When a stranger asks Rabbi Michael Weinberg what his denomination is, he has a ready response. "I'm Jewish," he says. "Ever since ancient times, Jews have understood they are inextricably connected and responsible for one another."
Nurturing Jewish unity has marked Rabbi Weinberg's more than 40-year career, which will enter a new phase in June with his retirement as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Skokie.
"It has been a blessing, honor and privilege to serve this congregation," Rabbi Weinberg said. "It's been a great run, but I'll have an opportunity to stay connected as the Rabbi Emeritus."
The next chapter, he said, will include traveling. "We would like to go in the fall to Israel," he said. "We have a daughter in Tel Aviv. We also have a son in New York and another son in Skokie."
Rabbi Weinberg came to Temple Beth Israel in 1987 as only the fourth rabbi in the congregation's more than a century-long history. He had previously served at Sinai Temple in Michigan City, Indiana. "When you're a rabbi, it's good to be where the Jews are," he joked. "There are a lot more Jews in Skokie than there are in Michigan City, Indiana."
From the beginning, Temple Beth Israel was a good fit. "I came to a community that was well established," he said. "The congregation is warm, welcoming and inclusive; serious about worship and study and also serious about having fun. Temple Beth Israel had a record of being involved in things that were important to me: social justice, Zionism and devotion to education."
Rabbi Weinberg has been married for 47 years to Jody Weinberg, a learning disabilities specialist. Theirs is a mixed marriage-- He is from the South Side of Chicago, she from the North Side. They knew each other in high school and later were both senior counselors-in-training at
Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute
(OSRUI) summer camp.
"Our community needs leaders like Rabbi and Mrs. Weinberg," observed Rabbi Leonard Matanky of Congregation K.I.N.S of West Rogers Park. "We need leaders like them who work tirelessly on behalf of others, bring their joy of life into the lives of others, and who have represented our community with distinction and grace. Together, the Rabbi and Jody have created a wonderful family of next-generation leaders."
Since announcing his retirement, Rabbi Weinberg has reflected on peak moments during his tenure at Temple Beth Israel. But what remains most important to him, he said, "is the day-in, day-out, week-in, week-out continual devotion to learning, to active Jewish living and the opportunity to be involved in the lives of our members at the most poignant moments of their lives, either happy or sad."
A longtime staff member at OSRUI, Rabbi Weinberg will remain active in the camp's intensive Hebrew immersion program for high schoolers.
"Jewish summer camp is an opportunity to touch people's lives in a profound way," he said. "You create, at camp, an environment where the entire camp community is living and breathing Jewish life every day."
But perhaps his most enduring legacy, Jody said, is "He was a very hands-on rabbi. At the end of a program, he would help put chairs away and fold up tables. He was a mentor and a well-rounded person who people could relate to as one of them. Yet he had this exceptional ability to lead, as early as when he was leading the Chicago Federation of Temple Youth. That's what I saw in him in high school.
"One thing that will be hard to replace," she said, "is that he is a man of many talents. He's a carpenter and Mr. Fix-It. He could fix the wooden rollers on Torah scrolls."