November 16, 2006
Q&A With Rabbi Michael Graetz
Rabbi Michael Graetz has stepped in to serve as the interim rabbi for Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, less than a year after the death of Rabbi Steve Tucker. Graetz comes from Israel, where, among other achievements, he co-founded the Masorti (Conservative) movement and served as rabbi of Magen Avraham Congregation in Omer, near Beer Sheva, for more than 30 years. He also founded the educational institute, Mercaz Shiluv in 1998.
Jewish Journal: You left the desert of southern Israel for the desert of Southern California. What prompted this relocation?
Rabbi Michael Graetz: They're similar, except it's hotter here. I retired about a year ago from Magen Avraham and found I was missing the job. Plus my wife, Naomi, who teaches at Ben-Gurion University, had a sabbatical, so I was looking for an interim position. This fit us perfectly. Naomi is here teaching, giving lectures and writing. Her field is Judaism and feminism. She wrote a major work on Jewish attitudes to wife-beating several years ago and has recently published a mystery novel called "The Rabbi's Wife Plays at Murder."
JJ: What attracted you to Temple Ramat Zion?
MG: The people are very friendly. I think it's a congregation that has a great potential because the human element is very positive, and the people were welcoming to me.
JJ: Do you have a vision of what you hope to accomplish within this year?
MG: The interim rabbi's mandate is to help a congregation achieve its goals. One is to hire a permanent rabbi and one is to further what they see as their mission as a congregation. I can personally contribute from my own scholarship and my own knowledge about Israel.
JJ: What do you particularly want to stress about Israel?
MG: I want to try to convey an understanding of Israeli society and culture. One way is through film. We're going to have a film series, with discussions. We're also going to try to have a series of classes about Israeli history and society that will hopefully culminate in a congregational trip to Israel. We'll also expose the children to Israeli culture.
JJ: One of Rabbi Tucker's hallmarks was an emphasis on education. Will you continue this?
MG: Absolutely. Basically, that's what I do. I push education. We're going to have a varied and intriguing series of mini courses. We're also trying to have one class conducted only in Hebrew, for people who want to go deeply into commentaries on the Torah.
JJ: Why did you make aliyah?
MG: We wanted to do it in a great way sometime. After I was ordained in 1967 and because of the historical events of the Six-Day War, it seemed like that was the time to try. We went for two years ... and we stayed. We never really made aliyah. We're still thinking about it.
JJ: You didn't go with the notion of being a Masorti rabbi there?
MG: There was no real Conservative movement there at the time, only a couple of congregations. I thought, it's a Jewish country -- all the things I try to teach are obvious to everybody. It took me a while to realize that what they needed most was Jewish education.
JJ: Were you successful in convincing them they needed it?
MG: I don't know if it was me, per se. But I do think I was successful in the Negev. But also what I think has happened in the last 10 or 15 years is a new development. It's not the people who founded the state but their great-grandchildren who are saying, what is this Jewish stuff all about? They're reclaiming their roots.
JJ: Will you be returning to Israel after your year here?
MG: That's the plan. After July 31.
JJ: You're been retired since September 2005. What have you been doing?
MG: I'm still involved in Mercaz Shiluv. And I'm writing -- one book is a commentary on the Torah and one is a commentary on the Book of Proverbs. I'm also working on a book of personal theology.
JJ: What do you like best about being a congregational rabbi? What did you miss most this past year?
MG: I think the main thing is being involved with people in their lives in a direct way and helping people find and define for themselves their Jewish self. It's quite a calling, and if you like that, it's hard to be without it. Even in one year, I'm hoping to help people find that.
JJ: Is this what first attracted you to the rabbinate?
MG: It probably was, but I couldn't have explained it then.
JJ: Where did you grow up?
MG: I was born in Lincoln, Neb. It was a very small Jewish community but very warm, very strong. I went to Columbia University and then to JTS [Jewish Theological Seminary].
JJ: Do you have children?
MG: I have three grown children and grandchildren. They're in Israel.
JJ: When was first service you conducted here?
MG: The first service that I conducted as a rabbi was in mid-August, outside. Unfortunately, since this is Los Angeles, there were no stars. I said, "This shows a deep faith in God that we're still having prayers under the stars even though we can't see them."
JJ: When you're not busy with rabbinic responsibilities, what do you enjoy doing?
MG: We go to the Y[MCA] to exercise. I like to shoot a golf ball occasionally. My wife and I like opera. I have a lot of cousins and one aunt is still living here.
JJ: Anything you'd like to add?
MG: I think the main thing in a congregation is to create an atmosphere of trust so that people feel they're at home and they feel their needs are important.