Donald H. Harrison
POWAY, Calif.—Rabbi Arnold Kopikis began to wonder when more and more
people—almost a High Holiday crowd—kept coming to Ner Tamid Synagogue for
morning Shabbat services. True, a "dialogue" between himself and
Rabbi Yehuda Shabatay had been scheduled on the Song at the Sea that the Hebrews
sang after they were delivered from Pharaoh's Army, but this turnout was far
more than anyone would expect for a discussion among two congregational
Shabatay, who teaches Jewish studies at San Diego State University and Palomar
College, is a fellow member of the congregation, whose entry into the sanctuary
is so regular people can set their watches by it. He arrives promptly at 10:15
a.m. at this Conservative congregation in Poway, a San Diego suburb.
Stuart Gallant, a member of the congregational board of directors, had told
Rabbi Kopikis that for a change he could simply sit in the sanctuary and watch
the lay members of the congregation conduct the service until the time for the
dialogue arrived. Oh yes, said Gallant, the rabbi also would be called up
for an aliyah during the Torah reading.
However, not just the rabbi, but his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two
granddaughters were called up to pronounce the blessings over the reading of the
"Beshalach" portion of the Book of Exodus. As they all stood together
behind the reader's table, the reason for the large crowd was divulged.
Although Kopikis last November had been granted an honorary doctorate of
divinity by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City in
recognition of his 25 years service as an active pulpit rabbi, the congregation
had not as yet had a chance to formally congratulate him. So, the
members decided to make a surprise of doing so—and a surprise it was!
The Torah reading was suspended temporarily so that the Kopikis
family and congregants could extend their appreciation to their rabbi and role
model. Gallant read a plaque that the Board and Members of Ner Tamid
Conservative Masorti Community had commissioned, recognizing and honoring Rabbi
Dr. Kopikis "upon his achievement of the degree of doctor of divinity, honoris
causa. "May you continue to inspire us and future generations
with your commitment to our Conservative Jewish values by enriching us with
creative and unique musical interpretations of the liturgy and bringing us your
thoughtful insights and commentary relevant to our community and k'lal
Yisrael. Kovod Ha Rav."
Granddaughters Liora, 8, and Tiara, 10, read an acrostic that
they had created for Zeide (grandpa) Aaron (the rabbi's Hebrew name):
"Z" for being the best "zeide" in the world; "E"
for being a very "educational" rabbi; "I" for his
"imagination," "D" for his "dedication" to the
Jewish community, and "E" for being an "excellent"
rabbi. Furthermore, in Aaron, one "A" was for "always"
doing mitzvot; another "A" was for "always" thinking of
others; "R" was for "Ruth," his wife, the rebbetzin, and
grandmother of the children; "O" was for being "on top" of
every little detail; and "N" was for "never" leaving
anything behind, like a little brown purse that the rabbi carries.
The rabbi's daughter, Ariela Berkstein, next reviewed for the congregation some
of the highlights of Kopikis' career. Trained at the Jewish seminary in Buenos
Aires, Argentina, he left at age 31 for Mexico City, where he became rabbi of
the Conservative congregation, Beth El. "There you single-handedly
revived a synagogue with 200 families and turned it in to a vibrant community of
over 1,000," the daughter said. "You inscribed your love of music into
services and celebrations, and with it came hoards of young people."
In 1983, Rabbi and Ruth Kopikis, daughter Ariella and son Alexis (who now lives
in Boston) immigrated to San Diego, where Kopikis became the rabbi to the
Mexican Jewish community living on the American side of the border. What started
as a separate congregation for a while merged with Congregation Beth El of San
Diego, then reformed as a separate congregation known as Congregation Adat Ami,
and later merged with Congregation Beth Tefilah to become Ohr Shalom
Synagogue. Eventually, the rabbi moved on to Ner Tamid Synagogue, and
"everywhere you went, people loved you and felt a very special connection
towards you," his daughter commented.
"The lesson of your life, however, cannot be summed up in
chronological form or as a series of career steps," she said. "To us,
your children and now our extending families, your life has taught us the
meaning of being a rabbi, a father, and a teacher. We have learned that yours
are the hands that guide, the ears that listen, the eyes that reflect, the voice
that comforts, the face that does not turn away..."
When the speeches about him were completed, there was a silence—broken by
Gallant's quip that for once the rabbi was speechless. Of course, that was
a most temporary situation, and in his speech of reply, he thanked his
mentors for educating him, and his congregation for providing him the
opportunity to share his knowledge and love of Judaism.
Attention thereafter was returned to the Torah reading, the Torah later
was returned to the Ark, and, as advertised, Kopikis and Shabatay
came together on the bima. Kopikis noted that when he first arrived in
San Diego 23 years ago with very little knowledge of the English language, he
found in Shabatay, who then was director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, one
of the few people with whom he could have a full conversation—in Hebrew!
The two old friends and rabbis posed a series of questions for
each other and the congregation to ponder: For example, how is it that so soon
after receiving such a miracle from God as the parting of the Sea that the
Hebrews again started to complain? And why is it that while the
narrative relating the parting of the Sea talked about what Moses did, the Song
of the Sea talked only about the deeds of God?
Good questions, these, but the surprise celebration for Kopikis
had left insufficient time for a lengthy Torah exposition. A catered buffet
lunch was being set on the patio of Ner Tamid, overlooking the brown foothills
of Poway. This was not a problem, of course; with both men being regulars,
there will be plenty of time to discuss these and other questions.