Retiring Rabbi Wayne Franklin on community, Temple Emanu-El and evolving Judaism

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At the end of June, Rabbi Wayne M. Franklin will retire after serving for 38 years as the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, in Providence. Here are highlights from a recent conversation with him.

Q. When you started in Providence, did you have any idea that you would serve as rabbi for this long?

A. No, I had no idea. I hoped that it would be a long-term relationship because I saw a fine congregation, with so much potential for the future. 

Q. Temple Emanu-El is a congregation that’s not quite 100 years old, and you’ve been the rabbi for nearly 40% of that time. Why do you think your time has been so long?

A. I was young when I came, and I’ve been blessed with reasonably good health and I’ve enjoyed my work, so I’ve stayed as long as I’ve stayed.

Q. Do you think it’s something about the community valuing stability?

A. Absolutely.  

Q. If you had to make a short list of the things that you were proudest about that were accomplished while you were here, what would be on your list?

A. The first thing was incorporating women into full participation in services, counting in the minyan, having aliyot, leading services. It didn’t all happen at once, but women’s aliyot came immediately, basically.

I gave a d’var Torah the first summer about the passage of Zelophehad’s five daughters, who asked Moses if they could inherit their father’s estate since they had no brothers. Moses talks with God and comes back and said, “Yes, you can inherit, just marry within the tribe.” I went from there on to talking about women’s rights, women’s equality. 

I knew from the interview process that a lot of women were waiting for it. I said it was the direction we should move in. The president, Don Robbins, and I decided to begin calling up women on Rosh Hashanah, start the new year on a new foot. We agreed also that we should bring the decision to the board of directors at the first meeting of the board after I came. Support was unanimous, except for one woman.

On Rosh Hashanah, we had women coming up for aliyot and they were thrilled. It took a while longer for participants in the daily minyan to accept women counting among the 10.  

Q. What else is on your list?

A. The changes that we made incorporating interfaith families in the congregation, where we have been more welcoming. We used to publish a monthly bulletin, and we said, “mazal tov” on weddings. But we wouldn’t say “mazal tov” to intermarried couples, and parents of those couples were offended.

I also remember a woman who was a very active member of the congregation. Her first husband had died. Her second husband was not Jewish, a practicing Catholic.  She was a leader in social action and felt she was entitled to be on the board of directors for all of her years of service to the congregation. There was strong resistance, so we put together a committee that met for over a year. 

The Conservative movement at that time was not very welcoming of interfaith couples, which I thought was deleterious. We decided to change policies after extensive discussion and reviewing of background materials – we went ahead of the movement. 

One of the other practices I was already doing quietly was welcoming the non-Jewish parent to be on the bimah with the Jewish parent when coming up to the Torah for their children’s Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. We’ve moved beyond that, allowing non-Jewish family members to be involved in other ways.

Also, we purchased land at Swan Point Cemetery, the impetus being to offer burial plots for couples who are intermarried. This could not be done at Lincoln Park. All the graves in our first section sold out, which led us last year to make an arrangement for another section.

What else? Obviously, the interfaith work that I’ve been able to do here, which has been supported by the congregation.

One of the other things that I’m proud of is that when I arrived there was no program for converts. People were knocking on the door virtually from the day I arrived.  I first started trying to teach people individually, but I realized quickly I didn’t have the time.  We organized a class to do this collectively with several colleagues, and I hope this program will continue.  

I’m also proud of the Yom ha-Shoah program that I started with a Presbyterian minister, and it continues after 35 years. We’ve been able to find new directions each year and keep it fresh and meaningful. Given the climate that we live in, it’s even more important now.

Q. Something you’re not mentioning as one of your accomplishments has been your close connection to people, especially in times of need.

A. You have to be with people.  The way I was able to meet people in the congregation was through deaths, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, births, marriages, special events. You build relationships one family, one event at a time, and over time. That’s been one of the attractions for me as a rabbi. You get to meet interesting people. The richness and diversity of the congregation is fascinating.

Q. People say you’ve gone beyond what you needed to do, made yourself available in ways that have been really extraordinary.

A. I didn’t think that I was trying to be heroic. People need you; you respond. There’s this funny thing about days off.  I mean, yes, it’s nice and important to have a day off, because the work is taxing. But you can’t say “no” if someone is in crisis, or if a funeral has to happen that day. In accepting this kind of position, I feel you make an inherent commitment to care for people in their times of need.

Q. You’re very self-effacing about this. Some people would say, “I just can’t do that.” What made you want to do so much?

A. People come to a synagogue to feel that they’re part of a community, but they are also looking for a connection to something beyond themselves.  Call it God, call it the divine, or whatever. Somehow, they want to feel that connection; some people do it through the rabbi. People look to the rabbi as the representative of this tradition, and how you treat people speaks to how the tradition treats people.

