'Our' rabbi: Albert Plotkin

Rabbi Albert 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.

Considering the rabbi he would go on to become, Albert Plotkin's 1943 debut at Hebrew Union College was less than auspicious.

He hadn't done well on his entrance exam, and he was on academic probation because he'd learned no Hebrew as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. "They had great football teams," Plotkin writes in "Rabbi Plotkin," his 1992 memoir, "but they didn't give you any Hebrew."

It didn't help that Plotkin was a staunch Zionist at a time when most of the faculty members at the seminary were not. And, he writes, "I had many theological questions because I was there during the Holocaust." Should he leave and join the U.S. Army, he wondered? Should he go to Palestine and fight for a Jewish state?

Plotkin stayed, following the advice of his Russian immigrant parents- his father, who used to tell him, when he was a boy growing up in South Bend, Ind., "A Plotkin starts something, he's got to finish it," and his mother, who said, "You'll do more good for your people when you have your education than when you're not finished."

He received the degree of Rabbi, Master of Hebrew Letters, in 1948, two weeks after the State of Israel was born.

Plotkin, who died Feb. 3 at the age of 89, would go on to have an inestimable impact on the state of Arizona. He arrived in Phoenix in 1955, having previously served two congregations in Washington state; in Seattle, he'd met and married Sylvia Pincus, and the couple brought with them two young daughters, Debra and Janis.

He came to Phoenix at the invitation of Rabbi Abraham Lincoln Krohn, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel at the time.

"It's a small desert town," Krohn told him. "But it has a lot of potential for growth."

There were 3,000 Jews here and three synagogues: Reform Beth Israel, Conservative Beth El Congregation and Orthodox Beth Hebrew Congregation. One of Beth Israel's supporters, and one of the first people Plotkin met, was Barry Goldwater, an Episcopalian of Jewish descent; in 1998, Plotkin co-officiated at Goldwater's funeral in Tempe, administering full Jewish rites.

Like Krohn before him, Plotkin became deeply involved in the community here, Jewish and non. He was a passionate advocate for civil rights and for Israel, a dedicated fundraiser for the Jewish federation and a staunch supporter of the arts. (A talented singer and dancer, he'd been a professional nightclub performer as a young man; in his mid-'70s, he performed with the Arizona Opera in a production of "Turandot," one of his favorite operas.)

For some 25 years, he volunteered as a chaplain at Phoenix Veterans Hospital, says Chaplain Michael West, who first met him in 1998. Except for the summers, which he spent in California, Plotkin visited Jewish personnel and patients each week- sometimes twice a week- offering "spiritual encouragement," West said.

For his work promoting interfaith relations, he received the National Award for Brotherhood from the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1972, one of many such awards, and for decades he taught students at Phoenix's All Saints' Episcopal Church about the Jewish roots of Christianity. He inspired the founding of several Jewish congregations in the Valley, and served as spiritual leader of the congregation in Sedona after he retired from Beth Israel.

Joel Gereboff, head of the religious studies program at Arizona State University, came to ASU in 1978 as the university's first full-time hire in Judaica. He and Plotkin, who had founded the Jewish Studies program and was teaching at the university- as he would do up until last spring- developed "a wonderful working relationship."

For more than a decade, Plotkin attended the biweekly Talmud class that Gereboff taught. "He was in class the Thursday before he passed away," Gereboff says, "and he was involved, and as always he led us in the birkat hamazon (grace after meals)."

Gereboff says, "I loved his interest in Talmud," a subject that wasn't widely taught when Plotkin was in rabbinical school. And, he says, he will miss "somebody to kibitz with in Yiddish. We did a lot of kibitzing in the mamaloshen" (mother tongue).

Rabbi Stephen Kahn, the current spiritual leader of what is now known as Congregation Beth Israel, says that the High Holidays are going to be difficult without Rabbi Emeritus Plotkin.

"I don't know what we'll do this year. He still preached old school. No notes, no written speech, straight from the heart, and then he had that huge voice. He was, will always be ... a big presence in the synagogue."

Plotkin will likewise remain a big presence at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in downtown Phoenix, which occupies the original Beth Israel building. Local attorney Larry Cutler named the building after his late parents and Plotkin- his family's rabbi and the man largely responsible for saving the building from demolition.

"I took Rabbi Plotkin out to lunch, and when I told him about the name, he literally started to cry, it meant that much to him," Cutler says. He notes that it was very important to him to honor Plotkin while he was still alive, and he calls the rabbi "the righteous of the righteous of the righteous."

He says that although it may sound morbid, he's selected a burial site in the Beth Israel Cemetery right next to Rabbi Plotkin and Sylvia. "I told the rabbi ... he was such a righteous man that when God raises the dead, he'll be the first one up and I'm going to grab onto his coattails."

Plotkin remained engaged in the community and in learning even into his last year; in addition to his own teaching and the Talmud class with Gereboff, he attended a weekly Phoenix College class on news and money with friend Jay Levinsohn.

"We get there the first time," Levinsohn recalls, "and (the class) is in the room that formerly was Temple Beth Israel's sanctuary (at 10th Avenue and Flower Road). And he says, 'I feel like giving a sermon.' He was 89 and he was still going."

Like many who knew Plotkin, Levinsohn marveled at his ability to continue living life to the fullest in spite of personal tragedy- notably the death of his beloved wife and partner, Sylvia, of cancer in 1996, at the age of 71, and the death of daughter Debra, also from cancer, only four years later. (The couple's older daughter, Janis, lives in Oakland, Calif.)

"It was a promise to Sylvia," Levinsohn says, that kept Plotkin going. "She made him promise not to give up."

At the age of 85, Plotkin volunteered to serve as director of the Judaica museum at Beth Israel that is named for his wife, who had founded it almost 40 years before and devoted much of her life to broadening the museum's collection and its goals. The museum was one of the first of its kind and served as the inspiration for others around the country.

Levinsohn recalls the day a few years ago when he invited Plotkin to his new apartment, in a building on Scottsdale's waterfront. The two men went up to the pool, on the 13th floor, and looked out over the panorama of Phoenix and Scottsdale and beyond.

As Levinsohn tells it, "He called me three times that day and said, 'You have no idea how amazing it is to see what has become of the desert. To look out over what it became,' he says. 'I can't believe it. When I came here, they told me I was crazy.'"

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