New senior rabbi followed unusual road to Temple Emanu-el

Rabbi Spike Anderson

Rabbi Spike Anderson

On July 1, Temple Emanu-El welcomed its new senior rabbi, Spike Anderson. A leader with a track record of getting things done, his calendar was already filled with meetings with other community leaders, not just from the temple but from business and government as well.

Anyone who expects Rabbi Anderson to be a typical man of the cloth would be wrong. One of his least typical attributes is his name. The story behind it is that when his father was a boy, he wanted a tough name and decided on Spike. When it didn’t stick, he vowed to name his son Spike. His son was born Nicholas, but has gone by the name of Spike ever since.

In addition to his unusual name, Rabbi Spike Anderson has taken an unusual path to his position at Temple Emanu-El. Born and raised in Boston, he began his career as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, founding a high-tech recruiting firm that worked with venture capitalists. In 2008, five years after starting his company, he had an epiphany.

“I had a calling to serve the Jewish people, the State of Israel and God,” he said.

He then spent a year of discernment, traveling the world and thinking about what to do. He went back to school and was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. His next move was back to California, to be a rabbi at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles.

While there, he threw himself into all aspects of Jewish life. One of his favorite roles was as the children’s rabbi, teaching and interacting with children in the temple school.

“I love working with kids and young families and helping them to love their Judaism,” he said.

But his role went far beyond the walls of the temple. Through the Israel and Peoplehood Pillar, he worked to connect congregants to Jews throughout the world. As part of the program, he facilitated communication between the temple’s young people and young people in Lithuania and Tel Aviv and led programs to reach out to Jews living in countries with acute anti-Semitism.

Some of Anderson’s efforts beyond the temple walls have been local. During the Great Recession, he began to see congregants losing their jobs and their homes, with devastating effects on their health and relationships.

“There was a lot of pain,” he said.

In response, he spearheaded Kehillat Wise, a program whereby temple members with expertise in finance, real estate and mental health, offered assistance and advice at no charge to other members in need. The program was so successful that it was emulated by Jewish federations and synagogues throughout the country.

Another innovative program created by Rabbi Anderson is “Daditude,” a weekend playground gathering of young dads and their children for breakfast, fellowship and spiritual support.

All of these programs are a reflection of his vision of connecting congregants to the wider world and their role in it as practicing Jews.

“I want to connect congregants to their Judaism in truly meaningful and internally personal ways,” he said. “I want to help them employ Judaism to realize their potential as human beings and tap into the immense beauty that life has to offer.”

Now that Rabbi Anderson has been here for a month, he also has some thoughts about Atlanta.

“I love the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Atlanta. It has the feel of a place on the rise,” he said. “People are proud to be American and part of this community.”

He is also impressed by the friendliness of the people.

“From the day we moved in,” he said, “neighbors have been stopping by to say hello and bring us fruit and brownies and other goodies.”

If you meet Rabbi Anderson as he works his way through the community, you’ll understand why people are so friendly to him. There’s no other way to respond to someone whose heart is so obviously so big.

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Entrepreneurial Rabbi Arrives at Emanu-El (Atlanta Jewish Times)

entrepreneurial rabbi arrives at emanu-el

Originally published in Atlanta Jewish Times By Michael Jacobs /

When Rabbi Spike Anderson arrived on the pulpit at the Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles in 2008, he wanted a noncontroversial topic for his first sermon.

He chose the environment — and watched some of his new congregants walk out in anger.

“After getting over the shock, I was really interested in what their rationale was for their thoughts and opinions. … These are not, you know, bumpkins. These are very educated and very well-spoken people, so over time I sat down with them,” said Rabbi Anderson, 43, who became the new senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El on July 1.

“In the end we found more common ground over the course of years than separate issues,” he added.

That lesson in dealing with congregants was one of many Rabbi Anderson learned during seven years at Wise Temple, which has 2,300 member families and five rabbis, providing him multiple mentors.

He likened his time at the L.A. Reform congregation to working for IBM and his move to the Atlanta area, where he has no family, and to Emanu-El, “a smaller place with tremendous history, potential and opportunity,” to venturing out with a Silicon Valley startup.

Rabbi Anderson should know: He spent his pre-rabbinical career in the high-tech industry, first with a New York-based headhunting firm that sent him to Silicon Valley to set up a satellite office, then with a business he and two partners launched there in 1997, Monday Technology Solutions.

His strong support for Israel, which later helped him win over Wise Temple skeptics of his progressive positions on social issues, helped end his high-tech career and set him on a path to the rabbinate.

