Thomas Louchheim: Celebrating 25 years in the rabbinate


A magnificent view of the Santa Catalina Mountains contributes to the peaceful ambiance at Congregation Or Chadash, but many congregants would say that it is Thomas Louchheim, their rabbi of almost 17 years, who provides the true inspiration. In May, Louchheim will receive an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion commemorating his 25 years in the rabbinate.

Congregation Or Chadash Cantor Janece Cohen and Rabbi Thomas Louchheim mark the dedication of a new Torah scroll in December 2007.

The Tucson community will celebrate the rabbi’s milestone at Chai Noon at the Oy Vey Corral, a family oriented party on Sunday, April 29 from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

“Tom loves to wear his flashy cowboy boots,” says Or Chadash Cantor Janece Cohen, who met Louchheim and his wife, Marcia, when all three studied at Hebrew Union College 25 years ago. The congregation will also host an elegant five-course Divinity Dinner honoring the rabbi on Saturday, May 19 at 7 p.m. at the Skyline Country Club. Part of the purpose of having two celebrations, says Cohen, is that “it wouldn’t be a celebration for him unless kids could participate. Kids follow him around like the Pied Piper.”

Whenever she mentions the rabbi’s name to anyone in Tucson, says Cohen, people respond “I love that man.” The double-barreled celebrations honoring Louchheim will be open to both Jewish and non-Jewish Tucsonans, she adds, reflecting the rabbi’s commitment to bringing community members together through organizations such as Interfaith Community Services and Habitat for Humanity.

“More than anything else,” says Stuart Mellan, CEO and president of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, “I think that Rabbi Louchheim embodies the Talmudic saying that ‘kindness is the highest wisdom.’ The essence of his kindness can be witnessed in the congregation he helped establish and in the generous way he connects with the entire community. We feel so fortunate to have the benefit of his partnership — where the spirit of collaboration is always evident.”

What draws members of a community together has changed over the years, Louchheim told the AJP. “A generation ago people used to identify with their synagogue or with a community agency they worked with. Now there’s the Internet and cable TV. Not as much binds people together in the Jewish community. A rabbi really has to prove to people that belonging and participating in a synagogue ennobles your life, gives a sense of purpose.”

Where Judaism needs to go, he continues, is to welcome people who “may want to focus on celebrating Shabbat, lighting candles and others who may say, why?” Louchheim encourages congregants to have a baby-naming ceremony, “to name a baby after a biblical figure because we cherish this person and hope the child will embody part of that person’s spirit, really creating a connection.”

If a young family is searching for a Jewish identity outside of attending services, he suggests establishing their own traditions. “I don’t want to see them at services if it’s going to be a struggle,” he says. “Create a moment where the family does something together [on Shabbat or other Jewish holidays]. They’re going to remember that.”

Louchheim met Marcia while they were both studying in Jerusalem at HUC-JIR. They married in 1984. One of their family traditions, he says, was “blessing my four kids after lighting the candles on Friday night and going to services, kissing each. They would compete for who would get the first kiss. That instilled a fond family moment.”

Members of the Jewish community are looking for a greater sense of spirituality, and as part of their search, may attend a Jewish adult education class or study Kabbalah, says Louchheim, who has practiced meditation for 27 years. He leads preschool children in animal yoga at Or Chadash — they enjoy seeing the rabbi stand on his head.

Louchheim has also been instrumental in bringing adults back to Judaism, says Betsy Sandlin, one of the founders of the congregation. Prior to serving at Or Chadash, Louchheim was assistant rabbi at two other congregations, Temple B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City, Mo., and Tucson’s Temple Emanu-El. Sandlin first met him when her son became a Bar Mitzvah in 1994 at Temple Emanu-El. She was looking for a social action project, and he steered her toward the Casa Maria soup kitchen, where she volunteered with a Christian and a Muslim who all became friends.

Her Muslim friend told Sandlin that Louchheim was looking for a congregation. “I attended High Holy Days services he led at Hillel. About a dozen of us,” she told the AJP, “wanted to put together a congregation and asked Tom and Marcia. They opened the doors of their home for worship.”

Or Chadash was formed as a Reform congregation in October 1995. Services were held at a variety of venues, including the JCC, Junior League, Handmaker and early on at a private home where the “rental fee” was a $25 donation to the Arizona Friends of Tibet.

“We were the wandering Jews for a long time,” says Cohen. “But it’s the people, not the buildings” that make the congregation.

Last May Or Chadash held a Friday night adult Bat Mitzvah, the first service on its own property on Alvernon Way. Through it all, says Sandlin, “Tom has been so openhearted. He and Marcia, who are both so knowledgeable, opened Jewish minds both young and old.”

Cohen, who’s been cantor at Or Chadash since 2000, recalls asking Louchheim “if it was okay to say something before I chant the Haftorah. He said, ‘Don’t ever ask me again for permission to say something from the pulpit.’ Tom treats me like a colleague and a team player. Very few rabbis give cantors that much respect and autonomy.

“It’s the same with Rina Liebeskind, who runs the religious school. If you have expertise he defers to it and gives you that honor. He’s the most respectful individual I’ve ever seen.”

It’s because of Louchheim that “our congregation is empowered,” continues Cohen. “Our members are empowered. I don’t have a diva complex where I’m the only one who can sing.”

And Louchheim feels similarly about congregants giving sermons and visiting members who are sick. He’s not the only one whose voice matters. Twenty-five years ago, he learned that the goal was “to make the rabbi more irrelevant,” he says, pointing to a handout from his 5747 ordination class retreat.

“People become better Jews by giving sermons, taking care of the sick — more of that is happening. That’s what I kvell over,” says Louchheim.

When congregants need him, the rabbi is there, says Sandlin, recalling a morning davening tape he made for her years ago, which was “profound.” It’s not unusual for Louchheim to go to the home of congregants having family problems; one of the ways he’s helped them cope is by teaching them how to meditate.

Self-reflection is part of his spiritual practice, says Louchheim. He’s also adamant about the need for community dialogue. “My first call after 9/11 was to the Islamic Center [of Tucson]. We organized a peace rally with Imam Shahin and [then University of Arizona] President Peter Likins” on campus, he says.

As Jews, “If we feel we’re people of compassion and we don’t feel that people we’re in a struggle with are compassionate, that we’re good and they’re bad, we’ll never bridge that gap.”

Louchheim is proud to be a fifth-generation American with ancestors who were deeply involved in U.S. history. “I teach my B’nai Mitzvah students that Jewish morals are important in being a good American,” he notes. “I may be different than other rabbis in that I don’t first identify as a Jew. I identify as an American who’s Jewish.”

Melding his American and Jewish identities, Louchheim quotes from the last two stanzas of the poem “I Stood With Abraham” by Abba Hillel Silver: “I saw the radiance of their emancipated minds and hearts/I saw them enrich every land that gave them opportunity/I was with them when they landed at Ellis Island/And I fell in love with the land that stood for liberty.”

RSVP at 512-8500 by April 23 for Chai Noon at the Oy Vey Corral and by May 8 for the Divinity Dinner. Corral festivities for children will include arcade games, pony rides and cookie decorating. There will be prizes and surprises for both children and adults. A kosher barbecue will be catered by Or Chadash congregants Gwen and Asher Amar. There will be a saloon and casino for adults, along with country western dancing led by local dance teacher Jeannie Tucker. Admission for adults is $36; children 5-12, $18; seniors and students, $27; and for a family of two adults/two children or students, $100. The May 19 dinner is $125 per person.