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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


 

June 15, 2018  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

After 41 years at one and only shul, Rabbi Luski bows out

By BRUCE LOWITT Jewish Press

As a young man, Jacob Luski had no desire to follow his father into the real estate business. Nor did he plan on a rabbinical career. He enrolled at Georgia Tech.

“When I finished high school I thought I wanted to be an engineer,” he said. “So, I became a rabbinic engineer instead of a mechanical or different type of engineer.”

And 41 years later he is retiring from the only pulpit he ever occupied, as rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg.

“I know, as a rabbi’s daughter that it’s highly unusual for a rabbi to have only one pulpit for his entire career,” said Reva Pearlstein, a former president of the synagogue and chair of the search committee that selected Luski’s successor. “It’s pretty impressive that he forged such a strong posture in this community as other rabbis came and went. He went from being the young kid on the block to suddenly being the senior rabbi in town.


Rabbi and Joanne Luski with children Yael and Jeremy, which appeared on the cover of the Times’ Crossroads religion section in September 1979. 
Photo courtesy of Tampa Bay Times Rabbi and Joanne Luski with children Yael and Jeremy, which appeared on the cover of the Times’ Crossroads religion section in September 1979. Photo courtesy of Tampa Bay Times “In a way it’s a sense of loss we’re going to feel,” Pearlstein said. “We’re so used to Rabbi Luski. We’re used to the way he deals with problems. We’re used to the way he preaches. He’s a story teller, he teaches you by telling stories. Now everyone has their own style so it’s going to be a real adjustment for all of us, both for people who felt it was time for him to leave and also for those who dearly loved him.”

Rabbi Luski was 27 when he came to the Conservative Congregation B’nai Israel.

“I always had an interest in Jewish life and it sparked during those college years,” said the Havana-born Luski. His family fled Cuba for the United States in 1960, when he was 11, first briefly to Miami Beach, then to Charlotte, N.C., where he stayed through high school.


Rabbi Luski with “minyanaires” in the chapel of the former synagogue building, which was torn down to make way for Congregation B’nai Israel’s present home. The long-running twice daily minyans have been a source of pride for the rabbi and congregation. Rabbi Luski with “minyanaires” in the chapel of the former synagogue building, which was torn down to make way for Congregation B’nai Israel’s present home. The long-running twice daily minyans have been a source of pride for the rabbi and congregation. “I spent a little time at the Jewish Theological Seminary one summer to see if it was something I would want to immerse myself in, and it was quite successful. I applied for a special program because I didn’t have all the necessary education to enter rabbinical school.”

He took the one-year preparatory program, was accepted to JTS, but still didn’t know whether he wanted to go into congregation, education, administration or some other rabbinic field. In his last two years at JTS he spent some time as an unofficial full-time assistant rabbi, “a rabbinic intern, kind of an innovative idea at the time,” he said, “and that helped me create a love for congregational work, which led me to pursue that upon my ordination and (I was) happy to come to St. Petersburg.”


Rabbi Luski at Purim celebration with Rivvy Chapman in 1980. Rabbi Luski at Purim celebration with Rivvy Chapman in 1980. In Cuba, he said, Zionism played a big role in the community and, growing up with all four grandparents nearby, their commitment to Zionism rubbed off on him.

“My zeyda, Israel Luski, was president of the Zionist organization in Havana for many years and any time visitors came from Israel ... they would be in his house and so would I. By osmosis I inherited that love of Israel and love of Zion.”

The Luskis were members of the conservative Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba (Beth Shalom synagogue) in Havana “and when people go to Cuba today that’s one of the places they visit. We would go there for the High Holidays, for Purim, Hanukkah, Pesach seders.”


Rabbi Luski demonstrates the shofar for children in 1984. 
Photo courtesy of Tampa Bay Times Rabbi Luski demonstrates the shofar for children in 1984. Photo courtesy of Tampa Bay Times He recalled that as Castro was coming to power and nationalizing businesses and industries, his parents told him, “Tomorrow we’re getting on an airplane. Don’t say anything to anyone.”

When they arrived in the United States “my parents were wise enough to figure out that if you join a shul, that’s how you truly plug into the Jewish community, so we became active participants in Temple Israel in Charlotte after having been warmly welcomed by Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz at Temple Menorah in Miami Beach during those first few months.” (Rabbi Abramowitz, who was 97 when he died Feb. 2, 2017, opened his synagogue to hundreds of Cuban Jewish youth who came to the United States as part of Operation Pedro Pan from 1960-62.)

