“If a person saves one life, it is as though that person saved the entire world.”
That Talmud verse has been the guiding principle by which Rabbi Daniel Syme has tried to live his life.
“People, especially children, have always been my major emphasis,” he says. “You have to attend to people in pain, people who are dreaming, people who are in need — that’s been the major theme of my life.”
Syme, 70, who’s the third longest-tenured rabbi in Temple Beth El’s 156-year history, will be honored Friday, June 24, at the temple as he becomes only its third rabbi emeritus. Syme has been a rabbi for 44 years, the last 20 spent at the Bloomfield Township temple.
As a young man, Syme said he had aspirations of being a musician or a lawyer, but God had other plans.
Road To The Rabbinate
“I’ve been a failure musically in my life,” Syme says, although that might be a bit of an exaggeration.
After his first piano recital at age 11 — Beethoven’s “Für Elise” — he came home and watched his brother, David, sit at the piano and play it by ear. “I had to practice six months,” Syme said. “Of course, David eventually became a concert pianist, and I never touched the piano again.”
Next, his parents got him an electric guitar.
“My baby brother, Michael, became one of the best guitar players in America, making music with the likes of John Lennon and Frank Zappa. I gave him my guitar,” he said. “But I had the best singing voice, so I became the lead singer and played the tambourine in our family rock and roll band. That was one of the ways I worked my way through college. I also drove a Good Humor Ice Cream truck in the summer.”
Syme earned his degree at the University of Michigan in 1967 with plans to continue on to law school. Those plans came to a halt when he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
“I made a vow that, if I was cured, I would become a rabbi and devote my life to God,” he said.
His surgeons called his recovery a “miracle.” That summer, he went to Hebrew Union College for its summer program.
“My father, who was the rabbi at Temple Israel, didn’t want me to become a rabbi out of fear,” Syme said.
“He told me if I didn’t like it that he would free me from any obligation I might feel. But he didn’t convince me. I was certain that if I didn’t become a rabbi, I’d die.”
Syme was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in 1972. He also earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in education from Columbia University Teachers College.
A Sad Chapter
When Syme was a 29-year-old rabbi, he had gone to services with his parents on a Saturday night. When they returned home, they found his youngest brother Michael, 21, had taken his life.
“I’m still angry, and I still feel responsible,” Syme said.
The day of Michael’s suicide, Syme had asked his brother how he was doing. Michael had just returned to Michigan after being on the road as an accomplished musician and told Danny he had never felt worse.
“But the therapist Michael was seeing had just told my parents that he appeared to be doing well,” Syme said. “I never shared that conversation with anyone; and that night, Michael died.”
That death continues to haunt him. Throughout his career, Syme has been a vocal advocate of suicide prevention. He created Hand of Hope, an educational resource program teaching kids and parents about the warning signs of suicide. He partnered with national sports teams, celebrities and athletes to spread awareness and raise money to curb the epidemic of suicide.
Syme now is starting a new nonprofit called “A Single Soul” that will enable rabbis and other professionals who support youth to identify those at risk. It will eventually provide training and crisis intervention (see sidebar on page 15).
He also is the co-executive producer of a documentary with local Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Keith Famie called Death is Not the Answer, which will be shown on public television this fall.
Passion For Music
As a rabbinical student, Syme was sent to lead High Holiday services at Interlochen Arts Academy, which, at the time, had a Jewish president. “I borrowed a Torah from Temple Israel and took it on the plane with me,” he said. “The stewardess thought it was a set of bagpipes!”
After Yom Kippur services, a distinguished man with gray hair approached him and asked to learn how to blow the shofar.
“I showed him, and he started playing classical music on it,” he said. “After he left, I learned I had just taught the famous jazz musician Dave Brubeck the shofar.”
Syme was also a big fan of the Persuasions, an African American a capella group that began singing together in Brooklyn in the mid-1960s.
When he first got to New York, Syme said, he picked up the Village Voice and saw they were playing at a club in Greenwich Village. He bought tickets for the 8 and 10 p.m. shows and made sure he was sitting in front of the bass singer. “The music was glorious,” said Syme, who went backstage to tell the musicians how much he loved the show.
“They were surprised to learn I was a rabbi,” he said. “Later, as I was about to leave after the second show, they asked me if I knew their songs. I did. They invited me on stage to sing ‘In the Still of the Night.’”
From that night on, whenever Syme was in the audience, they would call him to the stage to sing. Once, in Houston, Syme filled in for lead singer Jerry Lawson, who had laryngitis. He sang five songs.
Syme also has a profound love of folk music, becoming close friends with folk legends Peter, Paul and Mary. He saw them for the first time in 1963 at U-M and fell in love with their music.
