Michael Luckens
Rabbi, Kerem Shalom Congregation
659 Elm Street

Interviewed February 12, 2001

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

The Faith Community Oral History

Rabbi Michael LuckensAs senior clergy in Concord. Kerem Shalom as an independent, unaffiliated congregation. Influence of the Reconstructionist movement.

Arrival of Luckens to Concord in 1978, location of first services in 51 Walden and the Harvey Wheeler Building. Special service at the Old North Bridge. Beginnings of the Concord Area Jewish Group, the move to the First Parish Church. Hospitality and association with Rev. Dana Greeley.

A home of our own. Building of Kerem Shalom and its dedication Architecture of Michael Rosenfeld, flexibility of space, use by the community. Meeting the diverse needs of a diverse congregation. Questions of visibility. Dancing with the Torah on Simcat Torah in Monument Square. Growth of the Congregation.

Presence of Jews in early American history, during the American Revolution.

The Leonard Zakim bridge as a builder of community harmony.

The place of Israel, the symbol of peace.

At the present time I'm the most senior in tenure of the clergy in Concord. It seems hard to believe because this town of Concord is such a historic place with the echoes of Thoreau and Emerson and Alcott in the air and in the schools and the culture of the community, anything less than or fewer than a few hundred years seems as though it just happened yesterday. So for me to be a senior minister in a town where Emerson preached is somehow very humbling.

I came here in 1978 to serve a group of Jews of perhaps 40 or 50 families to introduce the first new year or high holiday services ever, to direct a religious school of children meeting one afternoon a week, and to envision the future with a young community anxious to dig deeper roots and establish a firm foundation here in this historic town of Concord.

Our first services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holidays, were held at 51 Walden in a lovely space which was made even more beautiful by members of the congregation. I'm remembering right now the Segal family who brought many, many plants and flowers from their home. Some were plantings from outside and some were big potted plants from inside. They brought them to 51 Walden to make the place even more beautiful. That established an atmosphere, a real spiritual atmosphere, which helped us to welcome the new year for those first few years. After the first years at 51 Walden, we made our way to the very generous and hospitable First Parish in Concord. They opened up their doors to us, and we spent about nine years having our high holiday services and occasional holiday festivals and celebrations, and where our kids were present on Monday afternoons for the school. And that took us to the dedication of our synagogue building in 1989 where we've been ever since.

In those early years it wasn't called Kerem Shalom. Initially there was a Concord-Lincoln Jewish Study Group which began I think in the late ‘60s, and that metamorphized into the Concord Area Jewish Group, which was the name of the community when I first got here in 1978. When we decided to build a home of our own, we thought it appropriate to have a Hebrew name. We changed our name from the Concord Area Jewish Group to Kerem Shalom, which means vineyard of peace. It was a nice association between the idea of vineyards and Concord. In fact we did find some grape arbors on the property when we got here which was wonderful, and to connect that with the idea of shalom, the idea of peace. Shalom also means hello and goodbye so it's a way of welcoming, a way of greeting, and a way of saying farewell. It's a way of ensuring that our doors will be open to those who come in and to those who leave, and throughout that period of time when people are with us, they will hopefully find and help to create a place of peace.

We felt very much at home at the First Parish where Dana Greeley was the minister. Dana Greeley, may his spirit be a blessing, as they say in the Jewish tradition, had a wonderful way of being a mensch, of being a spiritual being in the world, of being hospitable, not only of talking the talk of it but walking the walk from his work for peace all over the world and in Africa to his work for peace and racial justice in Selma, Alabama. He was anxious that the First Parish be a home for everybody and he opened the doors wide. He really set an example of the kind of institution that we wanted to become as well, open doors, welcoming, ecumenical, with a strong spirit of social action of caring for others, especially for those who live beyond our comfortable boundaries and borders.

