Rabbi Ronald Sobel, who has led Manhattan’s majestic Temple Emanu-El — thought to be the largest synagogue in the world — for 28 years and became a leading figure in New York City religious life, will retire this summer.
“I wanted to take my departure at a time when my congregants would say they are so sad and that’s exactly what I’m hearing,” a laughing Rabbi Sobel told the Jewish Week Wednesday. “If they said they were not sad, I would be profoundly sad.
“This summer I will conclude my 40th year in the rabbinate, all at Temple Emanu-El,” he said. “Long ago I determined whenever the time was to come for me to step aside, I would do it at a time I was still having fun. Thank God I’m still having fun.”
He said it was too early to think about what he would afterwards.
“After 40 years of 24/7, the thought that for a little while that will not be the overwhelming reality is kind of liberating for the moment.”
Of all his accomplishments Rabbi Sobel said he was most proud of “finally seeing the creation of my dream, a center for serious adult Jewish learning” he said referring to the recently launched Skirball Center.
“That is bringing me right now enormous satisfaction.”
In a heartfelt letter to his Reform congregation dated Nov. 7, Rabbi Sobel, 67, who was hired as an assistant rabbi in 1962 and over the next decade worked his way up to senior rabbi, said it was time “for me to remove the mantle of leadership so that it can be passed on to other shoulders into another’s hands.”
“It has long been my hope that when my retirement from the active rabbinate would become appropriate, it would take place during a time when I was still experiencing great joy in what I do,” said the letter addressed to “cherished family of Emanu-El.”
“That hope has been fulfilled.”
Rabbi Sobel, a leader in the city in interfaith dialogues and social action, and a strong advocate of classic Reform Jewish practice in an age when the movement has embraced more traditional Jewish rituals, said he is leaving the cathedral-like institution on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street “at a moment in history when our beloved Temple Emanu-El stands at the height of its influence and meaning in our city, in our nation, and around the world.”
The 157-year-old Temple Emanu-El was the first Reform congregation in the city and the third in the nation, and has grown to more 3,000 families.
Rabbi Sobel is the 12th spiritual leader there, succeeding Rabbi Nathan Perilman, who retired in 1974 after nearly 40 years.
The temple has not announced a successor for Rabbi Sobel.
A search committee is being headed by past president David Marrus, according to a letter from temple president Robert Bernhard.
In the Nov. 7 letter to members, Bernhard said Rabbi Sobel announced his retirement at a Nov. 6 Board of Trustees meeting.
“Though it is difficult for us, we must accept and respect Dr. Sobel’s wishes,” Bernhard said.
The board unanimously voted to appoint Rabbi Sobel senior rabbi emeritus upon his retirement.
“For two score years, our senior rabbi’s vision has guided, nurtured and sustained the family of Emanu-El, leading us and challenging us to a deeper fulfillment of ourselves as a congregation and as individuals,” Bernhard said.
He credited Rabbi Sobel with energizing the institution and propelling “the congregation to a place of prominence unprecedented in our history.”
Bernhard called the selection of a successor “a complex process” and said he didn’t know how long the search would take.
Reform movement president Rabbi Eric Yoffie said Rabbi Sobel’s decades-long “devotion to that synagogue and to the City of New York have made him a real unique figure.”
”I consider him to be one of the foremost distinguished advocates of classical Reform Judaism. He combines a principled approach with enormous personal warmth,” Rabbi Yoffie said. “He believes the heart of Reform Judaism is liberal in its approach.”
Rabbi Sobel, a Cleveland native, moved to Pittsburgh at an early age and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in philosophy and minor in English literature. He attended graduate school at Hebrew Union College, the Reform institution, where he was ordained before coming to Temple Emanu-El.
One of the major themes of his career has been interfaith relations. In 1975 he became the first rabbi to preach from the high pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He has been a longtime member of the Board of Governors of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, as well as chairing the Anti-Defamation League’s national intergroup relations committee.
In 1991 he joined a small group of Catholic priests, Protestant ministers and Muslim imams to create A Partnership of Faith in New York, an effort to establish a grassroots coalition of clergy throughout the five boroughs.
After Sept. 11, Rabbi Sobel took part in several major interfaith services.
He has also made his mark in various social causes and Jewish politics speaking out on the Israeli peace process. In 1994 he hosted “Stop the Violence Week,” a series of events and services joining the families of victims of violent crimes and religious leaders and politicians.
Last year Rabbi Sobel, with wife Joanne the father of two sons, Jeremy and David, launched a new major adult education center at the temple.
On New Year’s Eve, he delivered the invocation at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s swearing-in ceremony.
In his letter Rabbi Sobel told congregants: “For almost 40 years you have made me feel needed. No human being could want for more.”