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The Last Passover for Rabbi King

Venerated Leader of Irvine Synagogue to Retire After 32 Years


Sometime during Saturday's Passover service at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine, Cantor Arie Shikler will look over at Rabbi Bernard P. King, his friend and boss of 31 years, and remember.

"It's an end of an era," Shikler said recently as tears welled in his eyes. "I'll treasure the moment. I'll have a touch of sadness for myself and a touch of happiness for Bernie."

After 32 years at the synagogue, where King developed much-emulated Jewish outreach projects, pioneered local interfaith relations and perfected the fine art of the hug, the 63-year-old rabbi will formally retire in June.

But Passover--the commemoration of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt--will be his last major holiday as rabbi of the congregation where he has spent his entire rabbinical career.

"I'm so busy at the moment, I really haven't been able to emotionally deal with it," said King, who has been flooded with B'nai Mitzvah and wedding requests since he announced his pending retirement. "Right now, I'm not elated or morose."

King arrived at Harbor Reform Temple in 1969, a time in county history described by local Jews as a desert for Judaism. (The synagogue was later renamed Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot in memory of an Israeli town where 23 schoolchildren and teachers were killed in 1974.)

When he took charge, the fledgling temple had 50 families but no full-time rabbi or building.

For the next 2 1/2 decades, King poured the temple's limited funds "into my main priorities--people and programs." The congregation shared worship space with three churches, a rare interfaith relationship that generated lots of publicity.

The Judeo-Christian arrangement also led to friendships that forced King, in his words, "kicking and screaming" into the interfaith movement, where he has been a leader for decades.

He calls local Muslim and Christian leaders his brothers. In 1978, he served as the first president of a local interfaith council, which evolved from an association of pastors who earlier wouldn't let King join their ranks.

"It was a terribly symbolic and important move to have Bernie serve as president of a council that had once rejected his membership," said Robert Shepard, a now retired United Methodist pastor who shared his Newport Beach church with King's synagogue for half a dozen years.

As a young rabbi, King--who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.--did something rarely seen in Orange County in the early 1970s: He organized a march on Newport Beach City Hall to protest the treatment of Soviet Jews.

He said the move wasn't too risky since most everyone in the county hated the Communists. Still, he braced himself for the anti-Semitic backlash he was sure would follow in a place that served as headquarters for the conservative John Birch Society.

"I only got one call from a nice little old lady," he said. "She told me, 'Rabbi King, we don't do marches in Orange County, and I want you to promise me you won't ever do it again.' "

King's passion for social justice also led to a new program for Jewish boys and girls becoming B'nai Mitzvah. Worried that the ritual of passage into Jewish adulthood had become too centered on the celebration, King added a community service requirement in an addition to the traditional religious training.

"I thought there should be less emphasis on the party and more emphasis on sharing," he said.

The idea has taken hold in synagogues across America.

"He influenced rabbis around the country by tying rituals with acts of kindness," said Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin. "He sets a tone on the importance of social action."

King's synagogue also has adopted three impoverished schools in Santa Ana, giving the children everything from clothes and food to Christmas presents, and is buying $5,000 worth of sleeping bags so the children in overcrowded apartments can sleep warmly on the cold floor.

'A Spiritual Presence'

"He has great compassion for human beings, period," said Sue Smith, a longtime congregant. "He has a spiritual presence that's hard to describe."

King learned he liked working closely with people after serving two years on the USS Perch, a troop-carrying submarine.

And he experienced the spiritual rush of fighting injustice while at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

One night in 1965, he heard over the radio the news of the civil rights march in Selma, Ala. What got to King was the sound of black women and children screaming as they were hit by water cannons and attacked by police dogs.

He jumped on a plane and wound up marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of others.

"The experience was incredibly emotional and very spiritual," King said. "On the march itself, I just felt a spiritual presence."

But the ugly politics of the march--factions competing for power--crushed his idealism.

"It really caused me to search for a deeper place that politics can't touch," King said, "And that has never left me."

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