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Rabbi's Farewell a Rememberance of Things Past : Spiritual Leader Leaves 'em Laughing

July 05, 1987|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

It could have been a tearful occasion, the rabbi's last sermon before retirement.

Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach and Rabbi Leon M. Kahane have shared fortunes for 14 years as he strove to nurture a sense of community in the dispersed Jewish population of the South Bay.

But nobody cried as Kahane said his final goodby to his 250-family congregation last week and described his remarkable life and career.

Instead, the rabbi used the split-second timing of a Johnny Carson as he described his adaptation to the South Bay, thousands of miles from his roots--a life style unimaginable to to the people of Tarnopol, Poland, where he grew up.

A Jogger

Take jogging, for example.

"You know, this morning I ran four miles and I felt great," said the silver-haired rabbi, 65, a late convert to the physical fitness craze.

But, he said, one thing bothered him after his run:

"God," he said, addressing the Almighty with the familiarity of an old friend, "why do we have to work so hard to feel so good?"

Or dieting.

He began watching his weight after a small boy came up to the podium during one of his services. "My, you are fat," the lad declared in a voice loud enough for all to hear.

Retirement Options

For months, he continued, people have been asking him what he was going to do when he retired.

A doctor wanted to know.

"I think I'll study medicine."

"Oh, no, you won't like that. Too many sick people," the doctor replied.

A lawyer asked him what he would do.

"I think I'll study law."

"Don't do that. Too boring, too many hassles," the lawyer said.

The rabbi was in a Jewish bookstore and the owner asked the same question.

"You know, I've always wanted to run a Jewish bookstore. I think I'll open one down the street."

"Don't do that, rabbi," the man protested. "There is barely enough business here for one Jewish bookstore."

Once he clears up paper work, Kahane said in an interview, he will try to set up counseling classes or sessions in an attempt to integrate a number of disparate disciplines under the rubric "Wiser Living." Topics would include Jewish tradition and thought, life goals, healthy habits of exercise and nutrition and financial planning.

He mentioned the death of his younger brother at the hands of the Nazis. Desperate for food, he had come out of hiding to seek assistance from a treacherous former employer. The Nazis were waiting. They shot Kahane's brother one clear, moonlit night in September, 1943.

Kahane survived, thanks to a courageous Polish Catholic who fed him and five other Jews in an underground bunker for seven months until the Soviet army pushed the Germans out.

The experience in the bunker, as he described it in the interview, was surreal. For a month at a stretch, they sat in absolute darkness, unable to stand, whispering their hopes and plans, hallucinating from sensory deprivation.

Poet's Advice

One of his companions taught Kahane a passage by the Russian poet Lermontov on the role of the survivor: "Not to have compassion, but to repay the evildoer for what he has done with a sense of commitment to take up the pain and the anguish and the struggle of those people who died."

"He says, 'You are a tool.' I still remember that poem," Kahane said.

The poem helped him survive and the experience marked him indelibly, leaving him with the desire to make the world "a little better" and the resolve to remember.

After the war, he walked out of Poland with a group of Jews and made his way to Toronto, where he was the principal of religious school for a Reform Jewish temple. At age 37, he decided to become a rabbi, commuted for five years to a rabbinical school in New York and was ordained in 1967, when he came to California.

'Unforgettable Moments'

In his sermon, he singled out as "unforgettable moments" in his career at Temple Menorah the times when two of the most famous interpreters of the meaning of the Holocaust--Nobel prize author Elie Weisel and Nazi hunter Simon Weisenthal--came to services.

But his main efforts at Temple Menorah have been devoted not to Holocaust remembrances, but to emotionally exhausting pastoral work.

In addition to giving comfort to the ill and dying, he has counseled families with the modern problems of drug abuse and marital difficulties. There were countless meetings with other religious leaders in the area to promote cooperation. He has struggled to reach the thousands of Jews who are not affiliated with any temple or synagogue.

Kahane has even logged hours in Redondo Beach police cars as chaplain, a role he intends to continue. The work has meant continual interruptions in his family life--he and his wife live in Rancho Palos Verdes--and little of the "quiet time" he needs to recharge his spirits.

Reminders of Past

On rare occasions--sometimes happily, sometimes not--his work as rabbi in the South Bay of today and his past in wartime Europe have come together unexpectedly.

Once he was speaking before a local businessman's organization when a man got up and walked out. The man had been a member of the SS, Hitler's dreaded secret police, he learned later.

A less troubling happenstance, Kahane said, was the pre-graduation baccalaureate service for the private Chadwick School several years ago. Kahane discovered that one of the students was the daughter of an ex-member of the Hitler Youth.

"Imagine that! In Temple Menorah," he said.

The service went off without a hitch.

The rabbi still marvels.

"God works in such fancy ways," he said.

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