Congregation Etz Chaim’s gala tribute to Rabbi Shalom Lewis May 19 began, appropriately, with an intimate Ma’ariv service at the lake behind the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North. Inside, a black-tie crowd of almost 300 gathered to celebrate the rabbi’s upcoming transition to emeritus status after serving about 40 years as the congregation’s first spiritual leader.
Event co-chair Ellen Spandorfer summed it up, saying, “Rabbi Lewis has been our pillar of stability through the ups and downs of life. He is part of the family, and we are here to celebrate him.”
The cocktail hour was a vegetarian/pescatarian bounty with two made-to-order quesadilla stations, smoked salmon rollups, three varieties of hummus, a cheese and berry display, and multiple open bars. Rabbi Lewis was “manning” the entrance to individually greet the effervescent crowd.
During the reception, congregant Alan Shectman reminisced that Rabbi Lewis’ father, Rabbi Albert Lewis, was his own (bar mitzvah) rabbi growing up in Cherry Hill, N.J. “Rabbi Lewis and his family are more than a rabbi to me.”
The rabbi’s son, David, said that he was looking towards the next phase of his father’s life so he can spend even more quality time as a grandparent. “During my own youth, he was very supportive, attended my sporting events and planned wonderful family vacations.”
Stepson Hadley Klein, with fiancé actress Taissa Farmiga, flew in from Los Angeles to say, “Tonight is a very big deal. Rabbi Lewis deserves a great send off!”
Longtime Cobb County residents, Phil and Elise Goldstein were with son, attorney and new Marietta City Council member, Joseph, 25, who said that Lewis was present at his bris. In the reception area outside the ballroom, Dr. Stan Fineman commented on the rectangular column of old photographs. “There was a time when Lewis had dark black hair. We all looked so very young.”
Bob Bachrach, synagogue past president and former executive director, was a lively emcee. There was a seated dinner/dance after a rousing horah.
During the program Etz Chaim’s first president, pediatrician Stephen King, spoke of the original 10 families who started the congregation in 1975. “We continued to climb the mountain to get where we are today. We were initially impressed with young Rabbi Lewis’ brand of ‘pediatric Judaism’ …where he was so innovative in dealing with our kids.”
Former state Attorney General Sam Olens read a state proclamation, which he wrote himself, and a personalized congratulatory note from Sen. Johnny Isakson. Rabbi Dan Dorsch, now senior rabbi, spoke of the oddness of being asked if he could fill Rabbi Lewis’ shoes. “I can’t fit into his shoes or his kittel. … Rav Lewis has taught us all to stand in our own shoes.”
Etz Chaim president Allison Saffran spoke of Lewis’ “many trips to Israel, ability to shed a tear, challenge us to think, and dish out his especially bad jokes.” With the help of Bachrach, dramatically unveiling an original portrait of Rabbi Lewis and a plaque, Saffran explained that the items will be displayed in the new Shalom J. Lewis Rabbinic Suite at the synagogue.
Rabbi Lewis took command of the stage to explain that his main address will be on June 3 at a sendoff tribute in his honor. He spoke of his five-minute limit for comments, but joked, “It takes me five minutes for me to just say I will speak for only five minutes.” He gave thanks to all his colleagues and especially his buddies from the Jersey Shore with whom he grew up. He grew emotional discussing wife Cindy and her role in his joy and happiness.
Not veering from his tradition of corny jokes, Lewis ended with a rap about being “Jewish and cool and walking to shul” freezing his tuchas off in the winter. There were some Carnac the Magnificent (à la Johnny Carson) jokes thrown in, a bit of Percy Sledge and a reference to flanken meat. Yep, pure Lewis, a giant of a legend on and off script, looking back on a life well-lived with many more jokes, congregant interactions, and family occasions to come. With him, being corny is cool.
And just in case they should forget the evening, guests left with a goody bag of chocolate treats to recall the rabbi’s sweet tooth at a later date.