Rabbi Michael leaves bimah amidst virtual love fest

A slight breeze finally broke through the surprising heat on a June Friday night in Congregation Rodef Sholom's sanctuary. In her pink dress with matching headband, 9-month-old Emma Barenbaum stood in the aisle next to her mother, bouncing up and down as the congregation sang the upbeat "Yismechu." On the bimah, Emma's grandpa, Rabbi Michael Barenbaum, beamed.

For "Rabbi Michael" (as he preferred to be called), who at 65 is retiring, June 27 was his final Shabbat service as senior rabbi of the Reform congregation he has led for almost 27 years.

Despite the heat (the San Rafael synagogue is not air-conditioned), congregants filled the sanctuary and adjoining social hall to capacity. All came to share the poignant evening with the rabbi who had personally touched them. As Barenbaum noted in his remarks during the service, more than a quarter-century ago some of these people had been members of the committee bringing him to the temple from his post in Massachusetts, while others were still children in religious school — and he had since officiated at their b'nai mitzvah, marriages and baby namings.

"He joined the synagogue, and the love affair began," said Toni Golbus at the oneg following the service. She and her husband, Mickey, had served on the interviewing committee. Around the courtyard, congregants shared "Rabbi Michael" stories, each reflecting the rabbi's strong ability to connect with individuals. Everyone, it seemed, had a personal bond with their rabbi, their friend.

"He is human, mensch-dich, humble," said Rabbi Natan Fenner of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, and a member of the congregation. "He's touched so many lives, yet he is just who he is, sharing high points and low points in a way that honors who you are."

"One of the things that strikes me is how much he is loved," said Sharry Schwartzbart, who moved to the area and joined the congregation just three years ago. "He reaches out to me, makes me feel included."

Calling the evening bittersweet, Toni Golbus expressed the feelings of many who will miss the rabbi, but are glad he will have the time to focus fully on recovering from a number of health problems that have plagued him in the last few years.

In early May, more than 800 had gathered to honor Barenbaum at a festive celebration at the Marin Civic Center. The night was filled with musical and spoken tributes to him as a rabbi, a man with a strong social conscience, a leader of Marin's Jewish and general communities, a friend and a dad.

But this Friday night in June was also Shabbat.

And like hundreds of Shabbat services before, Barenbaum stood with with Cantor David Margules and Rabbi Stacy Friedman, who succeeded him as senior rabbi on July 1, to lead the congregation in prayer. Often the prayer is in song (one of the hallmarks of a service at Rodef Sholom is the clergies' love of singing, and their love of singing together).

In his remarks (not exactly a sermon), Barenbaum thanked his colleagues for "singing and jamming" on Friday nights. "I'm thankful that we didn't take ourselves too seriously, and that we didn't take you too seriously," he told the congregation as they laughed in response.

"It is a monumental feeling to know that I've completed my work," he said. "Have I done everything I wanted to? No…But I have done as much as I could. I feel nothing but joy."

Barenbaum noted his pride in the major role Rodef Sholom has played in Marin's Jewish community and expressed his gratitude to his friend and colleague Rabbi Lavey Derby of Tiburon's Congregation Kol Shofar for making the Reform and Conservative synagogues "sister congregations."

"I'm proud of our spirituality," he said of his congregation. "I'm proud that we can address God without dogma. And I'm proud of the opportunities Rodef Sholom provides our community for worship and Jewish connections." As he completed his remarks, hesitant applause began.

Friedman quickly stood. "Sometimes it's all right to applaud at Shabbat services," she said, giving rabbinic permission for congregants to express their love and appreciation in the most natural of ways.

Earlier in the service, Debbie Wertheimer had presented Barenbaum with three fat scrapbooks filled with congregants' personal memories of their connections with the rabbi. "We've come together with words, stories and photographs to let you know how much we love you," she said.

The service concluded with "Adon Olam" — the upbeat version. Rabbi Michael's voice led, speeding up each succeeding verse in the joyful yet spiritual style, completely in keeping with his tenure at Rodef Sholom.