Rabbi Arnold Goodman interview 2002

From Atlanta Jewish Life magazine

March-April 2002

As rabbi of the second largest Conservative congregation in the nation for 20 years, Rabbi Arnold Goodman has made quite an impact on Atlanta. As he retires from the rabbinate, congregants and community members alike reflect.

By Robert J. Nebel

The glass front doors to Ahavath Achim (AA) Synagogue in Northwest Atlanta have been pulled open countless times since the building was constructed off Peachtree Battle Avenue in 1958. Many different people – Jews and gentiles alike – have passed through the doors: rambunctious youngsters, troubled adolescents, young couples, divorcees, widows and widowers, and the elderly have come seeking faith, guidance, reassurance and community.

For the past 20 years, they have also come for Rabbi Arnold Goodman, the Conservative 2,100-member family congregation’s senior rabbi. In August, Goodman will be exiting the synagogue’s glass doors for the last time, as he retires and moves to Israel with his wife Rae. “I will miss the people, the connections, the relationships,” he says from his office. “It’s time for me to hang it up.”

It may be time for Goodman to move on, but his impact on AA and the Atlanta community will continue to be apparent. At AA, the second largest Conservative synagogue in the nation, Goodman was instrumental in bringing egalitarianism to a congregation that began as Orthodox. He made involving children and young adults in synagogue life a priority, believing that by instilling Jewish rituals in young people, faith will follow. During his tenure, the Goodmans also invited congregants of all backgrounds into their home for study and socializing, breaking the stereotype of rabbi as an untouchable holy man. And in the wider Jewish and secular community, Goodman was known for his service and fellowship with clergy of other faiths, building bridges between Jewish Atlantans and their wider community. 

For all of the glowing compliments heaped on Goodman and his work in Atlanta, it’s words from his congregants that illustrate the rabbi’s strong influence and lasting relationships. 

“He stood by our side for four and a half years when our daughter was dying,” says Janis Zagoria. Even before that, Goodman officiated at her wedding, and the two baby namings and brit milah (ritual circumcision) of her children. When he leaves Atlanta, she adds, “a huge hole will be left in my spirit.”

Originally founded in 1887 as Congregation Ahawas Achim (brotherly love), AA’s first known address was a rented house on Gilmer Street. Its founders, a group of 20 Eastern European men, aligned with the Orthodox movement. Rabbi Harry Epstein, considered an institution, was the second rabbi of AA, arriving in 1928. During Epstein’s term, the congregation moved away from its Orthodox roots and joined the Conservative movement in 1952. Epstein introduced Friday night bat mitzvahs to AA, and allowed women to be counted for a minyan, according to congregant Doris Goldstein’s centennial history of AA, “From Generation to Generation.” The congregation grew comfortable with Rabbi Epstein as they recognized him as their premier spiritual leader.

When Epstein retired, the synagogue’s search committee knew they had quite a task to pick his successor. Epstein was a tough act to follow, and, although a new rabbi on the bimah almost seemed unthinkable, the AA community knew they needed someone to lead them into the future. 

One of the twenty-five candidates Joel Lobel, AA’s then-president, and the rest of the search committee met with was Goodman from Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minneapolis. When the committee discussed its idea of change with Goodman, Lobel says they liked his response. Goodman told members he wanted to tailor an agenda for the congregation that would endure in the years to come, and would attract new congregants while retaining its core membership. That philosophy set him apart from the other candidates, “who didn’t possess his (Goodman’s) great ability to speak and teach,” says Lobel, as did the general impression he made.

“When we were looking for a rabbi, we knew we had to get a man of stature and who was knowledgeable,” he adds. “We found that in Rabbi Goodman.” Goodman arrived at Ahavath Achim in September, 1982, replacing a rabbi with a 56-year history at the synagogue. Rather than hesitate or ease the congregation into new territory, Goodman instantly energized AA with a series of progressive initiatives. “It was quite a challenge,” recalls Goodman. “I knew I had a lot ahead of me, so I simply remained focused.”
“When first I arrived here, I wanted to find out what this congregation was about,” he says, adding that he held meetings with key leaders of the synagogue and made it a point to have a dialogue with members. Once he felt he had a handle on moving the congregation forward, “I had to find a way to implement these ideas in a palatable way.” “Rabbi Goodman eased into each initiative carefully, so as not to make anyone feel uncomfortable with change” says Distinguished Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Irwin J. Knopf of Emory University. “He waited for the time to move on each piece of change and built allies in the process.”