The First Parish also was and is a place of great history. One walks in there and one sees the pictures of the former ministers on the wall, and one can only imagine the things they said and the community that gathered around them to celebrate, to commemorate, to welcome those who were born, to bury the dead, and to fashion a community in so many different ways through the centuries. I always found the First Parish to be a very evocative place not only because of the spirit of those who were there, but of all the spirit and energy of those who had come before. That's a lot to talk about. Hundreds of years of intellectual achievement, of emotional and spiritual achievement, of community that had gone back for centuries from the arrival of the Mayflower. I always found the sanctuary itself very evocative, very spiritual. You just come into that place and there is a certain aura, a certain feel, a certain way in which the heart opens and responds to the setting. One can imagine others in time and space who have felt that similar kind of healing there. It was in many ways a place of history but also in the present tense, a place of great spirituality.

We also met at the Harvey Wheeler Community Center in West Concord for a while. We met there with our school kids and we met there for classes and for celebrations for the community as well. Much of what we did was in people's homes because we were such a small group that if we had a class of some sort, we could have 15 or 20 people come to somebody's living room. But as we got bigger that was less and less possible. But the Harvey Wheeler Community Center was just right for who we were at that time in 1981.

As much as we felt quite welcome at the First Parish, we also felt that we needed to have a place of our own. We needed to plant our own roots and be able to develop a community with our own stamp and to have a synagogue building which we ourselves would create and which would reflect who we are and would be a place that those of us and those who came after us could come to and treasure - a place where we could create our own memories and create our own sense of community.

The early congregation was small. We were probably about 90 families or maybe fewer when we decided to leave the First Parish and come to Kerem Shalom. We grew slowly but then we had a number of growth spurts so that at this present time, we're talking now in the beginning of 2001, we're probably about 330 families with about 325 or 330 kids in a religious school program that goes from preschool up through 10th grade. Instead of meeting one day a week as we did at the First Parish, we now meet four afternoons and two evenings a week. In addition to that we have programs on many, many Sundays which were of course not possible at the First Parish for obvious reasons. When we did have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, it was unusual perhaps we would have five or six or maybe seven or eight in a year. Now we have many, many more and our building is used much more. In fact we're now thinking that it may be time to expand because our physical space doesn't meet the educational and spiritual and just growing needs that a vibrant and thriving community has. We started small but we've had many growth spurts as I just said. We're lucky enough to be on the map and to have a place that people can identify as a Jewish community and with that kind of sense of pride of place and pride in who we are, we obviously attract many more people.

Back in the First Parish days there was a variety of people who made up the Concord Area Jewish Group. There was a spectrum of belief and practice. There were people who came from traditional Jewish homes who were ready for something a bit more liberal and open-ended as they saw it. There were people who came from ambivalent Jewish homes for whom this was a good setting, There were interfaith families for whom the Concord Area Jewish Group and later Kerem Shalom was a good compromise. There were people who were more outwardly Jewish and who were anxious to be a more vocal presence in the town of Concord and in the city of Boston and greater Boston. And then there were those who were proud to be Jewish but went about it in a slightly more quiet and understated way as is the Concordian of the New England tradition. In those years we've kind of evolved to try to find a modulated voice to express who we are. We're quite active in the town in many, many ways. We host the Human Rights Council with an annual brunch here. We have a special Open Table here for a Christmas dinner or when they can't host the Open Table, we open up our doors for that. We are part of the Concord Clergy Laity Group, and we have an ecumenical Thanksgiving service here every few years. It kind of rotates from the different faith communities in town. So we've made our place in the town. Our voice is heard and we are one of now a number of strong faith communities in this historic town of Concord.