It has been one of my contentions that Judaism is very concerned about how we treat people, about making Shalom in the world. If you articulate it in sermons and don’t do it in your personal relations with people, then it is all talk and why should anybody else do it? I’m not saying I’ve been an exemplar, but that’s where I’m coming from.

Q. Two big changes to the temple building happened in your time, the renovation of the main sanctuary and the construction of the Fishbein Chapel. What was accomplished?  

A. The main sanctuary was a beautiful room to begin with, but it’s much more beautiful now.  With the colors, the carpet, the fabrics, and just everything, it’s a much more beautiful room.

We also lowered the bimah by 18 inches, and we put steps across the front of it. That made it accessible to come back and forth. We can come down in the middle of a sermon or at the beginning of a sermon and teach informally. Before, there were stairs on the side; there was no easy flow, and it was very formal. And we put in an elevator from the sanctuary level to the reception hall level, which was a serious need.

Q.  How about the chapel?

A. The chapel downstairs felt constricted. The new chapel turned out to be a beautiful room. It’s a very attractive space, with soft colors and good acoustics. There are a lot of beautiful touches there. The stained glass windows show up much better now, because they were half submerged below the street level before, and here they’re fully exposed and get great light.

Q. What do you think of as disappointments or unfinished business you hope will go forward in the future?

A. We have spun off many different kinds of services and programs. What I have not been able to do successfully, and I probably could have worked harder on it, was trying to get people to feel like they’re part of the same organization.

It’s true that people come together for Kiddush, but I think that in many cases people identify as being parts of the ‘pockets’ rather than as the whole, with a commitment to the whole. 

I had proposed during my interviews, and I stimulated it once I got here, that we break down the large congregation into smaller units so that people could have more intimacy. When I came, we had 1,100 families in the congregation, and I thought that intimacy would be helpful in connecting people with one another. People are energized by developing friendships.

Q. You have seen the overall number of families in the synagogue decline. Is this something connecting this synagogue to a broader trend?

A. It’s part of a broader demographic, and, as synagogues go, and Conservative synagogues in particular, we’ve done much better in maintaining our position than many others. In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve seen large congregations in other communities be decimated, either because people can’t afford to live in those neighborhoods, or because the style of what goes on there doesn’t work for people anymore, or because their finances have run out.

It is no secret that the Conservative movement is not the largest movement, as it once was. We have held our own in Providence. We worked hard to change patterns and change relationships and make our place much less austere, more welcoming and friendly. That has made a difference for us.

Q.  I have two last questions.  The first is to talk a little bit about your future and what you hope to do.

A. I took some art lessons years ago, and tried playing with it for little while. I have not had time to be able to clear my head and know that I can just relax and play. I have no idea what I want to do, but I find art intriguing.  What people can create, how they can represent things, how they use paints – I just find it fascinating. I love to go to art museums; we love to collect art.

Q. What do you hope to keep doing in the religious community?

A. I want to step out of that, let somebody else do it. And then if I’m asked to teach in various places, I’ll see. I’m not looking for a heavy schedule and not looking for major commitments. I will continue with my interfaith work in the National Council of Synagogues. I will probably continue to do some things with Arthur Urbano at Providence College, and maybe classes or visits at some other schools. These are lively and fun.

Q. My last question is more philosophical. In your time as a rabbi, how has your relationship with faith changed?

A.  It is more nuanced, less simple.  I’m more aware of broader perspectives and scholarly insights, as well as issues that not only we deal with, but which Christians and Muslims and others also deal with. 

I also have a different appreciation of sources of Jewish literature.  I used to have a fairly standard understanding of where it all came from.  Torah comes from Sinai somehow or other, and then there’s the rest of the Bible in stages, and then there’s the rabbis.  I’ve come to develop a much deeper realization that the rabbis didn’t create something new and attach it to our tradition. Through the process of midrash [interpretation, commentary], the rabbis actually continued the process of reinterpretation that is inherent in the Bible itself; the biblical tradition is a tradition of midrash, and the rabbis built on it.

So there’s midrash in the Bible, and it works its way through the various books in the Bible, and then the rabbis pick it up and continue the process of midrash, of interpretation, reinterpretation, re-application and so forth. That is the process, that is what Judaism is all about, and that’s why Judaism, as far as I’m concerned, is still alive. Because it has been interpretable and reinterpretable from its inception. It’s an evolving tradition, not a matter of getting the right answer. The answer keeps unfolding. I cherish that.

NOEL RUBINTON, a member of Temple Emanu-El, is a writer who lives in Providence.