A Phoenix pioneer

Rabbi Plotkin lights the menorah on the first night of Hanukkah in 1955, his first year in Phoenix. Also pictured are his wife Sylvia and their daughters Debra and Janis.

When Rabbi Albert Plotkin relates the story of his bar mitzvah, he does so with a laugh.

The young Plotkin became a bar mitzvah in a small Orthodox congregation in South Bend, Ind. The synagogue rented space above a tire shop and Plotkin was one of the first to become a bar mitzvah at this newly formed congregation.

The cantor, unaware that it was Plotkin's big day, prepared to read the Torah portion. "I got up and said, 'Hey, that's mine,' " Plotkin remembers. "So I got up and said my portion and when I started, someone in the back of the room said, 'We can hear him but we can't see him.'

"So they put up a chair and I stood on the chair to read the Torah."

Next month, 70 years later, Plotkin will celebrate his second bar mitzvah. This time, nobody in the sanctuary will be unaware of him.

Plotkin's second bar mitzvah will be held Jan. 9; a dinner, silent auction and dance in his honor will be held Jan. 10 in Temple Beth Israel's ballroom. Proceeds from the evening will benefit Temple Beth Israel and the Cutler_Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center.

Since his arrival in Phoenix in 1955 to serve as senior rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, Plot-kin's work has overflowed beyond standard synagogue duties. Besides his involve-ment in Jewish organizations spanning from Jewish Family & Children's Service to the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, he's also been an active member of Phoenix's general community.

His resume includes serving on boards of the National Conference of Christians & Jews, the Boy Scouts Council, the State Mental Health Committee, the Arizona Commission on Humanities, KAET, the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and the Arizona Opera.

When he became rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Israel in 1991, one might think he would have slowed down. But now, 12 years later, he's still just as busy.

"I keep out of mischief by keeping busy," he says. "It keeps me young and vibrant."

The 83-year-old rabbi has no plans to retire. "I don't believe in retirement," he says. "I believe you should be as active as your health possibly can permit you."

Plotkin still teaches at Temple Beth Israel, attends Shabbat services there and participates in the temple's programming. He's also very involved with the temple's museum, named for his late wife, Sylvia Plotkin; he describes the museum as one of his "pet projects."

He's taught at Arizona State University since 1957 and still teaches an Introduction to the Hebrew Bible class through the school's Jewish Studies Program.

At least once a week, he visits hospitalized veterans at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center. "Many of the veterans are old and have no family and are lonely people so I come to visit them," he says. "No one comes here so I decided that this is where I should go."

Plotkin still officiates at britot, b'nai mitzvah, weddings and funerals and it's not unusual for him to perform a wedding for children whose parents he married. He regularly leads Shabbat services at Temple Gan Elohim in the West Valley.

He's also involved in the Ecumenical Phoenix Clergy Association and a member of the Board of Rabbis, which he helped form.

"There were only a couple of rabbis when I was here in 1955, but today there are over 30 of us - we've grown a great deal," he says.

Plotkin's reach has extended beyond the Greater Phoenix metropolitan area. He helped establish the Jewish Community of Sedona in 1991; the congregation plans to celebrate the dedication of their new building next month. He still travels to Sedona every three weeks to lead Shabbat services for the congregation, as well as lead a study group about the Prophets. He also helped establish Temple B'rith Shalom in Prescott and Heichal Baoranim in Flagstaff.

This year, he published a book about a topic that has always been important to him - interfaith relations.

His book "Sacred Roots, Commonalities Expressed by the Early Church and Synagogue" (Fogfree, Inc., $19.95 hardcover) is about the background of the birth of Christianity from Judaism and the similarities of the two faiths.

"I found that many Chris-tians did not understand the Jewish origin of Christianity and many Jews didn't understand how Christianity followed from Judaism," he says. "Instead of building walls, I wanted to build bridges and that's what my bridge is, trying to build a bridge between Judaism and Christianity."

One way he attempts this is by his work at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Phoenix, where he's been the rabbi-in-residence for 10 years.

Judy Stern, tribute chair-woman, attended a service with a friend who is a member of the church and was inspired by the positive response Plotkin received after his sermon. "That man is so recognized and has touched so many lives," she says.

Plotkin's desire to improve interfaith relations may have stemmed from his college days - he graduated magna cum laude from Notre Dame in 1942. Last year he was named "Most Distinguished Graduate from the Class of 1942" by the school and occasionally lectures for the school's theology department.

Even with all his work locally and throughout Arizona, Plotkin still finds time to see the world. For the past five years, he served as a chaplain for Princess Cruise Lines, which brought him to South Africa, China, Turkey, Greece and Rome, among other countries. "I went around the world with them," he says. During the cruises, he's conducted Passover seders and led Shabbat and Hanukkah services. He leaves this week on a five-day cruise to Hawaii on the Norwegian Sky, of the Norwegian Cruise Line, where he will visit five islands and conduct five Hanukkah services.

His travels have also brought him to Israel many times; "I've taken over a dozen tour groups to Israel to help promote Israel," he says. He hopes to go again this summer.

Plotkin has a "thirst for living," says Terry Taubman, Temple Beth Israel executive director since 1989. Working with Plotkin "every day was a delight," she says. "Most days he came in singing the Notre Dame fight song."

Plotkin calls the Arizona Jewish community his mishpacha (family). Over a number of years, he lost his parents, in-laws, wife and younger daughter Debra to cancer and said he is grateful that in his losses "the community has been most helpful and most solicitous in bringing me comfort and help in my personal loss." His other daughter, Janis, lives in Oakland, Calif.

Plotkin recalls that one of his professors tried to dissuade him from moving to Arizona in 1955, claiming it would "dry me out like a cactus."

He told his professor: "I won't dry out, I'll be a halutz, a pioneer."

"I'm so grateful to be here," he says. "I never regretted it once. My coming to Arizona was a joy and continues to be."

Plotkin moved to Phoenix from Seattle, where he served two congregations after graduating from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1948.

Plotkin is excited about his second bar mitzvah, and looks forward to celebrating it with his local "family," as well as many cousins who are traveling from around the country to be with him.

With encouragement from colleagues who did the same, Plotkin says he chose to have a second bar mitzvah because Jewish tradition says that after 70 years, a person is supposed to read their haftorah to show that Torah lives on - "It's your responsibility to make it live," he says.

His Torah portion is Vayechi, "the story of Jacob blessing his sons before he leaves to carry on the faith," Plotkin notes. "The haftorah is David blessing Solomon to carry on the faith."

"I have taught students over these 58 years," he says. "I want them to carry on (the faith)."

To read an extensive interview with Rabbi Albert Plotkin about his early days in Phoenix, visit the Shema Arizona Web site, www.asu.edu/lib/archives/shema.

Contact the writer at leisah_namm@jewishaz.com.

  • Details

  • What: Rabbi Plotkin's bar mitzvah
  • Who: Temple Beth Israel, Arizona Jewish Historical Society
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 9
  • Where: Temple Beth Israel, 10460 N. 56th St., Scottsdale
  • What: Gala dinner dance
  • When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 10
  • Where: Temple Beth Israel
  • Cost: $200
  • Call: 480-951-0323

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