A couple of years on the cusp of the Second Intifada, “Israel was getting its name dragged through the San Francisco media mud in this sort of Orwellian way that one often sees, and I got really angry,” Rabbi Anderson said. He connected with AIPAC and with rabbis in the Bay Area after having put serious Judaism on hold, and soon he was spending 90 percent of his time on pro-Israel activities and Torah study instead of running the business.

He wound up selling his share of the business and spending a couple of weeks sailing and soul-searching. He said he had a revelation on the sailboat. “On my deathbed I didn’t want to have just done more business when I could have done something else. And I had this vision that I would do something that was for Israel and help the Jewish people and selfishly allow me to focus on my own relationship with G-d.”

That was at least the third time Israel helped alter the course of his life.

The first was a trip from his native Boston after his bar mitzvah celebration. Rabbi Anderson said that visit sparked his interest in Judaism after a nonreligious childhood.

He returned to Israel for a semester during his junior year in college, and he delved into serious Torah study with Orthodox rabbis. That experience led to three-year period when he was shomer Shabbos while living in New York.

“These were brilliant teachers who really could bring out the beauty and the divinity of the text and the tradition,” the rabbi said.

Another key teacher was Rabbi Ron Friedman, his childhood rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston. He called Rabbi Friedman after his sailboat soul-searching. The two men didn’t know each other well, but their phone conversations led to an invitation to spend the summer in Boston shadowing Rabbi Friedman.

One day started with a crowded funeral for a young mother, progressed through marriage counseling, pre-marriage counseling and bar mitzvah tutoring, and concluded with a social action project for the homeless that involved hundreds of congregants.

“I remember walking to his car at 10 o’clock at night,” Rabbi Anderson said, “and I said to him, ‘So this is a pretty good job, right?’ And he’s like, ‘It’s the best. Incredibly taxing but incredibly meaningful.’ And it was pretty much at that moment that I decided, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do it.’ ”

Now he and wife Marita and their two sons and a daughter, ages 9, 6 and 3, are here, drawn to Atlanta by what Rabbi Anderson sees as energy similar to Silicon Valley in the 1990s and attracted to Emanu-El by the opportunity to be an entrepreneurial spiritual leader.

“I have this really interesting skill set of rabbi and all that comes with that, plus I understand business and how to start a business,” he said. “Not just business, but recruiting. The recruiting mentality is very different than just how to read a spreadsheet and sell widgets. It’s a good time to have those skill sets.”

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It is Real… It’s Israel

Israel Independence Day - Yom Haatzmaut

Israel Independence Day – Yom Haatzmaut

Each year on the Shabbat before Yom Ha’atzma-ut (Israel’s Independence Day), I traditionally tell our young children a puppet story about how Sha’arei the Eagle, and his best friend, Jacob the Mouse, saved all the animals and brought them to an amazing land. You see, this is a true story, even if it never happened. Once upon a time, all the animals were living in a land all together, when all of a sudden a giant storm came and blew the animals to the four corners of the earth – North, South, East, and West. And so, each settled where the winds took them, but they were very unhappy. The polar bear in the South was too hot; and the camel in the North was too cold; for the beaver in the East it was too loud; and for the owl in the West it was too quiet. The animals grew more and more unhappy until they finally called out to Sha’arei, the king of the Eagles, “Sha’arei, Sha’arei, come help us!” Sha’arei heard their cry, and came to their rescue, picking up each animal and bringing them back to their land. “This place is perfect, but is it real?” each animal asked in amazement. And to each, Sha’arei replied: “Yes, it is real. It is real. It’s … Israel.”

Now, for the kids, this story is entertaining and it begins to teach them some of our very real history. We Jews were blown by the storms of war and time to the four corners of the earth, and in each land, we were (most of the time) barely tolerated minorities susceptible to the whims of gentile rulers. But with the aliyot movements which culminated in the re-creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews from all over the world, once again, gathered together in one place to pursue our potential as a people … and our destiny. Today, Israel is not just a haven for Jews, but it is a spiritual and cultural homeland that empowers us to flourish like never before in the arts and sciences, spiritually and physically, as a living, dynamic culture that beams like a lantern for the whole world to see.

We know that Israel’s existence and continuous achievements are something to be celebrated in the truest sense of the word.

