A Boy from Brooklyn: An interview with Rabbi Samuel Waidenbaum by Mike Bate and Jerry Gordon

Mike Bates:      Good afternoon and welcome to Your Turn on 1330AM WEBY, Northwest Florida’s Talk Radio. I am your host Mike Bates. This half hour we have two special guests in the studio. One is my regular host for Middle East Round Table discussions, Jerry Gordon with the New English Review and its blog, “the Iconoclast”. Welcome Jerry.

Jerry Gordon:  Glad to be back Mike.

Bates:                   Also in the studios, but hopefully not for the last time, is Rabbi Samuel Waidenbaum with B’nai Israel synagogue in Pensacola. Welcome Rabbi Sam.

Rabbi Waidenbaum: Thank you very much Mike. Nice to be here.

Bates:                  I appreciate you coming in.  So what brings you to Northwest Florida?

Waidenbaum   It seems like there was a calling for a Rabbi at B’nai Israel Synagogue and I applied for it.  Eventually we had a Skype interview. They liked what they saw. I liked what I saw, they interviewed me. I told them eventually that I was also interviewing them as well as a congregation. I guess I passed the test, they passed the test and we became an item.  I am the Rabbi of this wonderful congregation.

Bates:                 So what was the long and winding road from being an Orthodox trained Rabbi from Brooklyn to being a Rabbi at B’nai Israel in Pensacola?

Waidenbaum:    I have to tell you something. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew whether you are Orthodox or whether you are Conservative, whether you are a Reform or whether you are a Reconstructionist.  It makes no difference. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. My theory and my feelings always have been and still are today that you work for God, you don’t work for the people. You are doing God’s work but it is through the people. We are doing it through the people, getting them to a better place, making them understand what it is all about.  I learned that, thank God, from my father, may he rest in peace. That is what he did and it seems like it just runs in the family. I picked up on that and I said do you know what? I like it. I don’t have to be in an Orthodox synagogue because in an Orthodox synagogue they know what to do. They know it already. They are Orthodox, they are Hasidic or they know it already. But when you wind up in a Conservative synagogue or an egalitarian synagogue it makes no difference where you can reach out to them and make them better Jews.

Gordon:                 You are no stranger to the Gulf Coast Rabbi Waidenbaum having spent five years at a program over in New Orleans. What was that like?

Waidenbaum:     Well over there I was not the Rabbi, although I was already ordained, but I was the Cantor there in New Orleans.  It was an easier job and that is where I also learned to play tennis by the way.

Gordon:                   That’s amazing.

Waidenbaum:        Yup.

Gordon:                    So you became a tennis addict (or advocate)?

Waidenbaum:        Yes sir.

Gordon                       That means you watch the U.S. Open.

Waidenbaum:         Yes I do. Thank you.

Gordon:                     Okay.

Mike:                          You mentioned Rabbi Sam that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew whether you are Orthodox, whether you are Conservative, whether you are a Reform and there are even more sub-sects of Judaism. In your travels there would have to be some differences or they wouldn’t give themselves different labels. What have you seen as you have traveled throughout your path as a Rabbi in various congregations that you have either attended or led?

Waidenbaum:        Congregations are basically all the same.  It is that sometimes the different sects that you have within any religion I would imagine everyone thinks that they know what God wants from them or they are the favorite, or that God loves them better than someone else and that is not the truth. The truth is God loves everyone; every person on the face of this earth is God’s child whether you are Jewish or Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, and it makes no difference. We are all God’s children and what I enjoy doing is reaching out to the Jews that I can help them be a little bit more Jewish, be a little more charitable, observe a little bit more like lighting  candles on Shabbat, make the Hamotzi,  make Kiddush, do the prayers the right way.  If they have a problem with anything I am here to help them in any way, shape or form. Sometimes they need a little boost in the money department, they ran out or something happened and they lost their jobs we do that as well. I am here to help my community and sometimes even outside the Jewish community as well.

