hebrew to be performed at Camp Ramah.

Locally in Detroit, he was a trusted spokesman for Jewish concerns and an ardent supporter of the Jewish day school. Rabbi Daniel Nevins worked alongside Rabbi Spectre as his assistant rabbi. He told me, “He came to Adat Shalom at a time of deep crisis and, together with a group of lay leaders and gifted professionals, he helped the synagogue become a vibrant Jewish center. He was extremely perceptive, and few rabbis could match his passion and eloquence, whether at a funeral or in a sermon. He encouraged me to be independent on the pulpit and in the classroom, and he supported my rabbinic development.”

As I wrote in his obituary, I will always remember my teacher as someone fond of telling witty jokes, making puns, and dancing on Simchat Torah with a broad smile on his face. I will also remember him playing a pivotal role in my formation, from a nursery school child to a rabbi in the community. He gave so much of himself to the congregation. His commitment to his people and the State of Israel was felt throughout the world.

I am proud to call myself one of Rabbi Efry Spectre’s many children. May the memories I have of my departed teacher endure for blessings.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Obituary Politics

William Safire

I remember when I lived in New York City seeing the commercial for the New York Times repeated several times a day on television. The young, metropolitan couple would be sitting on the couch on a lazy Sunday morning. She would comment that when the New York Times arrives she always goes straight to the “Arts and Leisure” section, while he goes straight for the Sunday Magazine.

For the past decade I have been the one to go straight for the Sunday Magazine too. Whether in print or online, I can’t wait to read “The Ethicist” and William Safire’s “On Language” column. I’m not sure I consider myself an etymologist, but I have always been interested in the English language. After falling in love with Mr. Safire’s “On Language” column I began to read his columns in the Times paper as well. I found him to be a brilliant, inspiring writer who always captivated my attention within his first paragraph.

I was therefore thrilled when it was announced that William Safire (at right with Chancellor Ismar Schorsch) was to be the keynote speaker at the 2004 Jewish Theological Seminary commencement when I graduated from rabbinical school and received a master’s degree from the William Davidson Graduate School of Education. In fact, one of my favorite photographs from graduation was the one posted below of me walking across the stage to shake the hand of Rabbi William Lebeau (Dean of the Rabbinical School) as William Safire looks on.

The most humorous moment of that commencement was while Mr. Safire was delivering his speech and his cellphone rang. Since he kept it in his breast pocket, the phone rang directly into the microphone and was thus amplified for the entire crowd to hear. Of course, everyone checked to see if it was their cellphone ringing. After what seemed like several minutes, Mr. Safire realized it was his phone, took it from his pocket, looked at it and deadpanned “I’m sorry, it’s the Whitehouse.” Everyone laughed. I’ll never know if it was actually the Whitehouse calling.

One of my teachers at the Seminary, Prof. Burt Visotzky, tells the story of getting to know William Safire in Washington D.C. when Rabbi Visotzky would serve as the guest rabbi at Adas Israel for the High Holy Days. Rabbi Visotzky asked Mr. Safire why he stopped coming to synagogue regularly during the rest of the year. Mr. Safire responded, “Because all the rabbi does is talk politics. I don’t need to come to shul to hear what Bill Safire wrote in the Times.”

William Safire died today at the age of 79 from Pancreatic Cancer. I will always remember his insightful columns on language and on the politics of the day. Indeed, I consider him to be one of my teachers. I will also remember that on the day he succumbed to Pancreatic Cancer, the same disease that took my uncle’s life seven months ago, I was taking part in a walk to support the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN).

May the memory of William Safire be a blessing to his family and all of his many fans.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Israel Obituary Politics

Rest in Peace Mayor Teddy (1911-2007)

I’ve met a few big city mayors in my life (Detroit’s Dennis Archer, Ed Koch of NYC, and Michael Coleman of Columbus), but no one will ever surpass Jerusalem’s Mayor Teddy Kollek, may his memory be for a blessing) in popularity, sincerity, or menschlichkeit.

In July 1996, I was walking in front of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel with my dad and his friend Lazer Dorfman. Lazer pointed to the short, old man standing in front of a car with the car alarm blaring and said, “That’s Teddy Kollek, the old mayor of Jerusalem.” We went up to say hi and he shook our hands explaining that his driver was inside and he accidentally set off the car alarm. I took the keys and quickly turned off the alarm. Mayor Teddy was very thankful for our help and we talked until hisdriver returned.

Whenever I tell this story to a native Israeli, their face lights up and they tell their own story of what a nice guy and great mayor Teddy Kollek was. He will sorely be missed.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |