‘A genuine sense of gratitude’
Temple Israel Senior Rabbi David M. Sofian reflects on his retirement
By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer
Rabbi David M. Sofian takes confirmation seriously. His goal, he says, is to challenge teens to think of themselves as Jewish adults.
“I want them to give up a kind of kindergarten view of Judaism and to see it in its more complex, meaningful version,” he says.
He begins the two-year confirmation course for ninth and 10th graders with a discussion of Genesis, Chapter 1. “And that leads to a discussion of human sexuality on an adult level, and how that plays a role in Jewish family life, and in the creation of the Jewish family as the rabbis conceived it, which is the building block — the foundation — upon which everything else is on,” he says.
This Shavuot marks Sofian’s 12th and final year of preparing Temple Israel’s confirmands. He will retire July 1 and plans to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) with his wife, Dr. Simone Lovten Sofian, later this summer.
Sofian says if there’s an overarching theme to his 38 years in the rabbinate, it’s been teaching: not only to bring youths toward an adult understanding of Judaism, but to empower adults toward a “greater appreciation of living Judaism.”
“More and more adults want to express an adult commitment to being Jewish, through adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah,” he says of his congregants. “That changes the atmosphere. That creates a different kind of sense of what the place is all about.”
He points out that members are now more interested in participatory worship, and that services are 65 to 70 percent in Hebrew these days.
“You go back a couple of decades ago in the Reform movement and you’re going to be hard-pressed to find that kind of thing in most places,” he says. “And it just happened organically here. It’s not like we set out with that as the goal. It’s more and more people became comfortable decoding Hebrew, reading Hebrew, more comfortable with the tradition, within a Reform context.”
For years, Sofian has taught four adult education classes a week, along with themed courses. On a broader level, he says he’s tried to nurture the temple as a place where congregants enthusiastically participate.
That was the impetus behind the temple’s Jewish Cultural Festival, now in its fifth year, which brings more than 1,000 people — mostly non-Jews — to the campus.
“I proposed it here, but I didn’t know that we’d have over 200 volunteers from Temple Israel who would participate enthusiastically,” he says. “It turns out that through some luck and hard work, we hit on a vehicle that allows us to express a kind of Jewish enthusiasm in every way: tikun olam (repair of the world) and Mitzvah Alley and educationally and the entertaining. The whole thing works.”
Another success, he says, is the temple’s Share Shabbat program.
“I tried to find ways in which things that happen here strike many cylinders at the same time,” he says. “If you’re trying to find out what might be more attractive in terms of worship, it folds into what might be more attractive in terms of Jewish peoplehood and community. So if you combine worship with food, and a potluck dinner following it, you end up with more people at services.”
Temple Israel has held its Share Shabbat dinner on the first Friday evening of each month for 11 years. The service is informal; Sofian shares a story instead of delivering a sermon.
“Last Friday night there were 120,” he says. “In January, it’s probably 50.”
Sofian is a firm believer that there’s no means more effective to build community than food. And for this, Temple Israel has come to count on the culinary expertise of his wife, Simone.
Along with taking charge of the kitchen for each Share Shabbat, preparing the annual Simchat Torah celebration dinner, and overseeing the baking for the Jewish Cultural Festival for its first three years, Simone has prepared the temple’s second-night Passover Seder meal each year.
“For 150, she does all the chicken, all the soup, all the matzah balls, all the dessert at home, starting around Purim,” he relates. “And it’s all strictly kosher. And then on the day of the Seder, she gets some people from within the congregation to help her set it up.”
This year, the temple raised $2,400 from the Seder, which is earmarked for camp scholarships.
“We’ve had 130 to 150 people at our Seder every year for the last 11 years,” Sofian says, “and Simone has probably been able to contribute $25,000 to camp scholarships over that time.”
The temple board, Sofian says, is now exploring ways to coordinate kitchen volunteers to keep these projects going.
His years at the temple, Sofian says, have given him the opportunity to dig into projects he likely wouldn’t have taken on had he stayed at his pulpit in Chicago.
“My theory of the rabbinate is that there are many, many things that are expected of you, and nobody could be great at all of them,” he says. “What you have to do is be competent at all of them, and really good at some of them.”
He didn’t see preaching as one of his strengths until he honed his public speaking skills here.
“I got involved in community organizing and I was often asked to be the speaker that represented the Jewish community, and so I found myself speaking in larger venues,” he says. “I was involved with Lift Greater Dayton, and that gave me the opportunity to work with lots of really interesting clergy. But unfortunately we couldn’t figure out how to fund it in the long term. It allowed me to form friendships that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
As he and Simone prepare for their move to Modi’in, Israel, Sofian says he views the greatest challenge ahead for Temple Israel and Dayton’s Jewish community as the overall shrinking Jewish population.
“If people ask me, ‘How are we doing?’ I answer, I think we’re doing pretty well with everything that we can control: in terms of maintaining the building, in terms of our fiscal situation, in terms of our staff, in terms of our programming, in terms of what we’re trying to do with services,” he says. “But what we can’t control is the shrinking community. We can’t pretend it’s not happening. And it’s not just us. What does that mean 10 years from now? To just wait for it to come upon us and to scramble seems to me to be a mistake.
“It makes more sense to think it through and make the adjustments as reality presents itself. It’s very hard to get any community to do that. I know this is true with all of my clergy friends: the Episcopal and Lutheran churches are going through the same thing. Mainstream religion in America is going through the same thing.”
Seven years ago, the Sofians bought a home in Modi’in to fulfill their dream of nearly 40 years: to make aliyah to Israel. They are members of a 1,000-member Reform congregation there, and plan to volunteer with the congregation’s tutoring program.
“They need Anglo-type people to tutor Israeli kids in English, particularly at-risk kids that are in the city,” he says.
The Sofians’ home base will be Israel for six to seven months each year, but they’ll keep their house in Dayton and will visit each fall and spring. Their adult children and their families all live within a day’s drive of Dayton.
“I’ve really loved it here,” Sofian says. “I have a genuine sense of gratitude for what the opportunity has been for the last 12 years.”