This year marks Rabbi Solomon Acrish's 50th anniversary as a rabbi in the United States, including the last 44 years as the rabbi of Temple Beth Elohim in Brewster, N.Y. In honor of the occasion, on May 22 the Temple held a gala celebration, which had more than 200 attendees. It was a joyous affair, highlighted by moving and humorous tributes from the Rabbi's wife, Terri, and his son Brian, and reflected the congregation's enormous love and respect for its rabbi.
Rabbi Acrish was born on August 16, 1939, in Tetuan, Morocco, a city of about 100,000, including 5,000 Jews, a few miles south of the Strait of Gibraltar and about 40 miles from Tangier. He is the eldest of six siblings, including a brother and four sisters. "It's a beautiful country, but Jews left Morocco every time they had an opportunity to get out," the Rabbi said. "There was no future there." His parents left in 1972 and moved to Israel, where three of his sisters still live (his brother lives nearby in New York).
Thanks to a scholarship from the Anglo-Jewish Association, Rabbi Acrish, all of 15 years old in 1955, moved to the town Ramsgate in the United Kingdom, where he studied to become a rabbi at Montefiore College. His mentor and benefactor was Rabbi Dr. Solomon Gaon, the chief rabbi of the Sephardic movement in the British Commonwealth, chief rabbi of the World Sephardi Federation and longtime Professor of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University. "He made all the arrangements for me to get the scholarship so that I could go to school in England," said Rabbi Acrish. The multilingual Rabbi Acrish, who grew up speaking Spanish, French, Arabic and Hebrew, learned English as part of his studies in England. He has since added Italian and Portuguese, as well as some Japanese and German to his repertoire.
Rabbi Acrish was just 20 years old when he came to the U.S. to become a rabbi for a small Orthodox Sephardic community in Montgomery, Alabama. "The congregation really adopted me - I was a child more than a rabbi," he said. "We had 67 families. Most of them came from the same place - the Greek island of Rhodes."
In 1965, he moved to New York and became assistant rabbi and head of the religious school for a congregation in Newburgh, N.Y. He also began his studies at the Hebrew Union College and the Academy for Jewish Religion to become a Reform rabbi. "My ideology had changed from the way I grew up," he said. "I was more comfortable being a Reform rabbi. I felt that Reform Judaism would give me more freedom not just in practices but in being more creative with my Judaism." he said.
In 1966 he became a part-time rabbi at Temple Beth Elohim. He also worked for the Brewster Central School District as a language teacher and later as a school psychologist. And he continued his education, earning a Master's Degree in English and a Ph.D. in psychology. "I am the eternal student, always trying to gain knowledge, which is very Jewish," he said. About 15 years ago, as the Temple continued to grow, he became its full-time rabbi.
In the following interview, Rabbi Acrish reflects on his 50 years in the U.S. and his hopes for the future.
How much do you think growing up in Morocco - a different country and culture - affected you as a rabbi in the U.S.?
I appreciate more what the United States has to offer because I didn't have any of this when I was growing up. One of the major reasons why I left Morocco was because there was no room for growth. We had no universities at the time, no higher education. If I wanted to gain knowledge, I had to leave the country. The U.S. offers a tremendous amount of opportunities for growth, intellectually and in every other way. I tried to take advantage of those opportunities.
What were the qualities of Rabbi Gaon that inspired you to become a rabbi?
He was caring and helpful. He had a great sense of humor. He was not impressed with himself despite having a great title. He was well educated, and very down-to-earth. I admired his knowledge and his ability to interact with people. I saw him interact with hundreds of people, and he was always very friendly to everyone.
How has the study of psychology helped you as a rabbi?
It has helped me deal with the issues that come up. I can advise parents and couple based on my professional knowledge rather than just on my rabbinical knowledge. And I can combine psychology and Judaism, which is what I did with my doctoral thesis, "Judaism and Psychoanalysis: Contributions toward the Development of a Judaic Psychotherapeutic Model."
How much can religion and prayer help the psychologically distressed?
Religion can be very helpful and so can prayer. There are prayers that can express in many ways the emotions of people, particularly the Book of Psalms. Religion can help to heal.
If you weren't a rabbi, do you think you would be a psychologist?
Most definitely. I was always interested in psychology. I gave up psychology because I chose to be a rabbi, though rabbis can have more than one occupation. I knew many rabbis who were psychologists, including one who was a psychiatrist.
How do you remember the name of every child and every Temple member?
I try to make sure when our members come in that I know who they are and I recognize them and I acknowledge them. And I want to make sure I call them by their right name. In terms of the children, I go into the classroom and I work with them. I see them all the time. And I wait for them every Sunday morning outside the Temple. The children are our future and they have to be nurtured.
How do you explain God to children?
It's amazing--I think that children have a sense of God in their lives. I don't think a child ever asked me who or what is God. They have asked me where is God. We tell them God is everywhere - God is in the love that you experience, God is in nature. God is everywhere, no particular place. I think children are born with a high sense of spirituality; as we get older we lose that sense of wonder - that everything is awesome around us. Everything becomes a matter of fact.
What are the qualities of Temple Beth Elohim that have helped it to grow from a modest size to a much larger place?
I think that we are very welcoming. We are a very down-to-earth congregation. We try very hard to make people feel very comfortable. I always tell people that this is your spiritual home if you want it to be. We are very accepting, regardless of your background. And we have been fortunate in that the number of people who contribute time to the Temple is amazing.
How do you explain the high level of volunteerism at the Temple?
To me, to volunteer you have to feel a sense of ownership. And I think that the majority of our congregants feel a sense of ownership, that they are part of this congregation. And therefore they have to try and enhance our Temple life whichever way they can. Many people don't leave after their children have their bar and bat mitzvah because they have found a spiritual home.
The bar and bat mitzvah ceremony here is very special.
The child is the center of the ceremony. The child is the object of our admiration, affection and respect for that entire day. We allow them to stand in front of the congregation as an adult; at the end of that day we welcome them as adults. The whole ceremony was designed around the child. We don't have just the traditional prayers; we have prayers that are addressed to the child. When the congregation responds, "May God bless you and may you always be a blessing" - that's part of our feelings for our children.
What are your hopes for the Temple?
That we continue to grow, not only in numbers but spiritually. I hope we continue to be accepting and welcoming and down-to-earth. We don't turn anybody away because of finances or beliefs. When you look at the people who volunteer for the Temple, can you tell who is Jewish and who isn't? You can't, because they are all committed. We don't say you can't do this because you are not Jewish. They are all part of the Temple family. We have about 270 members now, but it's part of our rules that we are never going to grow beyond 500 members. In order to keep it within the concept of a family, we can't go beyond that point - it becomes more like a crowd then a family.
What are you hopes for Reform Judaism?
I think that Reform Judaism is a great movement. But I see Reform Judaism becoming more and more traditional. That's fine as long as we don't forget that we are the liberal movement.
Do you foresee retirement at some point?
I don't see retirement at any point. I promised one of our parents that I would be here for her child's bat mitzvah and that's several years from now. I'm hoping that God will give me the strength and the wisdom to continue doing what I'm doing. The only thing that I would like to do is have more time in the sun in the winter. As I said the other night, the Temple gives me a sense of being; this congregation is my raison d'etre. So I'm not ready to give it up.
To contact Rabbi Acrish, please phone: (845) 279-4585 or send an e-mail.
To read other interviews with Rabbi Acrish, please link here.