One of Goodman’s major impacts on AA was his staunch support of egalitarianism. In the early 1980s, thanks to Epstein, women were well out of the synagogue balcony and were worshipping in the main sanctuary. But many congregants felt that more needed to be done. 

Before Goodman, religious services felt “male-dominated,” says congregant Judy Finkel. “I felt as if women were second-class citizens,” she says, noting that they were not allowed to read from the Torah or participate to the same level as men. “It was just acceptable at the time that women were in a secondary role,” says Professor Knopf. “Many congregants were somewhat fearful of change.”
Goodman changed that. He moved bat mitzvah ceremonies, which had been on Friday nights, to Saturday mornings, so girls could read the Torah like their bar mitzvah counterparts. He encouraged women to be more active in various congregational business, and granted them the honor of praying from the bimah, pulpit. He also continued Epstein’s tradition of counting women in minyan. Within the Conservative movement, Goodman also pushed The Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical school, to admit women. Women – and most men – were pleased. Many female congregants agree that by making women equal at AA, Goodman helped strengthen the self-esteem of female congregants. Their participation during services surged, and women became more active in the synagogue’s agenda, congregants say. 

“He really brought women more into the fold,” says Goldstein, author of “From Generation to Generation.” “It was part of his mantra during his first two years [at the synagogue]: egalitarianism and equality. He achieved both.” 

His achievements were not without dissent, though. A few synagogue members did leave when AA became egalitarian. But Goodman remained steadfast. “Change does not happen by waving a magic wand,” he says. “What has to happen is you change half of the congregation and, eventually, the other half follows.” Ahavath Achim’s current president, Dorothy “Dot” Cohen, is proof of this. She is the congregation’s first female president, and has been serving in that role for two years. “Rabbi Goodman inspired women to be involved and connected,” she says. “He has created a real sense of inclusion.” 

Because of Goodman’s reforms, Cohen says she knew AA was ready for the milestone of a female president. “I saw women participating in the services, making aliyah and reading from the Torah,” she adds. “It did make me feel more confident to become president.” Along with a woman president, a woman rabbi has come to AA. In August, 2000, Goodman was instrumental in hiring Rabbi Analia Bortz from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bortz says she sees Goodman’s strong belief in equality at work. “He has always welcomed me and given me the confidence to be a part of this congregation,” she says. Having a woman rabbi not only boosts female congregants’ self-esteem but creates role models for the congregation’s girls and young women, she adds. “I am grateful that Rabbi Goodman been given me the opportunity to inspire young female members to become more involved. ” 

These young people are the future of the synagogue, as well as the Jewish community, Goodman believes. Because of that, he has made a point of involving children in services and synagogue activities throughout his term. Before Goodman, “tradition” kept children out of the services to preserve “order”. “I always felt that members should involve their children [in Jewish life],” Goodman says, realizing some parents may think their children could be disruptive. “If you are worried about children fidgeting in services, it is because they are acting like children,” Goodman says he tells them. 

During a typical Saturday morning Shabbat service, it is not uncommon to see ten to 30 children in the pews or on the bimah. The reason they’re there is simple: “By allowing their participation in the service, children feel a part of the synagogue,” says Goodman. “This, in turn, will make them more enthusiastic and eventually want to be involved with the synagogue when they are older and have families.” His interest in children prompted him to write Prayers For Children: Sweet Words to G-d (Longstreet Press, Spring, 2001) a collection of writings from religious leaders and scholars of different backgrounds, geared to the young in search of faith. It is because of Goodman’s leadership that AA’s religious school has become exciting and proactive for the children. They are more engaged with Jewish study, community, and synagogue. In addition to a strengthened religious school, Goodman also points out that babysitting services are available on Saturdays for those who are not quite ready to attend religious school.

One of Goodman’s enduring legacies will be his accessibility, many congregants agree. Rather than distance himself from synagogue members, Goodman and Rae took the opposite approach, says Goldstein.

“He started inviting members into his house,” she recalls. “It had never happened before [under previous rabbinical leadership].” But the Goodmans knew that “when you take a personal approach with somebody, there is a connection [established] there,” Goldstein adds.

Frequently, the Goodmans would invite congregants who fit specific demographics into their home: engaged couples, newlyweds, couples expecting babies. They would discuss Jewish rituals and traditions in relation to the stages in the congregants’ lives. For example, engaged couples sat with the rabbi and Rae, socialized with each other and learned the various practices involved in Jewish weddings. Expectant couples discussed what it means to raise a Jewish child.