And so, we invite you to clear your calendar on April 14, and spend that entire Sunday with us here on the Wise campus for our 2nd annual Yom Ha’atzma-ut Festival. As you turn up our driveway, you will see blue and white flags shimmering in the breeze as far as the eye can see. The sounds of Israeli hip-hop will sizzle in the air from our DJ, even as the scent of Israeli cuisine turning on the spit makes your mouth water. On the basketball courts, our 3-on-3 basketball tournament players will be zipping and shooting, each playing for an Israeli charity of their choice.

Meanwhile, our youngest children will be interactively engaging in our kibbutz on the N2 yard, having their faces painted, or petting the friendly camel.

Everywhere you turn will be a festivity beckoning you to join in. What will you do first? Drink mint tea over backgammon from the shade of the flamboyant Moroccan Tent? Compete in our Israel Scavenger Hunt using your smart phone? Learn Hebrew through Krav Maga (Israeli martial arts) with our very own Meny Atias? Play Gaga with new friends? Join hands for Israeli dancing? Take a cardio class through Pulse Fitness? Please don’t rush, take your time, you can do it all.

At some point in the day, maybe after the Family Art Project or watching the 4th graders present a portion of their Yom Ha’atzma-ut performance, you will likely want to pay a visit to Hershenson Hall, where we are hosting an amazing art show with Michael Hittleman Gallery showing original works by some of the best Israeli artists ever to have lived – from the early pioneers to the leading avante garde creatives.

Aside from getting the entire congregational community on an airplane to Tel Aviv (let’s try that next!), this is the best way for us to celebrate Israel, and our love for her. And on April 14, with all of your senses engaged – your full body, mind, and spirit – you may catch the eye of a friend and say to her, “this is amazing … but is it real?” “Yes,” she will smile back at you, “it is real … it’s Israel.”

Bring everyone you know.

We will see you here.

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To Haiti: Heartfelt Wishes From Wise

Schools in Haiti were hugely affected after the earthquake

The evening before I boarded the airplane for Israel, my wife handed me a bulging envelope adorned with whimsical design and the words, “To Woodley: These are blessings from our hearts to yours. Please get well soon! From: The children of Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School.” Inside the envelope were hundreds of hand-made “get well” cards cut from brightly colored paper in the shape of a hamsa (hand of God); each one with words of hope, healing, and friendship, lovingly crafted by our children.

The messages were numerous and as diverse as the children who wrote them. A yellow card set against sunset orange said:

To Woodley, I am sorry that the people
of Haiti had the earthquake. That must
have been really scary. We sometimes have
earthquakes in Los Angeles, too, but they
are just little ones. Don’t worry. I hope you
feel better soon. Love, Sophie.

Another one, a masculine blue set against pine green, said

Dear Woodley, I am sorry that your heart
is broken. The doctors are really good and
they will fix you up as good as new. I am
drawing a soccer ball because I want you
to get strong again soon so that you can
play. From, Danny.”

A third, this one a jolting pink and green, pleaded:

Hi Woodley, I’m sorry that you are sick.
Does it hurt? Me and all my friends really
want you to get better soon, so that you can
write us back to let us know that you are
okay. Ok? From, your friend, Nima.

The story behind these cards, and how our children came to care for a Haitian boy now recovering from life-saving heart surgery in Israel is an amazing one. But, where do I begin? I suppose we could start with the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and the Israeli “first response” team that arrived with a fully staffed field hospital within hours of the catastrophe. Before the dust had even settled, Israeli rescuers were pulling people from the rubble, while top Israeli doctors and nurses distributed medical aid and performed vital surgeries.

But, that is not really the beginning, as some of these very same doctors were pediatric heart surgeons from Wolfson Hospital in Holon, Israel; and, they were passionately dedicated to an organization called Save A Child’s Heart (SACH) ( SACH’s mission is to bring children from developing countries in need of life-saving heart operations to Israel, where the doctors and nurses perform the surgery pro-bono. While in Haiti, as part of that “first response” team, the Israeli doctors identified some of these kids who desperately needed cardiac surgery. One was a six-year-old boy named Woodley. And so, when the doctors returned to Israel, they brought little Woodley with them.

But, that is not really the beginning either. We have to ask ourselves, why is it that a group of Israeli pediatric heart surgeons would dedicate their lives to children, the vast majority of whom are not Israeli, and who are not even Jewish? The hundreds of kids who come through SACH to Israel for surgeries every year range from places as different from Israel as Angola and Uganda, Gaza and Iraq, Romania and China. The children they bring to Israel are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu with skin color that spans from Eastern European white to deep African black, and everything in between. Why do they do this? At the core, it is because they believe that saving children should transcend politics and all differences. They are driven by two of the highest biblical imperatives which demand that we, as Jews, are supposed to save lives (Pikuah Nefesh), and we, as Jews, are supposed to act as a beacon of light unto the world (Ohr LaGoyim). These Israeli doctors do both.