Gordon:                     So you have been here for about three months now right?

Waidenbaum:        Yes sir it’s my third month anniversary.

Gordon:                     What has been your experience trying to be flexible with a small egalitarian Conservative Jewish congregation here. What was that like?

Waidenbaum:         I don’t think it has to do with egalitarian or Jewish or Orthodox or trained Rabbi, it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with how you feel the culture and the climate of the synagogue, of the temple, of the shul. I figured out that each one, everyone is separate. I could never do what I do at B’nai Israel in another synagogue where you have three hundred people sitting in a large sanctuary because this is a little bit smaller. So I do not read from a prepared sermon. We have a dialogue so that everyone participates and it gives them a chance to get into my head, I get into their head, we learn better that way because when you participate more, you learn more as opposed to sitting there and the Rabbi speaks for twenty minutes then we go home. It doesn’t work that way.  I like this format even better and I think it has worked for us. It’s worked specifically with our congregation. I saw that early on and I said this is the way I’m going to conduct services and I think it has been very successful.

Bates:                           Is it almost like a Q and A where people raise their hand and you call on them and they get to ask questions or is it more like a spirited debate?

Waidenbaum:          Absolutely.

Bates:                           All of it, all of the above?

Waidenbaum:          I start off with the Torah portion of the week that we have to talk about that we just read that we learned.  We go from there. If there are any questions, people raise their hands and ask questions.  Then you have to have the answers for them. If I wouldn’t have the answers I wouldn’t be the Rabbi.  So we have to have the answers and that’s what we do.  Sometimes it is literally out of the box and out of the box is fine too and we take care of that as well.

Gordon:                      And sometimes it’s humorous.

Waidenbaum:         Sometimes it’s very humorous too. We have fun. Many people have told me that they came to the synagogue because they heard about the humor, that we have fun, that religion should be fun. It shouldn’t be very strict, upright and straight. Sometimes it’s not.  You can put comedy into a sermon and you could put comedy into a service as well.

Bates:                         So from the pulpit obviously you are talking about spiritual issues.  How often do social issues and social causes come into play? There has clearly got to be a Jewish view of social issues?

Waidenbaum:        Right.  We do talk about charity, how to give charity, how does one give. How much should you give? What should you do? How do you approach it? What is the best way of doing it? We study that as well. We study about how to do a Mitzvah. A Mitzvah is a good deed. How do you approach it? How do you do it? If someone on the street needs some help, well there are ways of doing it the right way, the correct way. Then there is a very not nice way where you begrudge the individual, you just are very distant from the person. I believe when someone reaches out to you that they need some help. I think you have to approach them with dialogue. You have to speak to them a little bit and say here is what I can give you. What else do you need? It’s cold outside or it’s too hot, can I get you a sandwich to eat? Can I get you a hamburger or whatever it is how can I help.  I think that is more important to talk to someone in need than to just give them a dollar or two or three or five. I think that interaction is so important between people that it alleviates stress.  It is like when someone who visits a hospital visits a sick person, the patient. The moment you walk in they smile, they are happy, there is life in them. , They sit up a little bit.  All of a sudden you feel for them a little bit. That is what it is all about.

Bates:                         Rabbi Sam there are countless churches in Northwest Florida and the majority of the population of Northwest Florida self-identifies as Christian.  But a fraction, certainly less than half of those Christians attend church regularly. The Jewish population in Northwest Florida is smaller and there are two synagogues. There is B’nai Israel on 9th Avenue where you are the Rabbi and there is Temple Beth-El on Palafox Street.  I’m curious.  What is the percentage of the Jewish population that regularly attends services? Is it half? Is it 80/90 I mean, how does that typically fall?

Waidenbaum:        I don’t think I’m here long enough to even give you those numbers. I have to be a little bit longer to figure out what the numbers are.

Bates:                          Jerry, what’s your take on that? What is your observation? Is it a majority?

