Rabbi Marc Berkson was sitting behind a family as Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun elected his successor.
The father in the family grew up in Berkson’s prior congregation. Berkson arrived just as the father became a bar mitzvah and was the rabbi when the man was confirmed. The father was present with his son, who has graduated from college. They talked about the family’s memories at CEEBJ.
“In a sense, here in one family, it spans all the years I’ve been in the rabbinate,” Berkson said. “That’s the kind of satisfaction and delight and joy that I take in having done this.”
Berkson on June 30 will retire after more than 40 years as a rabbi. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in 1978 and spent more than 20 years at Temple Judea Mizpah in Skokie, Illinois. In 1999, he became the rabbi at CEEBJ in River Hills, where he has served since.
Berkson said he informed the congregation about two years ago of his plans to retire. With his 71st birthday approaching in July, he said the time has come for CEEBJ to transition to a new leader. He will stay involved as rabbi emeritus.
CEEBJ named Rabbi Jessica Barolsky, who previously worked at the Reform shul, as its next senior rabbi.
The transition to a new rabbi marks a generational shift, said Sandra Kohler Stern, a past president of CEEBJ during Berkson’s spiritual leadership. A new cohort of synagogue leaders will develop relationships and bring their own vision to fruition, she said.
Stern said CEEBJ transformed during Berkson’s time as rabbi. When he arrived as rabbi, he worked with a group of leaders to define the congregation’s mission to be a place of learning and community, with an investment in repairing the world.
Berkson’s leadership energized CEEBJ’s atmosphere, Stern said.
“It took a while, but it’s been embraced by the congregation, and it really is what makes us,” she said. “What he brought to us – that viewpoint, that attitude, that energy – made us the warmer, welcoming community we are.”
She noted that during his tenure, the synagogue expanded its facility. Stern credited Berkson with inspiring the congregation’s engagement with the project.
As rabbi emeritus, Berkson said he’ll maintain a relationship with CEEBJ at his successor’s invitation. That will involve teaching and lifecycle events, he said.
Outside the congregation, Berkson said he also is interested in completing a degree at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago that he started during a sabbatical. In addition, he wants to be more involved in his trains and railroads hobby, such as with train museums.
Upon retirement, Berkson said he expects he will most miss teaching daily and being involved in the lives of the congregants who have turned to him as their rabbi.
“I’m going to miss, I think, some of the daily work I tried to do to work with the congregation, and they with me, and making this more the world that God desires, and not the world that we have so far built,” Berkson said. “I’ll be doing some of that more on my own.”