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Coming home: Rabbi Zedek to speak at B’nai Jehudah, where his career began

Rabbi Michael Zedek

For 26 years Rabbi Michael Zedek served as the senior rabbi of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah, choosing in 2000 to leave the congregation and accept the title of rabbi emeritus. Next month, he will return to the pulpit for one night as the Reform congregation’s featured speaker at Shabbat Shuvah on Friday, Oct. 7. Erev Shabbat Services begin at 6 p.m., preceded by Bisseleh Nosh at 5:30 p.m.

It’s not uncommon to see Rabbi Zedek in and around Kansas City. While he moved away after serving B’nai Jehudah — first to Cincinnati to serve as the chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati and then to Chicago to take a pulpit once again — he has family here and visits often. 

“My mother, God willing, will be 104 in November and lives in Village Shalom. (My wife) Karen’s brother and sister and parts of their family are also in Kansas City.” He’s also been back occasionally to help others celebrate lifecycle events.

Why is now the time for the rabbi emeritus to speak at B’nai Jehudah? It’s something Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff has been trying to make happen since he got here 13 years ago.

“I have always reached out first to Rabbi Zedek, hoping that he might be available to ‘come home’ and speak. His tenure at B’nai Jehudah was remarkable. The congregation expanded its mission and lived true to its core purpose: to nurture Jewish meaning, connection and continuity. Many remember his leadership and I knew it would be powerful for him to speak. In this, his first year of full retirement, he has been able to clear his calendar and join us. I am delighted that our congregation’s rabbi emeritus will be ‘returning’ on Shabbat Shuvah.

Rabbi Zedek’s resume is full of accomplishments. At the time of his installation as the rabbi at B’nai Jehudah in 1976, he was the youngest rabbi in the United States to head a “giant” congregation. Ordained in June of 1974, he was chosen to be alumnus-in-residence at the Cincinnati and Los Angeles campuses of Hebrew Union College (HUC-JIR). Rabbi Zedek is the youngest man to receive this honor. While officially “retired” once again, he continues to add to this stellar resume.

At B’nai Jehudah, Rabbi Nemitoff has established a practice of inviting notable clergy to address the congregation on Shabbat Shuvah — the Sabbath in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Repentance. Those “incredible guests” have included an evangelical Pentecostal minister, an Episcopalian priest, Rev. Adam Hamilton of Leawood’s United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and Congregation Beth Torah’s Founding Rabbi Mark Levin.

Rabbi Zedek said he needed to decline all of Rabbi Nemitoff’s previous invitations because he has generally been “quite busy” on Fridays and Saturdays as the rabbi of Emanuel Congregation in Chicago, Illinois. After 12 years with that congregation, he added a second emeritus title to his resume when he retired this summer.

This year, Rabbi Zedek said, was the perfect one for him to accept the invitation as he is “assiduously trying to not be at Emanuel for these High Holy Days, because I want to make sure that there is more than enough room for my successor to have success.”

Both rabbis explain that in Jewish tradition, Shabbat Shuvah is one of two occasions, along with Shabbat HaGadol just before Passover, where a rabbi would give a lengthy address.

“I’m not going to speak at great length, but historically they would go on and on and on,” on those Sabbaths, said Rabbi Zedek. “On Shabbat Shuvah, they would generally speak in terms of preparation for Yom Kippur about to arrive and Shabbat HaGadol traditionally in terms of getting ready for Passover.”

The tradition of hosting guest speakers on Shabbat Shuvah developed for a variety of reason.

“Not only does it give the rabbis a break from having to prepare a traditional sermon, but it might attract a few more people because Shabbat Shuvah, alas what used to be one of the most widely attended Sabbath services in most congregations, is now sparsely attended because after all, the Jews have had their shot of Judaism for the week,” Rabbi Zedek noted.

The rabbi emeritus is excited about speaking, as he said he always is.

“I often commiserate with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student before the service starts with the notion that they are clearly nervous and I suggest to them there are two kinds of nervous. There’s the nervous you’re not prepared, and that’s a really bad nervous. There’s the nervous this matters to you, that’s the nervous I want you to have. And that’s the nervous I have no doubt I will have. In fact, should that stop it will probably indicate that I don’t really care anymore and I certainly don’t want that to happen,” Rabbi Zedek said.

Part of his excitement for this upcoming sermon stems from the fact he is “coming back to the place where my rabbinical career began and where I still have a strong part of my heart residing.”

“I am truly looking forward to being able to see faces that I trust I’ll remember, but also because there are a lot of echoes of folks whose absence will be experienced. So many of the people that I grew up with at B’nai Jehudah are now in what we affectionately call the ‘Yeshiva Shomala, the academy on high.’ That’s a traditional phrase for those who have gone through the valley of the shadow of death. There are so many people that touched my life and still do and are associated not with that building but with that community.”

At the time of this interview, he had not yet narrowed his choices for the sermon.

“I certainly expect to focus on the intimate themes of the High Holy Days because it is one of those rare moments in Jewish tradition where there is not only the corporate but there is also the personal. It’s not just the people, but the person. I have some ideas but they are not yet formed in the speech I would give today, let alone in a couple of weeks.”

His visit is being underwritten by the Irving Atlas Memorial Fund. 

“I knew Irv. He was a president of B’nai Jehudah and his family have always been pillars of the congregation including his son Richard and his daughter-in-law Barbara and the whole family,” he said. “It’s a flattering connection to have that additional privilege and association.” 

When he retired from Emanuel this summer at a “very youthful” age 70, Rabbi Zedek accepted a part-time appointment to serve as senior adviser to the Central Conference of American Rabbis. It was a job created especially for him, not something he sought.

One part of the job will be helping crate materials to help benefit non-Orthodox, liberal Jewish life. Some of that will be a fundraising element, to be called Friends of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, that will support the various publications and other things such as continuing education.

The other will be helping rabbis when they find themselves in position where they become lonely and vulnerable because there are a lot of things rabbis cannot share with others as people in other occupations may share with their friends and colleagues. 

“There is a reluctance on the part of many of us (in the clergy) to admit when we are wounded and/or missing something and part of my job would be to try to help some of us when there is a moment that we are missing,” Rabbi Zedek said.

The part-time position is an opportunity for the rabbi to not only stay busy, but, he said, to make some kind of contribution that matters and has some meaning.

He is also keeping busy in retirement by serving on the boards of a couple of organizations in the Chicago area, along with doing some counseling and officiating at lifecycle events. 

Then there’s the book project he’s “run out of excuses to not finish.” 

For the future, he’s close to an agreement to spend four months in Florence, Italy, beginning in September 2017, to be the rabbi for a congregation that serves mainly English speakers who live there. 

Then there’s Sunday morning, when you can still hear Rabbi Zedek on “Religion on the Line,” a radio program that airs from 6 to 8 a.m. on KCMO-710 AM and 103.7 FM in Kansas City. Billed by the station as a “labor of love from the show hosts, with the goal being to promote ecumenical understanding and interfaith dialogue.” The rabbi hosts the show along with Rev. Robert Lee Hill and Chancellor George M. Noonan. It has been on the air since he was senior rabbi at B’nai Jehudah.