Gordon:                     I would think it’s about half are regular synagogue or Temple goers in that regard.  Since his arrival here it’s been remarkable to see folks start turning up again because he is after all the new Rabbi on the block.  But he’s also has this comportment that he just described of being able to reach out to congregants. There was an episode in the case of an unfortunate death of a child that occurred in our community not long after his arrival.   I think it’s a combination of one being a decent human being, a mensch is the word we typically use,  and also being able to be a caring and thoughtful person,  but not austere in the sense of saying  there has to an  I thou  relationship between the spiritual leader and the congregation and its members.  I think he’s proven his worth during the first ninety days.

Waidenbaum:         Thank you Jerry and I appreciate those kind words.  You know we went over to that church and met the pastor.   It was that little girl who was killed. We went down there for the service. There must have been fifteen hundred people there at the service.  We came down to show our support for the community because the bottom line is we have the same blood as anyone else.  We are the same people.  We are God’s children end of the story.  We have to be respectful of everyone and every other religion that there is. That’s the way it goes.

Bates:                         Do you encounter much anti-Semitism in Northwest Florida?

Waidenbaum:        Not at all. I wear my kippah, my yarmulke everywhere I go and no one has bothered me at all.

Bates:                         Well that’s good. Did you think that anti-Semitism nationally is up or down from where it was say a decade ago. What’s your perception?

Waidenbaum:        Could be somewhat up. I think in Europe it is probably even worse.

Bates:                         Well in Europe, certainly.  That’s why I was asking about the United States. Here in the U.S., if you believe the news media which for the record I generally don’t, you would think that it is all over the place, it’s ubiquitous.  That a Jewish man can’t walk down the street without being attacked or spat upon.  I know that’s not true.  I’m just curious as a Rabbi who has traveled extensively, what is your experience with anti-Semitism or does it not really exist in your world personally?

Waidenbaum:         It does exist, it does exist in my world because of where I was and where I served and what congregations I served .I know it is if there is a swastika on synagogues, they break windows, if they take the Torah, the Bible, the scripted Bible and they do many things that they shouldn’t do. Having said that, I have not seen it although I know it’s there, it’s always there. It just depends when they want to raise their nasty necks up and come out.  Like all fights we have had just lately the last couple of weeks or so with the demonstrations in Charlottesville, they just want to fight.

Bates:                         Rabbi Sam I understand that as a young man you spent some time in Vietnam. How did that come about?

Waidenbaum          I sometimes ask myself the same question.   I do have the answer to that. You know it’s like when mom bakes cookies and then she takes them and puts them in the jar.  She puts it up on top of a cabinet and says to the little child don’t touch those cookies, they are for guests.  The first thing the child does when mom goes out of the room is climb up on the counter, gets into the cabinet and attacks the cookies. It may have been the same thing for me. I have always been sheltered with my religion and my father was a Rabbi, his father and probably his father all the way back were Rabbis. It probably was not what I was thinking at the time. I think when you learn that we are at war, I had no idea what that even meant, I thought I wanted to go and I let myself actually be drafted.  That is what happened in ’65, ‘66 when they sent me to Vietnam. That is how I got to Vietnam by being naïve, I guess.

Bates:                          Now when you say let yourself, is that because you didn’t invoke a religious exemption?

Waidenbaum:          Not at all.

Bates:                           Is that the reason why because you could have not gone, right?

Waidenbaum:          Yes, I wanted to go. I actually wanted to go and experience what it was that everybody else was going to Canada, they were leaving, and they were defecting.  I said I would never do that but so what would you do?  Well I said I will go and serve my country. That is what I thought I would do

Bates:                          And I presume you were there for one year?

Waidenbaum:         Exactly one year.

Bates:                          What did you do?