And, their efforts inspired us at Stephen S. Wise Temple, an ocean away, to try to help. From the moment the earthquake first devastated Haiti through months later when I was able to deliver the “get well” cards to Woodley himself, recovering in the Israeli hospital, Stephen S. Wise Temple and Schools sprung into action to help repair our world. From the bimah, we spoke of their plight, donated thousands of shoes, and dedicated a Shabbat Service in their honor. From the classrooms, our children sent their prayers and donated money to assist SACH’s efforts. And, from our souls, our hearts went out to theirs.

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The Royal Secret (creative Midrash)

Thermutis, daughter of the Pharaoh

Whispers had followed Thermutis through the royal palace long before she was aware that she could shield herself with them, or even wield them as a sword.

Whispers had followed Thermutis through the royal palace long before she was aware that she could shield herself with them, or even wield them as a sword. Even before her moon-blood, not once but twice she had snatched the dulled murmur of plotting between servants and guards; and twice, after executing the traitors, her father had publicly proclaimed that she was surely a girl suitable only for a god. Those were the whispers of caution, the whispers of danger, the whispers that flirted with death.

If she had not been the Pharaoh’s daughter, nobody would have said that she was beautiful. Her nose was a bit too long, her skin was a bit too dark, and once she filled out, her curves were too pronounced for her ever to assume the sleek cat-like grace that came with being divine. Yet, she was the pharaoh’s daughter and so nobody would ever actually say anything of the sort… at least not where it could be heard; yet she heard, through the stones and corridors she heard, those whispers, cruel in their nakedness, veiled with smiles, and teeth.

Not that she did not have suitors; she did, of all kinds…. But she loathed the insincerity of her brothers and half-brothers, step-brothers and ambitious cousins as much as their crass innuendos, like crocodiles below the surface, panting like a dog in heat. The other princesses, her sisters and half-sisters, seemed to enjoy the attention, masterfully controlling it like a Hittite charioteer. But Thermutis wanted nothing to do with it. She had no desire for harness or reigns. And so she retreated deeply into the cool chambers of her maidservants. The walls of silk and music, seductively sweet, deflecting those new whispers of secrets behind closed doors.

When Thermutis did emerge, it was rare and usually only at the beckoning of her father; after all, even as a favored daughter, even she could not ignore the summons of the living god, the son of Ra. When he did call her, it was often to the shaded garden on the west side of the palace grounds. There, amid the sound of hummingbirds and the meandering stream that the engineers had averted from the Nile, they would sit together. Her father was a stern man, busy with running an empire, building the new capital at Thebes, and surrounded by enemies; yet as the sun set he would relax and they would simply talk as father and daughter.

“Thermutis,” he would say to her, “you cool my heart. You are my favorite daughter and surely I owe you my life. Who would you like to marry? I will get for you any man that you desire from my kingdom, of high birth or even low. You must know that any of your brothers, or half-brothers, step-brothers or cousins would marry you in a blink of an eye. Which one do you fancy? It would please me very much to give such a wonderful gift to you.”

“Oh father,” Thermutis would reply with lowered eyes, “you are the best father any daughter could ask for. You have always been so good to me. But I do not like any of the men that I have seen in the entire kingdom.”

“Well then,” the Pharaoh magnanimously decreed, “surely I can extend my reach to any man in any kingdom anywhere. What foreign prince would not seek to have his name set in stone, and to join the ranks of the immortal? What King would not give his right hand to cement an alliance with Egypt, a road that would lead to riches and protect against all enemies?

“Oh father,” Thermutis would demur, “Everyone knows that you are the living god, son of Ra the great Sun-god. Can you blame me for not wanting to settle for a man, but rather, will marry only an immortal?”

“Yes daughter,” Pharaoh replied, suddenly uncomfortable, “it is true that we have divine blood pumping through our veins, and we are not anchored to this world as simple mortals, but you see,…well, its complicated…but the bottom line is, you have to marry.”

“But why?” asked Thermutis, slowly lifting up her eyes, and meeting those of the Living Law, whose decrees created reality with a power over life and death, the ability to sack nations and move mountains.