There is a wonderful holiday called Simcas Torah. It literally means the rejoicing of the Torah. The Torah is the first five books of the Bible. It is the earliest religious history of our people. We read a section from the Torah each week and it's takes us a year to go through the reading. When we arrive at the end of the reading of the Torah in the fall after the Jewish New Year, we complete the reading of the Torah and then we begin it right away. So it symbolizes that there is never an end to learning and interpreting what it is our Torah has to say, and what it is our tradition has to say, and how we can also reinterpret the tradition to create new realities and to be sensitive to the contemporary sensitivities and sensibilities of contemporary society and how those intersect with or maybe sometimes don't intersect with religious practice and belief. On that holiday of Simcas Torah, we take the Torah and we dance with the Torah, both adults and children, and we wave these special flags. It's traditional sometimes not only to do that within a building but to go outside and dance. When we were at the First Parish it just seemed obvious that since Monument Square was right there that we take the Torah and go outside. We had some musicians with us and we were accompanied by the musicians and their music, and we danced our way from the First Parish door to Monument Square and we danced around the flag pole with the Torah and we sang. We attracted some attention. It was very, very nice. It was actually an educational moment for some people. For some people they were surprised there were Jews in Concord. It was a nice introduction in that way, a very lively and affirming way of celebrating the Jewish tradition and of celebrating that special holiday, and then we went back into the First Parish. That was really a wonderful memory.

I'd like to share one other memory which I just thought of in terms of being outwardly Jewish in a public place in Concord. There was a special holiday that occurred once every 28 years. It's really not very well known. On this holiday which occurred in the early autumn of 1981 we did a public reading of the Torah at sunrise. We carried the Torah over the North Bridge and we had a table set up, and we had a special Torah reading. It was a celebration of the sun and the moon and the cycles of the celestial bodies. We did this special blessing of the sun and we read from the Torah. We had a small service and we had a little celebration outside. I'm not sure a lot of people saw us at 5:00 in the morning on that day, but that was just another memory I would like to share for the record.

Having a place of our own says a lot. It says for some people who might have been a bit ambivalent about their Jewishness, that it's okay. It's all right to be Jewish in this place and we now have our own home, you're welcome to be here, you're welcome to be outwardly Jewish. It says to people who are looking for a Jewish home that the door is open and that this is a place where they can develop their spiritual life, where they can find a place where they will be nurtured and nourished and supported during all the times of the life cycle, during all the times of holidays whether it's naming a baby or celebrating a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah or standing together under the wedding canopy, the huppa at a marriage, or at times of sadness at a funeral. This is a place where the community can gather together -- a place to dance, to laugh, to cry, and to give solace. So having a home of one's own means that one has one's own Jewish address.

The earliest immigration of Jews to these United States is thought to be some of those who escaped from Spain when the Jews from Spain were forced either to accept Catholicism or were exiled. This was in the 14th and 15th century. It is said that some people who were on Columbus's ships were some of those Jews who arrived on these shores. After that some of the big immigrations of Spanish and Portuguese Jews came in the 17th century to Curacao and to other points in the United States. As soon as they came, they established congregations and communities and some of the oldest Jewish communities including the one right near by in Newport, Rhode Island, the Judah Touro synagogue is one of the oldest in the hemisphere. Of course, one of the first things they did was to get together and to establish a synagogue, an old Jewish tradition.

George Washington did visit the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island. He said he was very impressed with his visit to the Jewish community there. When the Jews of Newport wrote him a letter after his visit, he responded, "The citizens of the United States have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of a large and liberal policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is no more that coloration is spoken of as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural right. For happily the government of the United States which gives to bigotry no sanction to persecution, no insistence, requires only that they who live under its protection shall demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of all the other inhabitants while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid." I might also mention in relation to those revolutionary times that the synagogue in Newport is actually named after Judah Touro who was born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1775, but moved to New Orleans. He actually fought under Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans where he was wounded. He became a businessman and a philanthropist. He donated money to churches and to different local organizations, but one of the major donations he gave was to the Bunker Hill Monument where by the way there were also Jews who fought. He was proud of his heritage, not only as a Jew, but he was proud of his heritage as an American, and there was no good cause, Jewish or Christian, to which he did not contribute. So we can thank him, we can thank Judah Touro partially, for the presence of the Bunker Hill Monument.

