Society For Crypto Judaic Studies
Introducing Albert Plotkin:
The Best Rabbi Notre Dame Ever Produced!
By Randy Baca
With added comments by Gloria Trujilo (see below)
Allow me to introduce one of my very favorite people in all the world, Rabbi Albert L. Plotkin. .The rabbi was one of the first people I met when I moved to the Greater Phoenix area in 1976. He'd been here since 1955. I was on a personal mission to save the world--or at least my small portion of it. The good rabbi had a significant head start on me. But everywhere I went, there he was. The Greater Phoenix Ecumenical Council, the YMCA, the Urban League, the NAACP, the Interfaith Council, National Council of Christians and Jews. It seemed every dinner I attended, Rabbi Plotkin was receiving an award, giving the benediction, making a speech. I was soon honored to call him my friend.
All these many years later, we connect again through the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies. And, thanks to HaLapid editor Dolores (Dolly) Sloan, I had the remarkable opportunity to expand our friendship over lunch, notebook at hand, asking question after question of this much-loved, much-admired. gentle man.
“Where were you born, Rabbi?”
“South Bend, Indiana,” he replied.
“South Bend, INDIANA?”
“Well, Aunt Lena was supposed to go to Chicago, but she got off the train in South Bend. She was a little lost.” was his intriguing answer. We were off and running.
Aunt Lena, intrepid older sister of the good Rabbi's father, was the first of the Plotkin family to emigrate, escaping Eastern Europe's pogroms and daily persecution. Chicago's loss was South Bend's gain. This remarkable woman started a small grocery store, made enough money to send for her remaining siblings--who all joined her in the growing grocery business. Sam Plotkin of Pinsk, Poland, soon met and married lovely and talented Sophie, whose family immigrated from Odessa, Russia--who did make it to Chicago!
Along came Albert, then brother Sam, who died in 1996.
“Where'd you go to college, Rabbi?”
“Notre Dame,” he responded impishly.
“NOTRE DAME! That's the most Roman Catholic College in the universe--the “Fighting Irish” and all that!”
“It was the middle of the Depression and things were tough,” he explained. “All my classmates went to Indiana University and joined Jewish fraternities. My father simple
I only wish you could have seen the mischievous twinkle in his eye as he said it.
But the strict and dogmatic Christian Brothers of Notre Dame had met their match: Albert Plotkin came complete with a win at the Major Bowles Amateur Hour, danced a mean tap routine, and had a fabulous tenor voice which soon landed him a slot in the Notre Dame Glee Club. He shelved books for spending money, worked for Philosophy Professor Gerald Patrick Fitzgerald and helped out at the Plotkin family store. While burning the midnight oil studying, he found time to teach Sunday School and Hebrew and fill in when the Cantor at the small South Bend Synagogue was unavailable. His years volunteering made him sure of one thing: his life's calling was to be a Rabbi.
During a tour of the Notre Dame Glee Club to Cincinnati, while the other fellows went off to drink beer and chase girls, young Albert presented himself at the Hebrew Union College, asking to be admitted immediately following graduation.
“At first, they thought I was a Vatican spy,” Plotkin says impishly. “But somehow, I got in, even though I flunked my first entrance exam. It was pretty rough: I was up against all the New York yeshiva boys who were MILES ahead of me in Hebrew, Talmud and Torah. Took me six years to get through!”
But from Notre Dame, he received the top grades of his class and graduated magna cum laude.
Ordained in 1948, major life changes came quickly. In 1949, he met and married the love of his life, Sylvia, accepted a pulpit at a synagogue in Spokane, Washington, started the city's May Festival (now an annual event), and began his tireless work promoting tolerance and understand, all the while combating religious and racial bigotry through the many organizations and groups still a major part of his life's work today. Six years and the JC's Man of the Year award later, a chance meeting with Rabbi Abraham Lincoln Krohn, then Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Phoenix, Arizona, brought more change. Plotkin was offered the opportunity to become Rabbi Krohn's successor.
“I called Sylvia and told her to start packing--kids, dishes--everything. She said, ‘but I just hung the new drapes!' so I told her she should take them down, pack them, and we'd rehang them in Phoenix.”
The year was 1955. Phoenix was still a segregated community. The entire Jewish population numbered just a few hundred families. Now, Temple Beth Israel, in stunningly beautiful facilities which include the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum, is the spiritual home of more than 1,600 families and is just one of many Jewish congregations in the area. Much has changed. The lovely and vivacious Sylvia died in 1996; their beautiful daughter, Deborah, succumbed to cancer nearly four years ago. The Plotkin's surviving daughter, Janis, is a talented filmmaker and the pride and joy of his life.
Honored by countless organizations, both religious and secular, Rabbi Plotkin was named Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Israel in 1991. At least once a week, he visits hospitalized veterans at the Carl T. Hayden Medical Center. Recently celebrating his second Bar Mitzvah (traditionally done 70 years after the first), Rabbi Plotkin is so in demand to preside at weddings, bris ceremonies, bat and bar mitzvahs and funerals, I think I need to get my reservation in very soon. I definitely want Rabbi to handle my funeral. But, I don't yet have a date.
