Rabbi, Dr. Michael Panitz has been with Temple Israel since 1992. His rabbinic motto “To serve the Jewish people today, a rabbi needs to have mastered the riches of Jewish tradition, to be fully conversant with the currents of contemporary life and thought, and to be skillful at opening channels to let the one influence the other.”
That has been my rabbinic motto since my days of training at the University of Pennsylvania and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and it has continued to serve as a touchstone for me during three decades of leading and helping congregants and students in New Jersey and, since 1992, here at Temple Israel in Norfolk, Va.
Jewish men and women are at home in today’s western society, and the unparalleled freedom given to us, as individuals and as a community, has allowed us to reach great heights. But the West is also a setting where, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan, “things are seldom what they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream.” The timeless and spiritual have to vie for attention with the trendy and materialistic; and sometimes, the latter message shouts louder, making it hard to hear the more valuable lessons of the spirit. As a rabbi in twenty-first century America, I strive to show our circle how to analyze today’s problems in the light of lasting Jewish wisdom; but also, how to use today’s legitimate advances of understanding to keep our tradition relevant.
The synagogue, as an institution, is a vital place to refresh the soul, to connect with one’s community, to live a meaningful life, and tending the synagogue is my prime focus. To accomplish that, though, my work encompasses a larger circle, because the synagogue is interconnected with other institutions in the Jewish and general communities. Therefore, some of my work, in promoting the understanding of Judaism and the importance of the synagogue, is accomplished by traveling to the Jewish Community Center, to the college campus, or to the public radio station, to engage in the education of the public. In particular, I have represented synagogue Judaism in interfaith conversations across the region.
The indispensable basis for whatever I accomplish in life is a loving family. I am blessed to have a wonderful life partner in Sheila, my wife for over 32 years. Sheila further helps our congregation by teaching in its Religious School and by conducting its Junior Congregation services. Sheila and I are the proud parents of three children: Emily, Ezekiel and Morris Benjamin—each of whom is making the world a better place in his or her own distinctive way.