Governor Celluci proposed that the bridge spanning the Charles River be called the Leonard Zakim Peace Bridge because Leonard Zakim, a blessed memory, who died so young of cancer was the director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'Rith, and he was for all of his life a bridge builder. He worked so closely with so many communities, political and civic communities, religious communities. He worked so closely with Cardinal Bernard Law for so many years in building bridges between the Jewish and the Catholic communities. He built bridges between the Jewish and the black communities, the Jewish and the Hispanic communities, he was a bridge builder. There was some discussion recently, last year in 2000, about the propriety of naming the bridge after Lenny Zakim. There was some concern from the residents of Charlestown that perhaps since the bridge had a connection to Charlestown that it be named the Bunker Hill Bridge. It was pointed out there already is a Bunker Hill Monument, and I believe that the compromise will be to name it the Leonard Zakim Bunker Hill Peace Bridge, but I'm not entirely sure.

There was not the knowledge that the Jews fought in the Revolution, there was not the knowledge for example that a Jew named Hiam Solomon helped support the Revolution. He himself supported the Revolution and George Washington and died an improverished man, but gave a good deal of his money and fortune to support the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. There was not a lot of knowledge about that, there was not a lot of knowledge of those who fought at Bunker Hill, of the Jews who fought there, or of Judah Touro who paid for a certain percentage of the monument. There was also not a knowledge of the contribution of Leonard Zakim and of his life work, which was reaching out to communities. I daresay he also reached out and had an effect on many of the members of the Charlestown community, although I suspect those who were the ones who were raising objections perhaps were those who were not touched by his work. But having heard about him I'm sure that they will understand that this was not anything that was undeserving.

Everyone in Concord was Jewish on September 18, 1989, the day of the dedication. It was really quite a town event. We carried our Torah from the First Parish and we had a flat bed truck with a klezmer band on it. They led us, and people were walking and people who saw us walking joined in the procession. It was a day of celebration, not only for the Jewish community, but for the whole Concord community that another faith community was making and building and creating a home. Everybody wanted to welcome us. I remember so distinctly walking down Elm Street and there were the folks from the Episcopal Church standing outside with signs welcoming us, and as soon as we passed them by, they joined the procession. There were people there from the Concord government, there were people from the Board of Selectmen, there were people there from all the different faith communities, there were local politicans. Everybody was there. Everybody felt the sense of investment in our presence in Concord and perhaps felt in some sense a little part of them was Jewish for those few hours. There is a separate tape in the Concord Library with Mel Keimach and myself remembering those moments.

Kerem Shalom is an independent, unaffiliated congregation. There is a spectrum of belief and practice in the Kerem Shalom community. We're not affiliated with any particular movement. I think somebody coming into our community, somebody taking part in one of our services might identify us as being part of the reconstructionist movement since we have in our services a lot of Hebrew singing, but on the other hand we are probably more on the liberal side of things since our doors are open to people who are Jewish, people who are not Jewish, we have a lot of interfaith families, we welcome everybody equally. Women and men have equal rights in our synagogue, women and men can be part of the governance of the synagogue. We try to be a welcoming, more liberal synagogue. On the other hand to quote Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the reconstructionist movement, "We do things with a nod to tradition. In what we do, the past has a vote but not a veto." So in order to know what the past says, one needs to be educated and informed. So we make an attempt to learn and study and provide adult and child learning opportunities so that people can know how to be choosing Jews, but choosing Jews from an educated perspective. On the stream of things, I would say we were probably in the reconstructionist stream, which is between reform and conservative basically.

The reconstructionist movement began in the early decades of the 20th century by Mordecai Kaplan, a rabbi who felt that at that time Judiasm needed reconstructing. It was very traditionally oriented. Women did not have the rights that men did. There was no such thing for example as a bat mitzvah which is today the analogue of bar mitzvah, when a 13-year-old gets up in front of the community and leads us in prayer and song and interprets the Torah and says I want to be seen now as responsible for my actions in Jewish life and I want to be seen as a young adult member of the Jewish community. Females didn't have an opportunity to do that. In this country the first woman to become bat mitzvahed was Rabbi Kaplan's oldest daughter Judith in 1922. And so he led by example and he taught by example that such things were possible. So reconstructionism is a way of looking at the Jewish community, looking at Jewish tradition, looking at Jewish life and seeing how things need to remain the same, how things can be changed and how to have that dialogue and conversation through the generations.

