B’nai Jehudah is currently engaged in its first search for a Senior Rabbi in 18 years, since Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff came home from Columbus, Ohio. While Rabbi Nemitoff gave the Congregation plenty of advance notice of his retirement plans, the current search is proving more unique than anyone could have imagined. The limits imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the role of technology are groundbreaking. Video chat has replaced in-person interviews so far and the search committee meetings are being held virtually. B’nai Jehudah’s rabbinic search of 1899 was different in every aspect.
Rabbi Samuel Schulman concluded his rabbinate at B’nai Jehudah December 30, 1898, before moving to a congregation in New York City. When the Congregation began looking for his replacement, the one attribute deemed most essential by B’nai Jehudah was the power of oratory.
There was no shortage of candidates for the open position. Eight applications were on hand within three days following the acceptance of Schulman’s resignation. The number soon grew to 14. Some of the applicants came forward on their own, asking to be invited to give trial sermons. Others made it known through friends that they were available as guest lecturers or indicated willingness to serve in response to a “call.”
Whereas B’nai Jehudah had trouble attracting and retaining rabbis in its early years, the strong interest in 1899 reflected the Congregation’s growth in membership and reputation.
One of B’nai Jehudah’s board trustees conceived the idea of a series of “Chautauqua Lectures” which was a thinly disguised scheme to bring in candidates for trial sermons in front of the Congregation. Four of the 14 candidates were invited to come to Kansas City. When asked, the trustee said that the rabbis who were about to speak at B’nai Jehudah were not candidates, but had “honored us by accepting invitations to deliver a series of lectures in our Chautauqua course.”
The rabbi candidates could honestly tell their congregations that they were visiting Kansas City to participate in a lecture series. But, it was much more in reality.
The election of rabbi was held on March 12, 1899, after each of the candidates had preached three sermons. The choice of the membership, by an almost unanimous vote, was Harry Hubert Mayer, a 25-year old bachelor who was then serving in his first pulpit at Little Rock, Arkansas. He was chosen on the “magnificent word paintings” in his trial sermons and the strength of his personality.
Rabbi Mayer spent the next 29 years at B’nai Jehudah, the longest tenure of any rabbi at that point in the Congregation’s history. We will learn more about him next week.
(Adapted from Roots In A Moving Stream by Frank Adler, z”l)
December 11, 2020