Temple Emanu-El staged a car parade on Sunday morning, May 31, for community members to say goodbye and thank you to Rabbi Batsheva Appel, who is leaving Tucson after seven years with the synagogue.
Stephen Shawl, an Emanu-El board member, took photos of hundreds of carloads of people who stopped by during the coronavirus pandemic-inspired socially distanced two-hour event.
Appel received the well-wishers wearing a face mask because of COVID-19, and long sleeves because of an allergy to sunscreen. She and Cantorial Soloist Marjorie Hochberg, who was on hand in case either the rabbi or congregants needed moral support, sat under shade structures volunteers had decorated.
Appel, who elected not to renew her contract with Temple Emanu-El, explains that the congregation was at a transition point, with plans underway to merge with Congregation Or Chadash, and she felt it would make it easier if she stepped aside.
For her own rabbinic career, she adds, it was a good time to move on to the next stage. She will be heading to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in a few weeks to serve as an interim rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel, which also is in merger talks with another congregation.
“I’ve very much enjoyed being the rabbi here in all the roles I’ve fulfilled,” says Appel, who joined Emanu-El in 2013 as associate rabbi, then became rabbi educator, and stepped up to lead the congregation after Rabbi Samuel Cohon resigned in 2017.
“It’s a wonderful sacred community, and the Southern Arizona Jewish community is also wonderful,” says Appel.
Her Tucson years helped her develop her skills as a hiker, as well as allowing her to try out “some crazy things” as a rabbi. She explains this mostly involved telling others to go forward with their bold plans, such as Musical Director Robert Lopez-Hanshaw involving the entire community in a 2018 Hanukkah Cantata, or Cantorial Soloist Marjorie Hochberg hosting a recent Havdallah Hootenanny. Another unusual program Appel remembers fondly was an art midrash that allowed people to interpret Jewish concepts and texts through art instead of just through words.
Not long after arriving in Tucson, Appel took interim rabbi training through the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic leadership organization. The training, she says, is helpful for a rabbi of any congregation, but was particularly useful for her in the last few years.
Appel spent many of her formative years in the South — her father was an engineer with Boeing, and the family lived in Florida, New Orleans, and Huntsville, Alabama. In addition, from 2006-2009, as director of rabbinic services for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, she was the rabbi for more than 25 underserved congregations of all denominations in an eight-state area in the South. She is excited to be headed back to the South, but leaving Tucson, she says, is bittersweet.
“I’m sad that she’s leaving. She’s really been a rock these past seven years,” says Hochberg, noting that Cohon resigned 10 days before Rosh Hashanah. “It was a lot of pressure on her and she handled it as gracefully as a person could.
“She’s a very caring person and she is someone who really pays attention to other people,” says Hochberg. She’s also very organized, “a strong leader, and a demanding leader, but not a harsh one.”
Mona Gibson, Emanu-El’s immediate past president, echoes Hochberg, calling the rabbi “rock-solid throughout her entire tenure.”
“She was an emotional and spiritual support for our entire congregation, and for me, personally. She was great, and we will miss her terribly.”
Rabbi Appel “deeply cares about issues of social justice,” says Emanu-El President Scott Arden, “and has a sense of humor, once you get to know her.”
“She is able to connect Torah to everyday life, which is one of the basic things we like to see at Temple,” he says, adding that she is “data-driven and practical.”
One of Appel’s last acts for Emanu-El will be to officiate at Ethan Glassey’s bar mitzvah ceremony on June 13, which will be held via Zoom and Facebook Live.
Lauren Glassey, Ethan’s mother, explains that at first, Ethan wanted to postpone his ceremony so family from out of town could attend. “Of course we still don’t know when that will be possible,” she says, and Ethan wanted to celebrate with Appel.
“He really wanted to be called to the Torah,” rather than reading from his books, Glassey adds, and Appel was able to lend one of the synagogue’s scrolls to the family.
Having made the decision, says Glassey, “We’re really excited. We went through rehearsal [last] week with rabbi and Marjorie, and my daughter will be participating as well as my husband. We have the Torah in the home, and there’s something very special about that, even during these times.”