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Rabbi For Life
Shir Tikvah celebrates 25 years with beloved “Rabbi Arnie.”
Despite his request to be out of the spotlight, Congregation Shir Tikvah of Troy will honor its “Rabbi for Life,” Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg (affectionately known as “Rabbi Arnie”), on March 1-2 with a special Shabbat service and gala dinner marking his 25th anniversary as a spiritual leader.
“This year-long celebration of our beloved rabbi was a fabulous opportunity to celebrate and say thank you to Rabbi Arnie,” said Michael Silverstein, chairman of the 25th Anniversary Celebration Committee.
Sleutelberg, however, has insisted the celebration not be solely about him but about the congregation and the community as well.
“Though Shir Tikvah is honoring me for my 25 years as their rabbi, I honor them for being my congregation for 25 years,” Sleutelberg said. “It’s been a beautiful partnership. We’ve grown together and shared a lot in our lives with one another.”
Phyllis Wenig of Troy, a synagogue founding member, says Shir Tikvah, formerly known as Troy Jewish Congregation, got its start in 1982 in her living room with 18 families. The congregation, now with 350 member families, was created with the intention of accommodating families east of Woodward Avenue.
Years later, a group of founding members met Sleutelberg at a Reform movement biennial regional conference. The meeting was beshert (meant to be). They knew he was the rabbi they wanted for their congregation once he graduated.
“It was a mutual love affair,” Wenig says. “We really only wanted him, nobody else.”
Fortunately for Shir Tikvah, when Sleutelberg graduated from Albion College, he realized what he loved most was teaching, counseling, public speaking and living Jewishly — all of the things rabbis do. He received ordination from Hebrew Union College in New York.
“I had the immense good fortune to land in Detroit,” Sleutelberg said. “I love having the opportunity to serve in Detroit in cooperation with Federation and numerous other agencies that are doing such incredible work. It is a treasure of a community. I feel immensely blessed to have come here 25 years ago.”
Over time, the congregation grew so fond of their Rabbi Arnie that, in 2001, the board offered him a contract for life.
“Everyone was aware of how important Rabbi Arnie was to the congregation,” Silverstein said. “It was very much a marriage — rabbi and congregation.”
Pam and Rich Spitzer of Troy agree.
“As founders of Shir Tikvah, this congregation has brought us many gifts, the greatest of which was finding Rabbi Arnie,” they said. “From our roots as Troy Jewish Congregation, Rabbi Arnie guided us through our Jewish journey — us personally and our beloved shul.”
Sleutelberg’s impact also reaches to his fellow rabbis in town.
“I am blessed to have had Rabbi Arnie in my life for the last 25 years,” said Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. “I still remember the first service he led at Shir Tikvah. I was a child. We were mesmerized by his song and his spirit; he brought us closer to God. Now, still, 25 years later, I continue to be mesmerized by Rabbi Arnie’s song and spirit. I am transformed by his wisdom. I am strengthened by his friendship. And, through it all, he continues to bring me — to bring all whom he encounters — closer to God.”
Rabbi Paul Yedwab of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, a longtime friend, said, “It is difficult for me to be objective about Rabbi Arnie, as he is known to so many, for in our house, he is simply ‘Uncle Arnie.’ He is a classmate, a dear friend and, to me, an inspiration.
“You see, it is rare to find such a seamless combination of both courage and compassion. People who are courageous, take strong positions, seek to change the world, to live their lives by their ideals no matter what, are often ‘hard’; they have to be. People who are empathic, by virtue of their compassion, are often seen to be ‘soft.’ But Arnie, somehow, magically, mystically, amazingly, is courageous and compassionate, soft and hard at the very same time. He gives the best hugs, sings from his very kishkas, preaches from his conscience and teaches by his example.”
Eileen Nowikowski of Huntington Woods, president of Shir Tikvah, sums it up: “His special talent is his connection with people; he is very engaging, with a beautiful voice and a peacefulness about him.”
Shir Tikvah is a reflection of Sleutelberg’s strong ideals, passion and empathy.
“I love the Jewish people,” Sleutelberg said. “I think we have such a rich heritage and such a gift to bequeath to the world in what we say and do. For centuries, we have literally given our heart and soul to the world, and what a privilege it is to be part of the Jewish people.”
His embrace of Judaism truly directs Shir Tikvah’s services.
