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2006 blog


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Ner Tamid Synagogue
surprises its rabbi doctor, Feb. 11, 2006


By 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 "regulars."  

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.