Hearing his name alone lights up the faces of those who have worked closely with him, those who call him "friend," and those who know him simply as "rabbi."
He plays Beethoven on the piano, co-officiated at the funeral of former U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and has helped to bridge gaps between a variety of faiths. By his own estimation, he is the only rabbi around who "serves ham and sings" carols on Christmas Day.
Rabbi Albert Plotkin transcends Judaism and has impacted Arizonans of all faiths, evoking smiles as sincere as his own on the faces of people he loves, and people whom he barely knows. His personal touch is stamped all over the Valley.
This month, Plotkin will be recognized for his distinguished community service, which has resonated with people from all walks of life. He will accept the Dorothy Pickelner Enduring Legacy Award at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society's annual Mishpocheh (family) dinner on Sunday, Dec. 12, at the Radisson Resort in Scottsdale.
Plotkin and Pickelner actually worked together on community efforts in the past, including the campaign fund-raising drive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. Pickelner is former president of the federation's Women's Department.
"Rabbi Plotkin has always been so involved in the community," says Pickelner, whom Plotkin refers to as "a very dear friend."
"He has always been pleasant and helpful, and never turns down a request for help," Pickelner adds. "He is friendly and knowledgeable, and just a great guy."
At 79, Plotkin has proved again and again his drive to make a difference in people's lives and to better the community for generations to come. Now rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Israel in Scottsdale, where he served as principal rabbi for 40 years, and current spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Sedona, he insists he'll never totally retire because retirement would diminish his soul and vitality, and dampen his spirits.
"I have a true bond with this community," he explains. "I have gone from generation to generation, attending the bris (of a baby boy), then (officiating) at his bar mitzvah, his wedding, then attending the bris of his son, and officiating at his son's bar mitzvah and wedding. It's been a wonderful joy to me, and rewarding to have been in a community so long to have that kind of warm feeling and connection with families, all whom I love very much. I don't want to give that up."
In a recent interview with Jewish News at his Phoenix home, Plotkin revealed the personal side of the man behind the pulpit and in the forefront of community action and numerous historical events.
One of Plotkin's most noticeable traits is his infectious laugh. He especially enjoys laughing at himself, an ability he attributes to the wonderful life he has lived.
When he greets someone, whether in person or by phone, the demeanor is warm and welcoming. He's known to roar with those in the mood for a good roar, or weep with those who are sad. For those seeking guidance, he'll don his best teaching cap.
The ability to assume the myriad roles is a result of a "happy family life" and years of practice, he says, dealing with a wide range of people.
Plotkin was born in South Bend, Ind., "a Hoosier boy" in his words, the son of the late Sophie and Sam Plotkin.
Sam Plotkin was originally from Pinsk, Poland, and Sophie grew up in Odessa, Russia. His parents immigrated separately to the United States in 1911 - his mother to Chicago, his father to South Bend. The two met and married around 1917 and settled in South Bend.
Some of Albert Plotkin's uncles on both sides of the family had also immigrated to the U.S., and so he experienced " a big family with loads of cousins." He also had a younger brother, Sam, who died in 1996.
"I grew up in a wonderful environment of mishpocheh (family), and everyone got together each week and on holidays," Plotkin recalls. "My fondest memory is of my mother, who made wonderful knishes (little stuffed pies). They were the greatest, although she didn't eat them because she said they were too fattening. But the moment (family members) walked in the house and smelled those knishes, they would make a mad dash for them."
During his high school years, Plotkin was a member of the debate and glee clubs. He also danced, sang and acted in school productions. Sophie Plotkin, who adored the performing arts, was overjoyed to see her son immersing himself in them.
"She lived vicariously through me," he says.
When it came time for Plotkin to attend college, he experienced his first real let-down.
"It was in the middle of the Depression in the 1930s, and things were tough," he explains. "While all of my Jewish friends went away to Indiana University and joined Jewish fraternities, my father told me, 'We're broke. You're going to Notre Dame (in South Bend).' ... So I had to stay home (which would be less expensive than a state university in another city)."
Notre Dame is a Catholic college.
"It was very strange for me (being a Jew)," he says, "because it was very (Catholic) and dogmatic. I had to take everything with a grain of salt."
Meanwhile, Plotkin's rabbi in South Bend worried about his religious fate. He frequently invited Plotkin to the synagogue, where Plotkin sang in the choir and assisted the rabbi and cantor.
"The more I was there, the more I liked it, and I decided that's where I belonged," says Plotkin.
In 1942, Plotkin graduated magna cum laude from Notre Dame. This year, he was nominated for the Dr. Thomas A. Dooley Award by the school's alumni association. The award is given to people who have exhibited service to humankind since graduation.
After he graduated from Notre Dame, Plotkin attended Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, which was a challenge for him at first.
"I came in with a very weak Jewish background, and was with all of the New York yeshiva boys, who ran miles ahead of me in Hebrew, in Talmud and the Bible," he says. But a far greater challenge faced him - dealing with his heartbreak over the Holocaust, which was at its height.
"We were getting reports of what was happening from Jewish chaplains, but never the full story, of course," he says. "It was horrible, and we were all so frustrated. There was such anguish in our hearts and we felt so alone."
Plotkin learned after the war that his mother's three sisters, who had remained in Odessa, had been killed. He even traveled to Odessa a few years after the war, with the hope of finding at least one relative who may have survived, but to no avail.
Making his mark in Phoenix
In 1948, Plotkin was ordained, just 15 days after Israel became a state. He moved to Seattle to take a job as an assistant rabbi, and it was there that he met the woman whom he would marry in 1949.
"This year would have been our 50th wedding anniversary," he says with a hint of disappointment in his voice. Sylvia Plotkin died at age 71 from breast cancer in 1996. The two were inseparable and best friends.
