When Rabbi Steve Lebow’s farewell Shabbat to the Kol Emeth congregation was in the planning stages a few months ago, he never envisioned speaking to families seated in lawn chairs scattered throughout the Synagogue’s parking lot, with every person watching from behind a face mask.
“If you want to make God laugh, all you have to do is tell him your plans,” the 65-year-old rabbi joked as he walked among his flock before the recent outdoor service. “My plan was to have a huge service and go out with a big bang, but that’s apparently not what God intended.”
Lebow, who has served this Marietta congregation for 34 years, is the longest-serving rabbi in the Atlanta area. He retired at the end of June.
“I came here in 1986, and there were fewer than 40 families then,” he said. Kol Emeth was Cobb County’s second synagogue, and the county’s first Reform congregation, he said.
Over the decades, the congregation grew to nearly 1,000 members, he said.
“The reason I became a rabbi was to work with individuals, to help them find their own spirituality. When you are the rabbi of a very large congregation, much of what you do is corporate responsibilities of governance and fundraising,” his least favorite aspect of the job, he said.
The rabbinate is the last profession for generalists, Lebow said.
“You have to be good with little children. You have to be good with older people. You have to be engaging with teenagers. You must be reachable to people who are married. You have to give good sermons. You have to give good classes. And there’s not a single rabbi that’s fantastic at everything,” said Lebow, who remembered writing a letter applying to a Hebrew college to become a Reform rabbi — when he was 8 years old. He still has the letter from the college, informing its youngest-ever applicant that he would first have to graduate college.
Last month’s more casual Shabbat accommodated far fewer families than he hoped for because of social distancing limits. Synagogue members were able to live-stream the service over the internet, so all families, friends and distant relatives could watch from the safety of their homes.
As Lebow walked among the gathering crowd, he had to look close at faces even though he’s known many of them for years.
“I’m trying to figure out who everybody is, because I can’t recognize them with their masks on,” he chuckled.
Sisters Melanie and Morgan and their cousin Sophia Verzosa, all of Marietta, gathered with their rabbi before the service for one last cheer as they had many years before.
“We were maybe 2 or 3 when we started doing it,” said Melanie, 18. “After every service the three of us joined hands with him and we jumped and screamed ‘Team Rabbi’ as loud as we could. We were being silly and admiring him a lot,” she said. “We had to do it one more time. We are really going to miss him. We’ve known Rabbi Lebow just about our entire lives.”
As Lebow eases into retirement, he said he wants to take karate classes and music lessons.
“I can play the guitar pretty well, but I want to play it really well,” he said.
He will serve as rabbi in smaller congregations in Rome and Gainesville.
“I’ll basically be the chief rabbi in North Georgia,” he said.
Lebow believes he may have been the first rabbi locally to conduct a same-sex marriage ceremony. He has also long fought for the exoneration of Leo Frank, a Jewish man convicted and later lynched in Marietta in 1915 over the death of a teenager in his factory. Many have said Frank’s trial was conducted unfairly and anti-Semitism played a role in his conviction and death.
Lebow will continue to conduct weddings and funerals for unaffiliated Jews, he said.