In Miami, years later, while he was sitting in the lobby of a hotel, the elevator door opened and out walked Mary Travers. “I’m never at a loss for words, but I was overcome,” Syme said. “I told her I loved her music, and she said, ‘Wait a minute. What’s your name? Let’s sit down for a few minutes and talk.’ That was the start of a great friendship. She introduced me to Peter and to Noel [Paul].
“One of the great joys of my life was bringing Peter, Paul and Mary to Temple Beth El in 2007. It was one of the smallest venue they had ever played and one of their last live performances,” he said.
First Rabbinic Position
After his ordination, Syme headed to New York to work at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), where he would spend the next 24 years. He started as the director of National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), then national director of education, then vice president and, finally, senior vice president of the Reform movement.
He oversaw all of the UAHC’s programs, including his special interests of outreach, education, television and film production, and the task force on youth suicide prevention. During his time there, Syme wrote or co-wrote 23 books on topics such as Jewish parenting, youth suicide prevention, Christian-Jewish relations, Jewish social action, ritual, theology and Jewish education. He’d spend 120 days a year on the road as scholar-in-residence in various communities.
When he was ready to leave New York, he planned to go to Los Angeles because “I had always promised myself I’d live in a warm climate.” Then his father [Rabbi M. Robert Syme] called.
“He said, ‘Danny, would you consider coming back to Detroit for one or two years because your mother and I are getting older and it would be nice having you here.’ At first I said no, and then he began laying it on until I finally I said, ‘OK, please, no more guilt! I’ll come, but only for two years.’ That’s how I came to Temple Beth El.”
Putting Down Roots
When Syme was 16, he had met his future wife, Jill, at camp and was completely smitten. But he never plucked up the courage to ask her out.
“Fast forward 36 years,” Syme said. “She’s been married. I’ve been married.”
Jill’s parents were temple members; and when her father had open heart surgery, Syme went to the hospital to sit with her mother.
“Jill was living in Baltimore and flew in. I got her phone number. Our relationship grew, and my aspirations of living in Los Angeles ended.”
They were married in 1998. Syme has a son, Josh, 38, who is a lawyer in Orlando, Fla.
Life At Temple Beth El
“I was ready for congregational life because I’d been raised as a rabbi’s kid,” Syme said. “My father used to tell me, ‘You’ll never be a real rabbi until you’re in a congregation and share the moments of people’s lives.’ He was right.”
Over his career, Syme has shared in 5,000-6,000 life cycle events. Through it all, he focused on people and education.
“When he came to us, he oversaw a renaissance in primary, secondary and adult education,” said attorney Alan May of Bloomfield Hills, a Beth El past president. “He was instrumental in the adult b’nai mitzvah program, without which I wouldn’t have made my bar mitzvah in 1995.”
Syme started the Morning Minyan, a chavurah-style prayer group that meets each Sunday for those in need of support during difficult times.
Partnering with Jim Hiller, who owned Hiller’s Markets, Syme established the Mitzvah Meals program to provide food for families in need and engage congregants in the practice of gemilut chasidim, acts of lovingkindness.
“When I met him in 2005, we clicked,” Hiller said. “He instantly became my rabbi.”
When they began Mitzvah Meals during the economic recession, “he provided the vision, and I was the Clydesdale,” Hiller added. “Together we generated 150,000 meals before I left the supermarket business.”
Syme has always loved working with children, so when then-8-year-old Noah Ostheimer had a dream of starting a charity that would help kids make a difference in the lives of others, Syme helped him make it a reality.
Noah’s Angels and Dreamers Foundation has brightened the lives of many.
“I love him,” Noah, now 11, said. “He’s like my grandpa. I hope he knows how much he means to me and how much he’s helped me these last three years.”
Other Beth El clergy have benefitted from Syme’s example.
“It’s been a blessing for me to have the unusual advantage of having time with Rabbi Syme as a colleague,” said Beth El Rabbi Mark Miller. “In the two years we’ve worked together, I’ve watched the way he adapts to provide rabbinic guidance and care for people at all different stages, and I’ve learned. The last two years have been an extra bonus I will always carry with me throughout my rabbinate.”
Cantor Rachel Gottlieb Kalmowitz recalls how Syme recruited her to the temple. “We met at my grandpa’s funeral,” she said. “He told me, ‘I have a feeling you belong at Temple Beth El. I want to bring you home.’”
A few years later, Gottlieb Kalmowitz joined Beth El. “I started picturing what my life would be like being close to my mom and a member of a close community. It’s everything I thought it would be. Rabbi Syme has always been a strong support, someone I can turn to when something difficult comes up.”
Syme also deepened the temple’s commitment to building interfaith relationships, originating a four-way ecumenical partnership linking Jews, Catholics, Presbyterians and black Southern Baptists.
“Rabbi Syme is an icon in the community. I met him 20 years ago, and we developed a good friendship,” said Monsignor Anthony Tocco of St. Hugo on the Hills in Bloomfield Hills.