“You really made serious connections by meeting other couples. Years later, we are not only friends, but our children are as well,” says congregant Marla Shavin “When you are pulled in on a level like that, you become more committed to the synagogue.” The Goodmans also opened their home during Jewish holidays such as Chanukah and Sukkot, and invited college students to their house for brunch during school breaks. Rae Goodman says it’s in her and her husband’s nature to welcome members into their home. “It is something that we have always done,” Rae Goodman says simply. “We never found it to be unusual.” By producing these housewarmings, the Goodmans hoped to achieve a deep bond between the synagogue and its members, thus strengthening the congregation.

As unique an impact Goodman has made on his congregation, his office looks like a typical rabbi’s space: spacious, yet well-organized. Various classical Jewish texts and Jewish studies materials are stuffed into built-in bookshelves against the wall. High ceilings make it possible for Goodman to stack years’ worth of papers, speeches and other paraphernalia in neat areas in front of the bookshelves. His furniture includes an inviting sofa for congregants and community leaders to come and share ideas. And throughout the office are reminders of the rabbi’s long, distinguished career: pictures of family, personal letters, and diplomas. 

As a rabbi, former head of the Rabbinical Assembly, published author, law school graduate, husband, father of three and grandfather of 12, Goodman seems to have done it all. But he came from humble beginnings. “I was brought up in a traditional [Jewish] home in Brooklyn, in the Williamsburg neighborhood,” he recalls from behind his desk. Everyone around him was Jewish, he says. “It wasn’t like America -- it was more like a shtetl.” As an only child, Goodman had a deep admiration for his father, Louis, who was the sole proprietor and pharmacist of a drugstore in an Italian neighborhood. “He kept odd hours,” Goodman remembers, adding that as a child, he was inspired by his father’s work ethic, devotion to family and religion. While the patriarch’s non-traditional schedule proved to be a challenge to celebrating Shabbat and other religious holidays, Goodman says the family made every effort to do so. That made them even more devout, he says, since they had to work at practicing their Judaism. 

His parents also sent him to a traditional yeshiva, Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn. “It was an intense, rigorous education with religious and secular study,” Goodman remembers. “Thus, it was natural that I gravitate to the rabbinate.” 

When he was 16, Arnold Goodman entered New York’s City College. While Louis hoped his son would pursue a law career, the younger Goodman found his niche in Jewish studies. As he worked on a psychology degree at the college, Goodman attended evening and Sunday courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which was down the street. That seemed to be fate intervening, Goodman recalls. “I learned of a seminary down the street, and it was then I knew I wanted to a rabbi,” he explains. “Giving knowledge to people is what attracted me most to becoming a rabbi.” Goodman discovered another attraction in 1946: Rae Parnes of Jamaica, New York. They met at a family wedding. The two married in 1949. Goodman graduated from the seminary in 1952 and the couple moved to Chicago so the newly ordained rabbi could serve as a chaplain in the military during the Korean War. 

When he was discharged, Goodman and his wife decided to stay in Chicago. He got a job as a rabbi at Congregation Rodfei Sholom-Oir Chodesh in a nearby suburb. Rae remembers the couple’s time in Chicago fondly. “It was such an exciting time,” she says. “We were really building our lives.” It was also at that time when they started to build their family. Today, they have three children: Ariel, 47 a CFO of a high-tech firm in Jerusalem; Daniel, 45, a doctor; and Shira, 41.

But it wasn’t enough for the rabbi to rest on his laurels. Goodman’s quest for knowledge inspired him to earn two postgraduate degrees: a master of arts degree in education administration from the University of Chicago (1955) and a Law Degree from DePaul University (1962) Upon completion of the latter degree, he became a member of the Illinois bar. Higher education, Goodman believed, would enhance his self-discipline and orator skills, thus making his religious services more dynamic. After serving the Chicago Jewish community for more than a decade, the Goodmans moved to Minneapolis in 1966. At Adath Jeshurun Congregation, Goodman accomplished a laundry list of achievements. Chief among them was the organization of a chevra kevod, or society to honor the dead, a trained group of congregants who step in and prepare the body based on Jewish rituals. Twenty years ago the south came calling. 

