Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is a giant in the Chicago Jewish communal world and beyond.
He has spent the last 30 years leading Highland Park's North Suburban Synagogue Beth El--an anchoring institution in the Chicago Jewish community and one of the largest Conservative congregations in the metropolitan area. Throughout his time at the helm, Kurtz has also served as a leader in the larger Chicago Jewish community, the Conservative movement, and the national and international Jewish community.
But soon, he will be ready to embark on a new adventure-stepping down from his role as Beth El's head rabbi in the spring of 2019, and moving with his wife to their beloved Israel.
Kurtz's illustrious Jewish communal resume include tenures as president of the following organizations: the Chicago Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, the International Association of Conservative Rabbis, the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, MERCAZ USA, MERCAZ Olami, and the American Zionist Movement. He is also a past chairman of the Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal, now called Jewish Federations of North America.
Kurtz plays an active role at JUF, where he has served for 24 years as a member of its JUF/Federation Board of Directors. He is a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, one of JUF's primary overseas arms.
Deeply committed to the importance of strengthening and sustaining synagogue life, Kurtz has served the broader community in many important ways, said JUF President Steven B. Nasatir. "With a vision of the importance of a unified community and a dedication to the principles of Torat Yisrael , Eretz Yisrael , and Medinat Yisrael , his is a model we should all do well to emulate," said Nasatir of his friend and colleague. "His strong sense of community, of service, and of the responsibilities of leadership are exemplary. These traits--and more--were recognized in 2010 when Rabbi Kurtz received the Rosenwald Award, our community's highest honor."
"That [award] has been one of my proudest moments," said Kurtz, waxing nostalgic on his more than four decades in the rabbinate in Chicago.
He will make aliyah with his wife of 45 years, Bryna, an accountant and former Jewish educator. They plan to make a home in Jerusalem, where they will be closer to one of their two daughters, Hadassa, who lives in Israel with her family and works for the Mandel Foundation. Their other daughter, Shira, a neuropsychologist, lives in Boston with her family. The rabbi and his wife have six grandchildren-four in Israel and two in Boston.
Current Beth El Rabbi Michael Schwab will take over as spiritual leader of the congregation when Kurtz exits. "Rabbi Kurtz is a dedicated and talented rabbi who has given so much to Beth El and to the worldwide Jewish community," Schwab said. "I am privileged to succeed him and to continue to be able to learn from his leadership. We all owe him a great debt of gratitude for everything he has done for our synagogue and for the Jewish people."
Indeed, the Jewish people have always been central to Kurtz. He grew up in an observant home in Toronto's predominantly Jewish Bathurst Manor neighborhood. His father was active in Toronto's UJA Federation; his mother, in Hadassah. A product of the city's Jewish day schools, Kurtz earned his undergraduate degree in political science at Toronto's York University, where he took part in Hillel. During summers, he served as a Camp Ramah staffer. He and Bryna have known each other since they were teenagers.
Kurtz had been accepted to law school in Canada, but instead opted for a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and at what was later to become the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. Returning home, he nixed law school altogether and began studying for the rabbinate at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Soon after ordination in 1976, he and Bryna, whom he married during rabbinical school, moved to Chicago, where he served as assistant rabbi at Hyde Park's Congregation Rodfei Zedek for 12 years before moving to Beth El.
Over three decades, Kurtz, who earned a doctor of divinity degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1981, has overseen the spiritual and pastoral needs of a congregation whose membership numbers of 1,000 to 1,100 families have wavered little during his tenure. This year, Beth El celebrates its 70 th anniversary, coinciding with the birth of the state of Israel.
Kurtz attributes the synagogue's continued success to its members' respect for each other and the sense that they are participating in a holy enterprise. "We may have many services going on over the course of Shabbat," he said, "but we all come together to celebrate with one kiddush -there is a common sense of mission and vision."
Rabbinical colleagues alike applaud the rabbi.
"Rabbi Kurtz has seen his rabbinate as encompassing not only his congregants, whom he has served with devotion and love, but also the broader Chicago and international Jewish community," said Rabbi Michael Balinsky, the executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. "He has been a tireless servant of the Jewish people."
Over the years, Kurtz has balanced his synagogue commitments with teaching duties as adjunct Professor of Rabbinics at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.
To celebrate the 70 th anniversary of both the synagogue and Israel and to honor the rabbi and his wife, the synagogue is holding a special weekend Nov. 2-4 that will culminate in a Sunday evening gala dinner to benefit Beth El. Rabbi David Golinkin, president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc., is guest speaker. Attendees will receive a just-published history book of Beth El, penned by Morton Steinberg.
Kurtz says he and Bryna's departure from Chicago is bittersweet. "We are excited about a new chapter in our lives," Kurtz said. "[But Chicago] has been home for more than 40 years. It has been good to us, and we will miss the community."
To learn more about the special weekend events or reserve tickets to the gala, call (847) 432-0703.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.