Tocco recalls the film Passion of the Christ and his discussions with Syme. “I thought it was excellent, and he thought it was anti-Semitic,” he said. “So he invited me to the temple to talk about the film. I was there three hours taking engaging questions from the audience. At the end, we understood each other’s viewpoints.”
Syme formed a close friendship with Rev. Kenneth Flowers of the Greater New Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Detroit. Flowers and Syme collaborated on joint programming and worship opportunities, including an annual interfaith Gospel Seder.
“We met in 1996 and were a perfect fit. We share a spiritual bond and camaraderie; we’re like brothers,” Rev. Flowers said. “He’s been there for me during my difficult times. We’ve been there for each other, laughed, cried and prayed together. We stand shoulder to shoulder together against racism.”
Steve Weiner, Temple Beth El executive board president, said, “Rabbi Syme’s worked really hard at creating relationships in our temple, Reform Judaism and the interfaith community. He’s been at the front end of change, a progressive leader.
“He’s got a wonderful following of congregants who care deeply for him,” Weiner added. “He’s served them in joy and pain with an equal level of intensity and commitment, the cornerstone of what great rabbis do.”
With Flowers, Syme also became involved in strengthening the relationship between the black and Jewish communities. In March 2000, Flowers and Syme brought Coretta Scott King to Detroit to the Wright Museum of African American History. She then traveled by motorcade to Beth El.
“Bringing Coretta Scott King to temple was a great joy,” Syme said. “She was unbelievable.”
Syme brought many great speakers to Beth El over the years: Cokie Roberts, Julian Bond and George McGovern, to name just a few. “When I look back, these were the moments that I recapture in my memory,” Syme said. “They brought me a lot of happiness.”
Syme also joined Rev. Jesse Jackson in a dynamic discussion on changes, challenges and possibilities in the African American and Jewish communities as part of a Detroit Promise College fundraiser in 2013.
In 2010, he became one of the first rabbis inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers of Morehouse College.
Throughout his rabbinate, Syme has lent his time and talent to organizations such as the American Zionist Youth Movement, Jewish National Fund of America, United Israel Appeal, American Zionist Movement, Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, National Council for Jewish Education, the Ecumenical Institute and the Coalition for Jewish Unity.
He received the Justice Louis D. Brandeis Award from the Zionist Organization of America in 1999 and, in 2012, was presented with the Community Leadership Award by the American Jewish Committee.
Syme, an avid collector of California wines, with 400 bottles in his collection, will likely take a trip to Napa Valley with wife, Jill. They go every year. However, he will maintain an office at Temple Beth El and plans to be around “quite a bit.”
“I will remain active in the community as a rabbi, educator and advocate for the causes in which I believe,” Syme said.
“I’ve done everything I would have ever had on my bucket list. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. And if something new crosses my path, I’ll do that, too.” *
Details: On Friday, June 24, Temple Beth El will honor and celebrate Rabbi Daniel B. Syme’s 20 years of service and his transition to rabbi emeritus. A Shabbat dinner starts at 6 p.m., followed by services at 7:30. Cost of the dinner is $36 per adult; $15 per child; age 3 and under, free. Register at tbeonline.org/event-registration, or contact Laura Lucassian at (248) 851-1100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Focus On Suicide Prevention
As I enter the third chapter of my career as a rabbi, I will focus on depression and suicide and lessening the tragic tool of loss by suicide in America under the umbrella of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network (JHCN) and the Nefesh Achat or ‘A Single Soul’ program,” said Rabbi Daniel Syme, who is the suicide preventions program’s founder. A Single Soul will be the first suicide prevention program in the Detroit Jewish community.
A Single Soul will teach clergy and others ways in which suicide might be avoided. Studies suggest suicide is a preventable tragedy that can be eliminated by listening, caring and people who will take action to help. “Most young people do not really want to die. They are crying out for help,” Syme said.
A Single Soul has a two-fold mission: education and intervention. The program will educate children about critical suicide warning signs and how to respond if a friend exhibits these signs. It will also stress the importance of “breaking the wall of silence,” telling an adult who can help.
The new nonprofit will be guided by a volunteer board of directors under the leadership of Rabbi Syme, Rabbi E.B. “Bunny” Freedman and the rabbinic staff of the JHCN. James and Marge Hiller will chair the founding board, along with Freedman.
“A Single Soul aims to ensure that every Jewish young person and their families facing a mental health crisis can receive guidance and support from within the larger Jewish community,” Syme said.
The organization will begin this fall by providing suicide prevention training to clergy staff members of the JHCN. “Through them, we will also reach parents, teachers, clergy and young people in all movements in the Jewish community,” Syme added. “Stay tuned.”
By Jackie Headapohl, Managing Editor