“Because,” answered her father with sad eyes, “you must have a child…ideally a boy. If you don’t, the rumors that follow you like vultures will never cease. A child, one that you can call ‘son’ will automatically turn the harsh, desert wind into a cool summer breeze. It matters not who the father is, but the child is essential. For even I, surrounded by my magicians and scribes, sycophants and bodyguards, hear what they say about you. I have ignored it because I love you, but an insult to you is an insult to me. If we do not drive these vultures off, heads will roll. So…, my favorite child, my ‘unique’ one, at this time next year if one of the gods have not chosen to take you as a mate, I will choose you a husband. So please, for the sake of your happiness, and the lives of many, pay attention to your suitors.

Thermutis was crushed, and her countenance fell like a dark shadow. The music of her chamber, formally lovely and cool, was now stifled with sobs and bitter tears. Her handmaids, desperately loyal to their princess, tried to cheer her up with tales of marriage and honor…but Thermutis only grew more taciturn as she considered the curse that all women were forced to bear, even one such as she who was suited only for a god.

The days grew long and the summer grew unbearably hot. From the palace-eunuchs Thermutis heard whispers of unrest from Goshen, the area where the Hebrew slave-people dwelled in their mud huts amid strange chanting. At night, straining to catch a breeze from her balcony, Thermutis and her maidservants would listen to the distant drums, sometimes yearning to escape, sometimes violent as marching, echoing over the desert sands from their slave quarters.

“A possible 5th column,” the shifty guard told her.
“A people with ancient ties to powerful magic,” screeched Balaam, her father’s volatile sorcerer.
“They will side with our enemies and rise up against us,” conferred the fearful merchants.
“It is because of them,” said the nameless street, choking on its own dust, “that there is sickness and bad luck, backbiting and unrest. It is because of those Hebrew slaves that prices rise and I don’t have a job, that the Nile floods and the sand-storms rage. Because of them I can not sleep at night, and the wolves howl, and my leg aches. About the slave-people of Goshen, who are strangers amongst our people, something about those Hebrews needs to be done!”

“And so it shall,” said Thermutis’ loving father, eager to weather the ferocious summer heat, his backed up sewers, and the abundant poverty and evil that flourished in his own land. We shall sacrifice the land of Goshen to all of our gods, starting with every male child, until our gods are drunk with Hebrew blood, for only then, when the Nile runs red, might their appetite be sated.” …So bellowed the word from the Living Law.

As the hot nights continued, Thermutis and her handmaidens would stretch out on her balcony with their whole bodies, drooped like flaccid sails, hoping for a breeze. But through the dark night the echoes of the Hebrew drums, now beaten with a desperate anger, carried high pitched shrieks of wailing.

The summer dragged on, and even the oldest of the wizened women could not remember a more uncomfortable, stickier season. Everyone’s clothing would be drenched with sweat and humidity seconds after dressing, the air was flat and still, and the flies were merciless. Anxious to find relief, Thermutis went with her favorite handmaidens to a secluded spot along the banks of the Nile. Eagerly, the young women shucked their clothing, and dove into the cool, muddy waters.

Just then, from the middle of the river they heard the wails of an infant, carried across the flowing water by the mid-day breeze. Straining her eyes, Thermutis saw a basket of reeds, like a cradle, drifting lazily, as if being nudged by the river god, Nuit. “Ah,” thought Thermutis, with a certain bitterness in her heart, “if only I could receive a child as pleasantly, and as effortlessly, as this. If only it were as easy as diving into the cool water and plucking the baby out of that basket. …No boring suitors, no fake ceremonious pomp, no false oaths, and no sweaty man on top of me demanding that I submit to him as chattel. If only…”

And then, for a few seconds, time stood still. The basket, now so close that she could smell the bitumen and waterproofing pitch, seemed to freeze atop a Nile wave. The river-water glistening under the love of the afternoon sun. The rich, musk smell of the muddy reeds settled like a cloud. “If only…what if she took the Hebrew baby and somehow hid it for a few months. She would say that she was visited at night by the god, Nuit, who told her that since she had divine blood, she alone was suited for him. Her father would never deny that it was possible…and he did say that what was important was the child, not the child’s father. She could pretend to be sick in the morning like pregnant women do, and stuff her shirt with cloth. It could be a difficult pregnancy, so that she could ask her father to demand that no one, NO ONE, enter her chambers except her handmaidens. She would have to get a wet-nurse, one who would never betray her secret… She and the baby would stay in the chambers for several months, and then emerge! People might talk, and some might not believe her, but none would publicly dare contradict the validity of Pharaoh’s grandson. What if…” And Thermutis, after ordering a handmaiden to fetch the baby from the basket, drew her arms around her confidants, and she began to whisper.

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