Plotkin shows off a gold ring he wears on his left middle finger, which is inscribed with loving words to his late wife in Hebrew. He bought the ring from a jeweler in Jerusalem for her on their 25th wedding anniversary. The day she died, he took it from her finger, and placed it on his own.
"I wear it all the time. It's our bond," he says quietly.
Plotkin sets his mind back to 1950, when he was the assistant rabbi at Temple Dehirsch in Spokane, Wash. On a cold, snowy day in Spokane, Plotkin left for Phoenix to attend a rabbis' convention, where he "fell in love with Arizona," mainly because it was 70 degrees at the time and sunny here.
Five years later, Rabbi Abraham Krohn retired from Temple Beth Israel, then located at 10th Avenue and Osborn Road in Phoenix. Krohn met with Plotkin at a convention in Lake Tahoe, and expressed his desire for Plotkin to be his successor.
"I called up my wife and told her we were moving, and she said, 'But I just put up the drapes!' 'Well,' I told her, 'take them down because we're going to Arizona.' "
The growth of the Phoenix Jewish community over the years astounds Plotkin. Some 3,000 Jews populated the Valley in 1955, the year Plotkin arrived here. Nearly 400 families belonged to Temple Beth Israel at that time, and the number quickly swelled to 1,600.
"People said we would never be a major community because we were in the desert," Plotkin says. "I never thought I would have a major congregation, and I have been overwhelmed by the growth in the community and all that has transpired here."
Throughout his years as senior rabbi of the congregation, he remained active in the greater community, primarily in the area of interfaith outreach. He helped organize the North Phoenix Corporate Ministry, which awarded Plotkin the Matthes Award in 1998 for his involvement. He has cooperated with YMCA and Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts programs; has worked closely with the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Phoenix, a group of 12 Christian sisters whose main goal is to make reparation to Jews for the Holocaust; and he is rabbi in residence at All Saints Episcopal Church in Phoenix.
"Rabbi Plotkin is a special person to this community," comments Bishop Thomas O'Brien of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. "Among his many achievements is the fact that he was a major participant in helping to bring various faiths together."
Plotkin has officiated at hundreds of life-cycle events, including funerals, which, he says, are "very difficult for me because I have known these people their whole lives."
Acting on his need to give back to the community, Plotkin has been charitable over the years. He says he looks forward to each Christmas, when he visits St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter in Phoenix to serve food and make the Christian holiday special for those who have little reason to celebrate.
"I'm the only rabbi in America who, on Christmas Day, serves ham and sings Christmas carols," he says, laughing. St. Vincent de Paul named Plotkin "Man of the Year" in 1998 for his charitable work.
"His activities have extended through interfaith and civic matters, but there is another side to this man," observes Pearl Newmark, former director of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society and former co-owner of Jewish News. "His genuine interest in people (is evident as) he is always willing to listen, to give advice, comfort and sympathy. He is a friend to many."
Sylvia's lasting legacy
Plotkin is modest about his achievements. He credits his late wife as having been the catalyst for many of his ideas and expressions of love. "She was my best friend, but also my best critic."
His wife remains a large part of his life still today. He continues to live in the home they shared for 41 years. Every aspect of the home, from the elegant decor to the rich violet hues that color the walls and flooring, to the many pieces of Judaica, "are Sylvia," he says.
"To me, she is everywhere, in every room. I feel she's always with me here, and that's why I can't (move)," he says.
One of his favorite rooms is the dining room, now noticeably peaceful, but once a place filled with much love and laughter.
"Sylvia made Shabbos beautiful," he says. "We had a very strong family life. ... We made each moment count."
It was in the dining room, he explains, where the family would gather for special meals, accompanied by his wife's best silverware, a bouquet of flowers and loaf of challah (braided egg bread).
The family has again been put to the test by a recent health setback, as cancer has stricken Plotkin's daughter Deborah, 45. Deborah Plotkin lives in Munich, Germany, at a special cancer center, where she receives treatment for the disease, which has spread to her brain. Plotkin's older daughter, Janis Plotkin, 48, lives in Oakland, Calif. Plotkin does not have grandchildren.
Although he is concerned about Deborah's health, he says he is comforted by the fact that his daughters have a close relationship with each other and with him. He is looking forward to seeing them at the AJHS dinner.
Sylvia Plotkin was not only a master of the joyous Shabbat dinner, but also at collecting Judaica. In 1967, she opened the Judaica Museum at Temple Beth Israel at its former location. Over the years, the Plotkins collected hundreds of pieces of Judaica for the museum.
"Wherever we went, especially if we went to Israel (which the Plotkins visited 15 times), Sylvia would throw down her bags as soon as we arrived there, so she could go look for Judaica for the museum," he recalls. "That was her whole life. That museum was her baby."
The museum board renamed the museum the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum one day before Sylvia Plotkin died.
Today, the museum, now at the temple's current location at 56th Street and Shea Boulevard, has 1,000 pieces. Plotkin continues to add to the collection.
A museum based on his and his wife's numerous trips together exists inside Plotkin's home. On a table are glass birds from Venice. In a corner is a fancy bucket from Jordan.
On his walls are paintings from all over the world. In addition, he displays various awards and gifts that have special meaning to him. On a wall in a back room hangs a piece of red rock from Sedona inscribed with the Shema prayer. His Sedona congregants, who see him twice a month, gave it to him as a gift.
When he's in Phoenix, he continues to enjoy a variety of activities.
"I play tennis, jog, ride a bicycle and swim every day," he says, pointing to his backyard swimming pool. "I am in good health and try to stay (physically) active."
The brown wooden piano in his dining room also provides him with an escape.
He plays "Moonlight Sonata" by Beethoven, and as he does, he concentrates on his precise technique so that his work will render beauty - as it has done throughout his life.