Waidenbaum:         I was supposed to be a Chaplain’s Assistant which never happened, because they didn’t have that position open at the time. There was one I think in Cam Ran Bay and another one in Saigon.  So I became a Chaplain’s Assistant.   However, that didn’t work.   So I worked in a place called Tent City in Cam Ran Bay.  Tent City was where the other soldiers who came into Vietnam were processed with their Military Operating Specialties (MOS). If one was a medic we shipped them out to Pleiku. If one was a gunner in a helicopter we shipped them out. Whatever they needed all over Vietnam we shipped them out as they came in.  In Tent City they stayed with us for two to four days before we shipped them out.  We were also part of R&R, Rest and Recuperation.  Those who were going on vacation for the week came to us and then we shipped them out and they came back to us a day or two before they left.

Bates:                         While you didn’t say it, I presumed that it was U.S. Army?

Waidenbaum:        It was the Army, yes sir.

Gordon:                    And what sort of takeaways did you have from your encounter with fellow GI’s during that experience?

Waidenbaum:        I had more trouble with my being Jewish than with enemies. I had a couple of verbal arguments.  I did have one or two fights as I had to protect myself.  That’s what I did. I thank God I won fights, the verbal and the physical.

Bates:                         Rabbi, how important is support for Jerusalem and Israel for the B’nai Israel congregation and for Jews around the world in general?

Waidenbaum:        I think you said a mouthful.  That should be from everyone. Every Jew has to support Israel, because without Israel we are back again to seventy years ago where you had no Israel and look what they did to us. Today they can’t do that. It is not going to happen because Israel can defend itself. Thank God we have the United States who does support Israel today anyway.  We are going to be fine.  We have to support Israel. I know we have a Federation here in Pensacola and everyone supports the Federation. We give a lot to Federation, we do a lot for Israel which we support 110%.

Bates:                         Well I am not Jewish but I concur with that. I think it’s very important to support Israel. A lot of Christians support Israel based on a religious interpretation of scripture and that’s great. For the record my support of Israel is 100% secular. I’m not saying I don’t believe scripture but I’m saying that my support for Israel is 100% secular because it is a very decent country made up of very decent people with very decent policies in a very dangerous neighborhood and for that reason alone I have complete support for Israel.

Waidenbaum:         I could not have said that any better than you did.

Gordon:                     Amen, Mike.

Waidenbaum:        Thank you. Amen is right. Thank you.

Bates:                         Rabbi Sam, before we go I want you to close with a blessing can you tell us what time your services are at B’nai Israel on 9th Avenue?

Waidenbaum:         Services on Friday night as a rule are at 7:00 PM in the evening and Saturday Shabbat morning at 9:30 a.m.  As a rule the services end Friday night about five or ten minutes after eight.  On Saturday they last about two hours and five or ten minutes followed, of course by a lovely Kiddush, a little Oneg, a little food

Bates:                          Meal.

Waidenbaum:         Yes, a meal of food.

Bates:                          Would you please close with a blessing?

Waidenbaum:          Houston, Texas is having a very difficult time and so it is really a blessing and a prayer for all those who are suffering out there with our heartfelt condolences to all of those who have passed away and we hope and pray that things will get better for them.  Our God and God of our ancestors, we pray for all of those caught up in the midst of tragedy and disaster in the state of Texas, Houston, Texas from Hurricane Harvey. For those who have lost life and those working to save life, for those who are worried for people they love and for those who will see their loved ones no longer, Lord have mercy on them. For those in need of  peace that passes all understanding, for all who turn to you in the midst of turmoil and for those who cry out to you in fear and in love, Lord have mercy. For those in confusion and those in despair, for those whose tears are yet to dry, for those in need of your unending love, Lord have mercy and let us all respond even at home, Amen.

Bates:                           Amen.

Gordon:                      Amen.

Bates:                          Alright, Rabbi Sam thank you so much for coming in. Jerry Gordon thank you for arranging this and I look forward to attending services soon at B’nai Israel on 9th Avenue with you, Rabbi. I hope to do that soon.

Waidenbaum:         Thank you Mike. Thank you Jerry.

Listen to the 1330AM WEBY interview with Rabbi Samuel Waidenbaum.

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