This good man, friend of the late Golda Meir, Rabbi-in-Residence at All Saints Episcopal Church, Phoenix, since 1957, teacher of Hebrew Bible through Arizona State University's Jewish Studies Program, has just dedicated the first synagogue in Sedona, AZ, a project he (and Sylvia, of course) began working on in 1991 at the invitation of a small group of Jewish families. The new synagogue, named in honor of Albert and Sylvia Plotkin, was dedicated earlier this year and has a current membership of 300. He makes the trip from Phoenix twice each month to conduct services.
“Being in our new building in time for this year's High Holy Days was one of the most joyous moments in my life,” Rabbi Plotkin said. “I didn't carry the Torah, the Torah carried me.”
Plotkin fist became aware of Sephardic Jews through his beloved wife, Sylvia, while they were still in Seattle. The interest, at first driven by Mrs. Plotkin, grew during their years in Arizona. Trips to Brazil and Spain, membership in the SCJS, study, meeting Anusim, presiding over emotional “Rites of Return,” including one for our own former SCJS President Gloria Trujillo, have turned Rabbi Plotkin into an incredibly welcoming source of religious and emotional support to those exploring their long-hidden Sephardic ancestry.
Whether playing Beethoven on the piano, comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, singing the role of the Emperor in Tourandot, accepting his Alma Mater, Notre Dame's Distinguished Alumni Award, or singing carols while serving ham to the homeless each Christmas Day at the St. Vincent de Paul Society's dining room, Rabbi Albert Plotkin transcends Judaism in a way that has warmed the hearts and souls of tens of thousands of people from all walks of life and all faith traditions.
Along the way, he's written numerous books, including Sacred Works: The Practice of Charity in Early Church and Synagogue; The Ethics of World Religions; The Religion of Jeremiah and Plotkin: A Memoir. He is currently compiling My Favorite Sermons.
I, obviously, could write a book of my own covering this fascinating man's fascinating life. But if you look in an English/Yiddish dictionary under the word mensch, you're likely to find the definition is simply Rabbi Albert L. Plotkin. Before I get my funeral reservation locked down, I guess I'd better schedule my own Rite of Return. I certainly don't want anyone else to welcome me home. For that, one needs a friend.
Member Recalls Rabbi Plotkin
and Her Rite of Return
by Gloria Trujillo
My story begins in late 1995 at our 5th annual conference in Tucson. We had had a wonderful turnout of SCJS members and the Jewish community. One attendee, who showed up for the last day , was named Sylvia Plotkin, wife of Rabbi Albert Plotkin. Although she had never been to any of our conferences, I was impressed with her genuine interest and concern for the emerging anusim. I made sure that I found time to speak with her. She made the room come alive with her presence, and it seemed that almost everyone knew her.
One of our presenters, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, was organizing a tour to Brazil the following summer to meet Portuguese Anusim. Several members of SCJS went on the trip, including Rabbi Plotkin and our Past President Arthur Benveniste. We were later able to hear from some of the Brazil participants at the 1996 conference in Albuquerque.
At the close of the conference, the final panel convened at a restaurant to discuss the recent trip to Brazil and their meetings with the anusim. The after dinner presenters were Rabbi Plotkin, Arthur Benveniste, Andrea Nasrollah, Judith Fein and Marge Danies. Each spoke about impressions of the trip, and how profoundly it had affected them.
It seemed obvious that everyone was taken with Rabbi Plotkin's warmth and sincerity, including me. Rabbi Plotkin believed that the anusim could return to Judaism without converting, and I wondered if he would consider helping me with my return. Two other anusim at the conference were also thinking about a return, and luckily one of them lived in Phoenix. He said that he would speak to Rabbi back home. We soon learned that Rabbi Plotkin would be happy to help , and we three anusim met on a Friday late afternoon at the Phoenix airport.
We drove to Congregation Beth Israel to meet Rabbi Plotkin. He welcomed us and told us what to expect. I felt as though I had I already returned and I was anxious and full of wonderment at what was to come. I was surprised when we walked up front and saw a small group of congregants sitting in the temple. I realized that they had come to witness our return and I was happy that they had taken the time to participate and celebrate our return. After the ceremony, we were presented with certificates signed by Rabbi Plotkin, dated 16 Tevet, 5757.
It had seemed like a long journey to get to this point, especially after a not-so-encouraging meeting with a well known Sephardic rabbi a few years earlier. The rabbi had told me that the anusim were welcome, but he was very adamant that they would have to go through a full conversion "just to be on the safe side." Many of my anusim friends were just as adamant that they were already Jews, and conversion was not an option.
Rabbi Plotkin is one of the few voices of hope and I and others have been most fortunate to know such a caring individual. The flame of our Jewish faith will never be extinguished for the anusim who have either chosen to return or convert, thanks to the good works and deeds of Rabbi Plotkin.