A search committee at Congregation Ahavath Achim learned of this proactive rabbi through the Rabbinical Assembly of the United Conservative Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “They found me,” quips Goodman, who joined the throng of Northerners who came to the South in the early eighties. Goodman also has made an impact on the way services are conducted at AA. For 20 years, many congregants say, he has kept worshippers spellbound with his sermons. Synagogue members express that they will never forget his powerful voice, how he paces the bimah as he speaks from the heart, using no notes. “I don’t know of a better speaker,” says congregant Marianne Garber. “He [uses] such meaningful words and [talks about] subjects that are personal, spiritual and political. This past Yom Kippur, the rabbi gave a beautiful speech about how we in life have unfinished portraits and we must finish them,” congregant Zagoria adds. 

Whatever his sermons are about, Goodman manages to relate his subjects back to Jewish teachings, says congregant Elaine Blumenthal. “He not only leaves a vestige of himself in his teaching, but a vestige of Torah,” she says. “Pertinent points of view from our sages are again made relevant in resolving contemporary problems.” Injecting current events and political discussion into his services is signature Goodman, who is a passionate supporter of Zionism and the state of Israel. “I believe in Israel as a home for the Jewish people,” Goodman says. “It is something I feel deeply about.” During his 50 years in the rabbinate, Goodman also has felt strongly about expanding his spiritual reach. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, a 1,100-member organization of Conservative Rabbis, as well as on the group’s Committee of Jewish Laws and Standards. 

In his work, Goodman is no stranger to controversy. Years ago, Goodman caused strife within his synagogue when he signed onto a plan to move AA to Alpharetta. “I felt that we could have reached younger families in that area,” Goodman explains. But many members felt that the cost of building a facility would be too high and the move would alienate longtime members. The matter was dropped, but it proved that Goodman wasn’t afraid to take an unpopular stance if he thought it might benefit the congregation, says Goldstein.

“He picked his battles,” she says. “If you are a rabbi and you do not generate controversy, you are not a good rabbi.” Many religious leaders outside of AA agree. “The rabbi introduced us to new ideas and cultures,” says Gil Watson, senior pastor at Northside Methodist Church, with which AA often participates in interfaith services around Thanksgiving. “He truly is an educator.” Joanna Adams, former pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, has been in a religious study group with Goodman for years. “I have been blessed to work with him,” she says. Many in the community were blessed to learn from Goodman’s solid knowledge and expertise.

Goodman also teaches Jewish studies classes at Spelman College, where he has forged a close relationship with the historically black women’s college president, Johnetta Cole. She recalls how, when she first became president of the school in 1987, she told Goodman she was anxious. “He reached deep into his text” and found some Jewish words of wisdom, Cole says. “[He showed me that] no one can walk in anyone else’s shoe imprints. Make your own imprints.” 

The impact Goodman has made on the interfaith community has carried over into his own congregation. Through his participation in these activities, Goodman has opened AA members’ eyes to new people and experiences, says congregant Paul Finkel. “It is because of Rabbi Goodman that I have had the chance to meet some people outside of the synagogue,” he explains, citing Cole as an example. “I wouldn’t have known about her otherwise.” 

Even Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes has recognized Goodman’s work in the community. “As a coalition-builder between different races and faiths, he has been a tremendous asset to the community,” he said in a statement. “His absence will be felt by his congregation and throughout the state of Georgia.” Although he will miss his Atlanta family and congregation, Goodman says it is time to do other things. He and Rae will settle in Israel, where Rae will do some volunteer work and the rabbi will write his memoirs. He is looking forward to the challenge. “I heard an interview with a hip-hop [music] artist on NPR the other day. He said, ‘You make music for yourself.’ I feel that way about writing,” Goodman says. “You are truly happy when you write for yourself.” 

So as AA celebrates its 115th anniversary this year and loses only the third rabbi in its history, congregants will once again face change. While feelings of emptiness surround Goodman’s retirement in the congregation, reality has settled in as the search for a new rabbi begins. “It’s important that we bring in a rabbi who is a people person,” says Kerry Landis, a former AA president. “I am confident that the committee has that ability (to find that type of rabbi).” Joel Lobel, who now serves as Executive Director adds that, “We are looking for a young rabbi who will be able to communicate with all of our members. I am saddened by Rabbi Goodman’s departure, but I am also happy for him. He will now have the chance to do what he really wants. It’s funny - I brought him through those doors and I now will bring him out.” 
(C)Leader Publishing, 2002


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