“He is very musical and comes up with all the melodies,” said Nowikowski. “We have drums, guitars and pianos as part of our services. You get into a really special space during the service. It’s a very meditative and spiritual experience.”
Congregants often get up and play different instruments and many sing along throughout the service. “It’s very interactive; people feel as if the service is theirs,” Silverstein said.
Committed To Inclusivity
Shir Tikvah is the only synagogue currently affiliated with both the Reform and Renewal movements. The foundation of the Renewal movement is that it takes a look at Jewish traditional practices and renews them in a way to make them relevant and meaningful for the modern-day Jew.
The synagogue also is known for its warm and accepting atmosphere, welcoming all who seek to find a spiritual place to call home including intermarried couples, gays and lesbians, Jews-by-choice, Jews-by-birth, families and singles.
“Shir Tikvah has become a haven for Jews who might have a difficult time feeling connected and accepted in other synagogues, and, consequently, we are invested in creating a warm and welcome environment for anybody to become part of our community,” said Sleutelberg. “New people who come in will feel immediately embraced, without any judgment, with no expectation that they need to be anybody other than who they are.”
Last year, Sleutelberg wed his partner, Robert Crowe, in Windsor. After a ceremony in Robert’s native England with family and friends, they had a ceremony at their home in Lake Orion, where nearly 400 congregants joined them in celebrating their union.
While Sleutelberg is fully entrenched in his commitment to the local community, where he also has served on many boards, he still manages to find time to help others outside of Michigan.
One of his passions has been connecting with lost Jewish tribes around the world as well as sharing spiritual traditions with indigenous tribes. He has traveled throughout Africa and Asia, teaching and gleaning. He brought suitcases of ritual items for the Jewish Lemba tribe in South Africa and created a Shabbaton for them. He has taught in New Zealand, Costa Rica, Nepal, Thailand, India and Senegal as well.
Bridge-building between the Jewish community and other religions, ethnicities and races also has been among his passions. Helping foster understanding with Muslims, African Americans and Christians is a focus of his rabbinate.
“Valuing diversity is what makes for a rich life,” he said. “Having exposure to a wide variety of thoughts, people, traditions and views is part of what makes life worth living. A world that really treasures diversity would very likely not have the plagues that we face today.”
Time For Celebration
“The events we planned are indicative of who we are as a congregation and of the community that Rabbi Arnie has helped us to create,” Silverstein said.
Festivities began by celebrating Sleutelberg’s birthday last September, followed by a synagogue fundraiser last October.
On Friday, March 1, at 7:45 p.m., a special Shabbat service will be held at Shir Tikvah commemorating the rabbi’s 25th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of Women of Reform Judaism. Sisterhood will host a festive oneg Shabbat afterward. This communitywide service will be led by Sleutelberg and longtime friend of the congregation, Rabbi Eli Cohen of the Jewish Renewal community in Santa Cruz, Calif.
On Saturday, March 2, the celebration will continue with a gala dinner at 6 p.m. at the Michigan State University Management Education Center in Troy. The night will feature food, music, dancing, entertainment and a tribute to Sleutelberg. The event is open to the community. Tickets are $65; dessert and entertainment, $20.
On Sunday, March 10, from 3:30-6:30 p.m., Shir Tikvah will host a grand mitzvah project, “From Slavery to Freedom: Two Journeys, One Destiny,” which will feature a seder meal for 300 people at Gompers Elementary in the Brightmoor community in northwest Detroit.
“One of the centerpieces of our celebration is the opportunity to share our joy with those who are less fortunate by providing food via a seder meal in Detroit,” Sleutelberg said. “This multicultural program will commemorate our experience with slavery in Egypt with theirs in this country.”
Traditional foods from both cultures will be on the menu, ranging from matzah and charoset to collard greens and collard green juices or “pot liquor.”
“This was a tremendous opportunity for us and a great message, too,” said Wren Hack, Shir Tikvah’s family education director. “A year ago, we realized that to appropriately do a tikkun olam project we cannot ignore Detroit, but we didn’t have any connections there. We started partnering with community leaders and people involved with social action and community service, and we began to build relationships.
“We didn’t want to just show up and leave food; we wanted to create relationships,” she explained.
The closing celebration, a special Havdalah service that coincides with the last session of the religious school, will be held at Shir Tikvah on May 4. By Karen Schultz Tarnopol, Special to the Jewish News