The advantage of being affiliated is that one feels one is a part of something larger than oneself. I think we all feel as though we are part of the Jewish community, part of Jewish culture, part of Jewish history, part of Jewish civilization. On the other hand there are organizations of reformed synagogues, there are conservative synagogues, there are orthodox synagogues, there are reconstructionist synagogues which have annual conferences, which have youth groups that we can part of. They have Jewish camping experiences that we can be part of. Without having that affiliation, we don't have that opportunity. I think that is something we're beginning to talk about now. Although it's not exactly on the front burner, I think it's on the back burner, and it's slowly being moved from the back burner to the front burner. I think the idea that some people had initially about affiliation or the lack of same, was that if we didn't have a label, if we didn't have a sign on our door saying this is what we are, that people would be more readily willing to kind of come in and see for themselves. Sometimes if there is a label, we're "x" and not "y", people may make certain judgments about what that means based on their experience which might be limited. So we didn't want that to happen and we wanted to see ourselves and have others see us as being more open to everybody. I think there's something to be said for both sides of that equation.

The growth to 330 families has been quite an achievement, but growth brings its own challenges. As my friend, David Orlinoff, a member of our community, always teaches a challenge presents an opportunity. This presents us with many opportunities to create community. It was much easier in the old days, in the older days, when we were smaller. Everybody knew each other. When we said "we", we could really say "we." Today you can't really say "we" because it is a much broader spectrum and we haven't really achieved consensus about what "we" means. But it remains an opportunity for us perhaps to have smaller interest groups called haverut. We have a couple and we need to do that increasingly. It creates opportunities for us to see exactly what it is that this larger community wants and to create options for people which will relate to their needs. We are currently doing an adult education needs assessment to see what people want. Formerly we wouldn't do a needs assessment, we would just assume what people wanted and maybe we would meet their needs and maybe we wouldn't meet their needs. But for the most part we were because we were small and we could talk with each other. But now we need to do things in a little bit more sophisticated way and we need to do more outreach, but on the other hand it gives us an opportunity really to sit in somebody's living room or sit with somebody on the telephone and actually get to talk with them and actually get to know them and to understand who they are and them us. It creates a lot of wonderful relationships.

We have grown to the point that we now have two high holy day services. The two high holy day services are designed to meet the needs of different constitutents in our community. One we label a traditional service which is a longer service. It's a service that contains much more Hebrew. It's a service that contains a more formal talk by me, and it's a service which is wonderfully traditional and it appeals to a particular segment of the community. The other segment of the community is attracted by what we call "the family service", which is not as long and has much more English. It's doesn't have a long talk but instead involves people in a more interactive kind of dialogue and conversation about the themes of the holidays, the themes of the Torah portion, themes about introspection, about doing for others, about repentence, about family issues, etc. Out of necessity because we can't fit 1200 people in one place at the same time, we've broken it up, and we find that the traditional people are actually happy in their setting and those who want a shorter service and tend to have younger families are happy in their setting. Actually it turns out to be a win-win situation.

Cantor Rosalie Gerut is a cantorial soloist. She has a wonderful voice and she's been with us for many years, probably about 13 years already. We work together leading the singing. She has a wonderful way of drawing people in not only vocally but spiritually as well. I might add by the way that not all the services are separate. We do have some of the high holiday services where everybody comes together and simply know that not everybody is going to be present, we can accommodate 500-600 people at one time.

Michael Rosenfeld designed this building, and it was really quite well thought out in that we have moveable walls. When the walls are up, we have classrooms that are created. But when the walls are down, we can accommodate all these hundreds of people in the sanctuary whereas when the walls are up we can accommodate about 200 people, which is about the number of people that we get maximumly at a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah and it creates a very nice cozy space for that kind of thing or for a wedding for example. Then when the walls are taken down, it creates a much larger space for a much larger service or for example a social function which might follow the bar or bat mitzvah service. People can come into the lobby for hors d'oeuvres or greeting each other and then they'll come back and the walls will be taken down and all of a sudden it's a social space. It's quite a wonderful multi-use space and a very ingenious way to come up with multi-use for a small space.

