The Sacramento Bee
Retiring rabbi teaches peace, not retribution
By Jan Ferris
Bee Religion Writer
(Published June 20, 1999)
Rabbi Joseph Melamed of Congregation Beth Shalom has lived a
life rich in contrast. He was a grade-skipping child prodigy and a teenage
paramilitary guard in the waning days of British-occupied Palestine. A lover
of literature and an intelligence officer in the Israeli Air Force. A Jew
who shed his Orthodox roots early on for a more modern way.
Since Friday's arson attack on his Carmichael synagogue, the
65-year-old cleric is once again on divergent paths: Comforter and healer
for a congregation felled by hate, and celebrated spiritual leader who -- in
just six days -- will lead his last Sabbath services before retiring.
The timing couldn't have been worse
"We would have preferred a cake and candles," Beth Shalom member Don
Aron said dryly, as he stood next to the police tape surrounding the
building Friday. And yet, because of Melamed's gentle touch, and his ability
to turn even the most heart-rending war story or current event into a
parable on peace, many temple-goers say they're grateful he's still around.
Even in his Shabbat message Friday night, delivered at another area
synagogue that loaned worship space, Melamed spoke not of retribution but of
the need to "move ahead toward getting along with everybody," said Mozell
Zarit, president of Beth Shalom. "He has a wonderful way of looking at
events . . . and to relate them to the world around us," sheadded.
Melamed has spent just a decade at Beth Shalom. But in that time,
its membership has tripled to 220, with many more young families than in
past years. The congregation moved into new quarters, with the words "The
Light of the Lord is the Soul of Man" emblazoned on the large, brown wall
facing El Camino Avenue. Hebrew, Jewish education and other classes for
children and adults have flourished.
Jeff Levy and his family joined the temple shortly after Melamed
arrived, drawn in large part by his warm spirit. Melamed -- who earned his
doctorate through Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and whose Carmichael
living room boasts 13 bookcases -- also possesses an "incredible brain,"
especially on Jewish issues, Levy said.
But one of his lasting images of Melamed is of the diminutive cleric
who, upon learning that Levy's son had begun studying martial arts, jumped
in the air to demonstrate a mock karate kick. "I'd never seen a rabbi do
that before," Levy said. "There's an attraction (to children) there."
Melamed has three children by his late wife, Rachel. His own
childhood was steeped in scholarship. Born in Baghdad, he moved with his
family to Jerusalem a few years before World War II broke out. He was sent
to heder,Jewish religious school for the young, at age 3. By age 5, he was
reading from the Torah, the Hebrew Bible's first five books.
He spent one week in first grade and three days in third before
fast-tracking to the fifth grade. By high school, Melamed became
disenchanted with the ultra-Orthodox brand of Judaism practiced by his
family. He began to read Russian, French and other non-religious writers. He
fell in love with poetry. He attended high school at night and worked in a
bookshop by day to pay his way, distanced from his family by his secular
When he was 13, Melamed joined Haganah, an illegal paramilitary
group that aimed to get the British out of then-Palestine. He learned how to
handle grenades, pistols and other weapons. "The idea of being underground
was very appealing, very romantic," he recalled Friday, only half-jokingly
adding, "It was a way to meet girls."
When Israel's War of Independence broke out in 1948, Melamed and the
other young soldiers in his unit helped guard the outskirts of Jerusalem.
His commander was killed by Iraqi troops. "It was my first encounter with
real fear," he said of the whole ordeal.
Fast-forward a few years. Melamed was working in another bookstore,
this time putting himself through college. Rabbinic students from the United
States came in once or twice. He was intrigued by their modernity -- in
contrast to the long beards, head coverings and other Orthodox customs --
and their ability to mesh the sacred and secular. "You could actually be
normal and look like everybody else and be a rabbi. This was not the kind of
rabbi I was accustomed to," he said.
Within two weeks, Melamed was attending Cincinnati's Hebrew Union
College, the main rabbinic training ground for the Reform movement, the
least traditional of Judaism's three main branches. His first posting was to
a synagogue in Panama, whose members were largely descendants of Spanish
Jews who secretly kept their faith alive despite mandates to convert during
the Inquisition. He stayed in Panama 11 years, helping translate a Reform
prayer book into Spanish. He taught Hebrew to the archbishop of Panama, and
helped a Catholic university develop a department of Judaic studies.
Melamed then went to Congregation B'nai Israel in Fresno. One of the
highlights of his decade there: a local TV show, "A New Forum for Better
Understanding," that ran weekly for six years, co-hosted by a Protestant
pastor and Catholic priest. "His message to us has never been insular. It's
always been the community at large," said Levy. "When he's talking about the
community, he's not just talking about the Jewish community."
That approach makes events like Friday's arson attack, which caused
an estimated $100,000 in damage to Beth Shalom, all the more hurtful and
mystifying -- especially for Melamed. "It is dangerous to society. It is a
step backward in our civilization if this is how we are going to conduct our
affairs," said Melamed. "We declare our enemy without even seeing his face.
That to me is an insult."
With a batmitzvah or coming-of-age ceremony for a teenage congregant
Saturday morning, a final service to prepare and packing to do, the rabbi's
final days were busy enough. Duty called again at 4 a.m. Friday when he got
the phone call bearing bad news.
His role, especially in the first days as the shock wears off, is to
listen and comfort, he said. "I have learned one thing: If in a time like
this I cannot bring my total being to bear, when will I need it for?" he
said. "I don't allow something like this to take me off balance. I cannot be
a soldier fighting and worrying about something else."
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