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Rabbi reflects on departure

‘The rewards just can’t be taken away from you’

By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Rabbi Bernard Barsky in his office at Beth Abraham

A few weeks before the death of Beth Abraham Synagogue member Adele Tilson at age 89, Rabbi Bernard Barsky visited her in Columbus.

“Adele was very, very frail,” Barsky says. “I could hardly hear anything she said. And we chatted for a while and the family came in. And when I left, I bent over and gave her a kiss.”

After the funeral, one of Adele’s sons gave the rabbi a note from his mother: “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. And the kiss was delicious.”

Barsky, who retires July 1 after 10 years with Dayton’s Conservative synagogue, says that of all the aspects of his rabbinate here, he cherishes pastoral care the most.

Much of that has been with the seniors in what he describes as an elderly congregation.

“Maybe because I’m 10 years older (he’s 67), it doesn’t seem as elderly as it did when I came. In my first year, I had about 30 funerals, and that was a lot,” he says. “The people who still seem active, I get over and over again, expressions of deep sadness (from them) when somebody reaches the point when they can’t get to shul anymore on Saturdays, because it means so much to them.”

During his decade on Beth Abraham’s bima, the rabbi has led his congregants through transitions and near-transitions.

In 2008, Beth Abraham moved from its home of 49 years on Salem Avenue to its current site in Oakwood.

A year later, the boards of Beth Abraham and Beth Jacob Synagogue agreed to begin merger talks. In 2010, Beth Abraham congregants voted for the merger but Beth Jacob’s members voted against it.

In 2012, although Beth Abraham’s board decided to extend Barsky’s contract through Aug. 1, 2014, it announced it would search for a new rabbi to begin as early as the summer of 2013.

With Rabbi Joshua Ginsberg set to start at Beth Abraham on July 1, Barsky’s final year will essentially be a sabbatical.

At first, Barsky resisted the notion of retirement. He had come to the rabbinate in mid-life, as a second career after teaching English and philosophy at universities in the United States and Germany.

He talked of looking for a new congregation after Beth Abraham. When a group of Beth Abraham congregants began a grassroots attempt to have the board reconsider the end of his contract, Barsky supported it.

Now, he seems at peace with retirement.

“I am staying here in Dayton,” he says. “I don’t have any definite plans. I’d like to have some kind of small income to supplement what I’ve got for retirement. I talk about things like doing hospice chaplaincy, pastoral counseling and so forth just because that’s what I can think of immediately.”

He says he hopes to write more, fish, garden, and travel more, and to stay active with the Montgomery County Ex-offender Reentry Task Force, a project he has championed with members of the synagogue’s social action committee.

Criticism of Israel
From the time he arrived, Barsky says, he and his congregants bumped heads about his views on Israel, which he expressed in his sermons.

After a few months at Beth Abraham, he recalls a congregant who said, “Rabbi, are you aware that every Saturday afternoon, the major topic in the Jewish community is what did Rabbi Barsky say?”

He says he took this as a compliment.

“Yes, there’s no question about Israel having the right to exist,” Barsky says when asked about his views. “(But) it’s no different than the criticism you make of any democratic state, that the principals of justice and equality for all of the citizens are applicable. I don’t know a country that doesn’t exist on the basis of having expelled earlier (inhabitants). Nobody’s saying that we (Americans) should go back to Europe or where we came from, to give the land back to the Indians.

“But this is fairly recent history and these people are still there and I don’t think it’s any question that there are discriminatory policies against the Arab population.”

Barsky says he has no answer to resolve the dilemma of a Jewish state versus a state for all of its citizens. He believes Israel has a right to defend itself when targeted but thinks the Jewish state “tends to fall back on that argument whenever it’s convenient.”

“I think American Jews have to look at and criticize Israel with the same eyes that they look at and criticize their own country or any other country,” he says, “that you can’t make an exception to the rules for Israel and I think we do. I think we’re terrified about the possible destruction of the state. I think we’ve been taught to understand Israel as living under constant threat.

“There’s no doubt there is threat. And yet, it’s the strongest military power in the area and one of the strongest in the world. And you create your own threat by taking such a militaristic stance against everyone around you.”

The rabbi’s legacy
Asked if he wishes he had done anything differently during his rabbinate in Dayton, he says, “I could have been a better politician. But in that regard too, there’s nothing I regret. I made the choices I made and none of them I really regret.”

He sees much more grassroots volunteerism now among Beth Abraham’s members, including social action initiatives, lay Torah readers for Shabbat and holidays, and congregants preparing kiddush lunch for Saturday afternoons.

“I think the community has become proud of itself,” he says. “And maybe that’s the most important thing. When I came here, the community was kind of depressed about itself and disappointed. And I think 10 years later, I can say the congregation’s proud of itself: proud of who it is, proud of what it does.”

As for himself, Barsky says he’s proud of the way he’s used his discretionary account to help people in need, whether in the Jewish or general community.

“A lot of the things you’re proud of are things nobody else ever really knows about,” he says. “So it really ends up to be entirely a matter between you and God: what you’ve done, what you’ve succeeded at, where you’ve helped and how you’ve affected people’s lives. And the public part of it and the political part of it is of no significance at all. You know what you’ve done and God knows what you’ve done and you’ve helped people and the rewards just can’t be taken away from you.”