Beloved rabbi retiring from B'nai Chaim

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By Emile Hallez

It’s a Friday afternoon at B’nai Chaim, and Rabbi Joel Schwartzman is running between the building’s two floors, trying to reconcile temperatures between the freezing ground level and the balmy basement.

In about two hours, 200 congregants would pack the small Reform Judaism synagogue for a night of musical devotion, a treat Schwartzman and his wife, Ziva, provided a few weeks before his July 2 retirement.

“When 200 people get in there, it’s going to go to 75 F like that, and I’m not keen to be uncomfortable tonight. My wife and I are sponsoring this program tonight as a gift to the congregation. It’s called Shabbat Unplugged. This is a wonderful singing group,” Schwartzman said of the event, a departure from the usual Friday night routine of Torah reading. “It is really very exciting and spiritually, for me, uplifting. I expect a lot of people to be here tonight.”

And the rabbi, a former Air Force chaplain who has delivered invocations for two presidents, is a bit of a musician himself, just one trait that has made him an adored holy man among his congregants. At holiday services, he’s known to pick up his acoustic guitar, crooning and strumming simple chords.

“I loved folk music as a child; I still do,” he said, commenting on his modest musical chops. “I can accompany myself to some degree.”

Schwartzman, 64, came to B’nai Chaim in 2000, five years before the congregation, the only one to serve South Jeffco, landed its permanent location in Morrison. Schwartzman had recently finished 23 years of service in the Air Force, from which he retired as a colonel.

Though opposed to infantry service, Schwartzman, a social liberal and staunch defender of Israel, had no qualms about joining the military during a time when many his age were burning draft cards.

“Those were Vietnam days, and I had no interest in being a ground-pounder, not in Vietnam, not in a war I wasn’t very sure of. But I was happy to serve the country and the military. … After the Holocaust, some of us recognized that you really wanted your country to be the strongest bulldog on the block,” said Schwartzman, who was ordained during his service in 1975. “I met some very bright people in the military who weren’t Jewish, and I met some people who knew a lot more than I did about technological things than I’ll never know. But in terms of the chaplaincy I can hold my own with anybody who was in it.”

While stationed in Germany in 1981, Schwartzman was called to the Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, where 52 Americans had been flown after being released from 444 days in captivity during the Iranian hostage crisis at the beginning of that country’s Islamic revolution.

“There were three Jews, of the 52 hostages,” he said. “I called upon everything I knew to try to help them. I brought my whole congregation from Ramstein Air Base for a Shabbat service.”

Despite the many differences between B’nai Chaim and the sterile, orderly atmosphere of the military, Schwartzman feels at home at the suburban synagogue.

“This building doesn’t feel very different to me than what I used to hold services in, in the Air Force,” he said of the relatively humble structure, a modular-looking edifice with simple décor.

“But what we lack in aesthetics we make up in warmth.”

By warmth, Schwartzman means the 121-family congregation’s dedication to both B’nai Chaim and the larger community, an involvement that gives him pride.

“This is a congregation who will bring out 17 units of blood on a blood drive,” he said. “That’s impressive, and Bonfils knows it. They understand that we’re not huge, but the people show up. That’s something I’m very proud of.”

And when an anonymous donor pledged a $250,000 matching-donation challenge for a permanent home for the synagogue in 2005, congregants reached into their pockets and came up with the money.

“I haven’t got a Bill Gates in this congregation,” Schwartzman said. “You’ve got people who are hardworking people who saw the importance of having their own place — being able to call something home.”

For those families, the part-time rabbi’s departure will be difficult, congregants said.

“Oy,” said Beverly Stromberg, who has attended the synagogue for seven years along with 19 of her family members. “He’s too young to retire from us. … His sermons are wonderful. They’re inspiring. They’re thought-provoking.”

Schwartzman delivers Torah and Bible teachings in a practical, concise way, Stromberg said, a refreshing method that gives people food for thought and keeps listeners’ eyelids from getting heavy.

“He speaks in a way that’s easy to understand. He relates to today’s topics, what’s relevant and what’s going on in the world,” she said. “I don’t nod off. … They’re to the point.”

Ten-year congregant Sheree Dormann echoed the sentiment.

“Personally, we’re devastated,” she said. “I don’t want him to go.”

Outside of B’nai Chaim, Schwartzman has worked on numerous community projects and causes, ranging from youth suicide prevention with the Second Wind Fund to battling homelessness with Denver’s Road Home.

“I like what I do. I’m in a job that I love,” he said. “There are things that I get passionate about. I put what we call lovingly my kishkas — I put my guts into them.”

But with his passion, he admitted, comes a fault — a short fuse to a temper he learned to keep largely under control while in the Air Force.

“I don’t live in the world of emotions. I live in the world of doing,” he said. “I still fire off. You cut me off when I’m driving, and I’m going to respond.”

Regardless, a life spent teaching Jewish values and guiding communities through various crises has given him insight that arguably transcends religion.

“I think people need to have in their lives some vehicle or institution which represents and teaches values. I think if you lack a rudder in life, you’re going to fall victim … to the first charlatan or demagogue who comes along,” Schwartzman said. “I think you need to find people you that care about and care about you, who can tell you when you’re sane, and when you’ve lost it,” he added with a laugh.

So respected is Schwartzman that he was asked to deliver President Barack Obama’s invocation in February 2009, during the ceremony for the second, $787 billion stimulus package at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Schwartzman also delivered an invocation more than a decade earlier for President Bill Clinton during a Memorial Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery.

Aside from traveling and spending more time with his family, Schwartzman said he plans to take up a new project: pine beetle mitigation.

“I am one of those people who needs a cause. And one of my causes is the lodgepole pine beetle,” said Schwartzman, who plans to work to have Summit County declared an emergency zone. “My expertise in the military was really logistics. I was very good at organization, and so I can be of benefit to groups that need to reach certain goals.”

Despite Schwartzman’s years in the military, his favorite biblical passage evokes a message of peace, one by which destructive forces are reversed.

“ ‘You shall beat your swords into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks,’ ” he quoted of Micah, for whom he named his son.

“We’re raising a generation of Jews and trying to educate them and their children. And I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish and what the congregation has been able to accomplish. We’ve done it together.”


Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.