Much has changed in the Conservative movement and at B’nai Israel in Luski’s 41 years there.

Women’s participation, and more recently the welcoming specifically of members of the LGBTQ community, are probably the most visible changes.

Women can be counted in the minyan; they can be called to the Torah; they can become a president of the synagogue “and as such there’s more equality in the participation today than there was in previous years,” Rabbi Luski said.

And on June 22, B’nai Israel will host its third Pride Shabbat service.

“We have always been an inclusive community,” Rabbi Luski said. “We accept interfaith families. … We don’t discriminate on age, on gender, on sexual preference. We do a lot of special Shabbatot. We do Sephardic Shabbat, we do law Shabbat, we do educator Shabbat, and on and on. So a Pride Shabbat is one of those things that’s inclusive. It kind of evolved as the city of St. Petersburg has evolved on the subject.

“I feel that I was ahead of the curve, looking ahead to see what should be, what could be, at least from the spiritual side,” Rabbi Luski said.

“From the business side, even though I have a good practical business background from my engineering approach to life and having grown up in a family business, it was, ‘You’re the rabbi. Leave the rest to us.’ But I still put in my two cents’ worth when wise leadership were willing to listen.”

Susan Marger LeVine, B’nai Israel’s immediate past president, said Rabbi Luski was very supportive when the synagogue decided to be “more relationship-driven, less fiscally-driven, to bring in more young people. And we’ve succeeded; we have more young leaders under the age of 35 than ever before. …

“We’re traditional yet egalitarian. We do the full Torah readings and a twice-daily minyan and we are strict kashrut (dietary laws) within our building. However, women can do everything men can do at the bima. I’ve been a hagbah, lifting the Torah during the service,” LeVine said.

“Politically, I don’t think we’re either conservative or liberal, and rabbi’s been very careful not to present a one-sided sermon. He’s never told us to vote a certain way ... although if it has to do with Israel he will give a very passionate sermon,” LeVine said.

“Think of the number of sermons over 41 years,” added Pearlstein. “He helped educate us on things like Israel. He affected us all in a very positive way. We take our lead from the lessons of the Torah and he was always good at reminding us how to live and be moral, ethical people.”

Rabbi Luski said he’d like to be remembered for his “love of Yiddishkeit (Jewish way of life), promoting Conservative Judaism as the way to love Judaism. You can pray, you can study, you can socialize, all those are important parts of being a Jew. You can’t be a part-time Jew; you have to be a full-time Jew.”

Leaving the pulpit will be bittersweet, he said, “sweet because I’m looking forward to retirement, bitter because there are so many relationships that go to a different level when you’re no longer the rabbi. But both are good. Joanne and I are going to continue being members of the community, looking forward to participating with the new rabbinic leadership.”

Rabbi Luski conducted his last Shabbat services on June 1-2 and the new rabbi, Philip Weintraub, will officially conduct his first services on the July 6-7 Shabbat. Rabbi Weintraub has been the rabbi since 2011 at Congregation Agudas Israel in Newburgh, N.Y. The Summa Cum Laude graduate of Brandeis University is 34.

Following his retirement, Rabbi Luski will assume the honorary title of rabbi emeritus. While he will no longer have an official role at B’nai Israel, it is expected he will occasionally be invited to sit on the bima and participate in special events.

He plans to continue his work as chaplain at the Bay Pines Veterans Administration Medical Center. In addition, Rabbi Luski and wife Joanne will travel, which they love, and will continue doing volunteer work for the Jewish community.

He also just assumed the role – for the next two years – of chairman of the national Israel Bonds Rabbinic Advisory Council. “We probably have one of the largest Israel Bond campaigns in the state if not the country, thanks to Rabbi Luski,” said Pearlstein, former director of the local Israel Bonds office.

There’s also the matter of the Luskis’ offspring in Florida, New York and California. “I’ll be spending a lot more time with my wife and our children and grandchildren. We have three grandchildren and more coming along the way, please God, and we’ll be spending time with them when I want, not when I can,” the rabbi said. “That’s going to be a big change.”


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