There's something here every Friday night. It's often different. Sometimes Rosalie and I will lead a service which is very quiet and introspective and has meditation in it and it's a nice transitional time between the days of the week and the rush to the Sabbath and its rest. Then sometimes we will have a service which is geared more toward three-year olds through seven or eight-year olds which is a much different kind of service that includes a story and some active kind of dancing. Things which would be wonderfully attractive and welcoming for some of the younger kids and their families in the congregation as a way of welcoming the Sabbath, welcoming Shabbat. Then sometimes Rosalie will lead a service with herself and with our singing and musical group which has a spiritual tone to it but is much more lively with a lot of music and celebratory singing and even some dancing too. Things vary on Friday nights and then on Saturday mornings we often have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah which is also a wonderful opportunity for people to come together, not only the family of the bar or bat mitzvah but members of the community. Then we have services on other Jewish holidays and festivals.

One part of our service every Shabbat, every Sabbath on Friday night and on Saturday morning, is a prayer for blessing and for healing which we sing together or sometimes our cantor sings it as a solo, and everybody says amen, yes, let it be so. It's a prayer that is in both Hebrew and English and I would like to sing it.

The interest in Israel by the Kerem Shalom community is the interest of any Jew in Israel since our earliest religious history is in Israel. That has continued unabated through the millennia, through thousands of years. It was Abraham and Sarah who began with a small group and began this monotheistic religion called Judiasm. This is what the Torah refers to as the promised land. When we pray, it is traditional in the United States and North America to face east, to face Israel. Wherever you are as a Jew and you pray, you face Israel. If you are in Israel, you face Jerusalem. If you are in Jerusalem, you face the area where the temple once stood which is now the site of the western wall, one of the ancient retaining walls of the ancient temple in Jerusalem which was destroyed in the year 70 of the common era, so about 2000 years ago. So Israel has been the object and focus of our prayers. Israel is the place of our earliest religious history. This is where the stories of the Bible or many of the stories of the Bible are played out. This is, for many Jews, a spiritual homeland, a place of spiritual sustenance and strength. I mentioned the name of the city Jerusalem. In Hebrew it is Jerushalom. In the word Jerushalom is the word shalom, the word for peace. So the word Jerushalom is the city of peace. It hasn't always been so throughout history but it's an ideal. And it's an ideal that this city, the city which is so holy not only to the Jewish people, but to the Muslims and to the Christians should be the cradle of peace, of coexistence, a model for living together. That's our hope. In the synagogue we sing a song about peace. Let there be peace, peace above and peace below. Peace for the Jewish people and peace for all people. And we mention in particular Israel, and all the inhabitants of the world so we direct our prayers to Israel as symbolic, as paradigmatic of a place of all religions not only the Jewish people and for the inhabitants of the earth that we shall live in peace. The rabbis tell a story about Adam and Eve. The rabbis ask why is it that God created one man and one woman, Adam and Eve? Why didn't God create hundreds of men and hundreds of women at the same time? The rabbis say, because in time to come we should all look back and see ourselves as coming from one mother and one father, see ourselves as all brothers and sisters in this world on this planet. All of us united by that one spirit that unites us all. We call that spirit by different names, God, Allah, the father, El Oheim. We call that spirit by different names but it is supposed to symbolize and encompass love and understanding, compassion and understanding, and the greatest gift of all peace -- peace in our hearts, peace among all of us and peace in the universe. That's what Israel symbolizes for the Jewish people, for Christians, for Muslims, and hopefully in the time to come, it will be a place of peace that will radiate out to all whose energy and spirit will be one of love and understanding for all men and women.

Mounted 20 February 2008; rev. 19 Jan. 2013 RCWH.