Congregation B'nai Amoona and the Jewish and general communities of St. Louis, which Rabbi Bernard Lipnick served for over six decades before he died last week, filled the synagogue's large sanctuary with over 1,500 people last Friday, for a fond ‘Shalom' to their beloved spiritual leader. On the bima of B'nai Amoona for the moving and impressive ceremony were family members, friends and rabbinic and other colleagues, including rabbis who had previously served with Rabbi Lipnick at B'nai Amoona, along with the congregation's current spiritual leader, Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose.
Rabbi Lipnick, Rabbi Emeritus of B'nai Amoona, died of complications from lymphoma on Tuesday, April 20, 2010, at Missouri Baptist Hospital. While on a recent cruise with his wife Harriet, he became ill and contracted pneumonia, and had been in ill health since their return to St. Louis. Rabbi Lipnick was 83 years old and had been a longtime resident of Chesterfield.
Rabbi Lipnick had struggled with a variety of serious health issues for a number of years, often joking, "If a cat has nine lives, then I am on my 14th life." He had always managed to recover and bounce back to full strength, even coming out of retirement to serve again as Senior Rabbi of B'nai Amoona between the tenures of Rabbi Eric Cytryn and Rabbi Rose. He was almost 80 at that time, the age of Moses at the outset of the Exodus.
At the service last Friday, Rabbi Rose called Rabbi Lipnick, "Our Moses, our Prophet, who has been taken from us."
Carole Simon, whose husband, Robert Simon died three years ago, recalled that Lipnick had called her from California to indicate that he would make a special trip back to St. Louis to officiate at Dr. Simon's funeral. "It was amazing to all of us how much strength he showed to officiate not only at the funeral but at the morning and evening minyans in Bob's memory. He was truly remarkable," Carole Simon said.
Just a year ago, Lipnick celebrated a second bar mitzvah at his beloved B'nai Amoona, which was often called, "The House that Bernie Built" because of his instrumental role in leading the effort to build the synagogue on Mason Road to replace the one in University City. Shortly after that ceremony, Lipnick spoke with the students at the Central Agency for Jewish Education's JOLT program, the Jewish Community high school program that meets at B'nai Amoona. He held the seventh, eighth and ninth grade students in rapt attention as he described his first trip to Israel in the early days of the state, when he became an announcer for Kol Yisrael, Israel's radio station, where he perfected his deep and resonant baritone voice, which some admirers called "God-given."
Thomas Felman, who celebrated his own bar mitzvah at B'nai Amoona during that same period, recalled, "I remember Rabbi Lipnick talking about being on the radio in Israel. It was really interesting and I learned a lot from him."
A pioneer of Jewish education
If there was a major goal to which Lipnick devoted his long and nearly legendary career, it was to enhance and improve Jewish education. He started his career at B'nai Amoona in 1951 as Associate Rabbi and Education Director under Rabbi Abraham Halpern. In an interview about a year ago, Rabbi Lipnick recalled, "Rabbi Halpern told me that if I wanted to be truly effective as a Jewish educator, I had to go beyond teaching children, and serve as a Rabbi, or teacher to all ages."
Indeed, Lipnick more than fulfilled that goal. His many educational accomplishments included being a driving force behind the creation, in 1969, of the Central Agency for Jewish Education, serving on all of the planning committees of the Jewish Federation that led to the creation of CAJE and on search committees for its professional directors.
He was an early advocate and tireless champion for the creation of a local "liberal Jewish day school" to serve the non-Orthodox Jewish children of St. Louis, which led ultimately to the creation of the local Solomon Schechter Day School located on the B'nai Amoona campus. His efforts also contributed to the impetus to create the Saul Mirowitz Day School/Reform Jewish Academy, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this week.
He created, nurtured and led an innovative class at B'nai Amoona in which a group of teens made the transition in a one-year period "from an aggregate of individuals to an organic religious community." In the process, which Rabbi Lipnick describes in his book, "An Experiment That Works: In Teenage Religious Education," (Bloch Publishing Co.) the youngsters spent months in Israel, where they became immersed in an understanding of the importance of the Jewish State, and in turn helped young Israeli students learn about the American Jewish community.
Maxine Weil, director of the JOLT program, recalls the influence that Lipnick played in her own interest in Jewish education from an early age. "Rabbi Lipnick really led by example. He could be this giant-sized person on the bima, and yet could talk to people of all ages and backgrounds at their level. I held him in such high esteem that I was shocked when I saw him wearing shorts and a sweatshirt playing ball one Sunday afternoon. He continued to amaze everyone who knew him through his entire career."
A true visionary
Statements from all segments of the Jewish community have been pouring in to the Jewish Light since the news of Rabbi Lipnick's passing. At the funeral service last Friday a special section near the front of the sanctuary was reserved for the rabbis and cantors of the community. Over 45 rabbis and cantors attended, and after the service, along with past presidents of the congregation, escorted the casket from the sanctuary and on to the burial at B'nai Amoona Cemetery.
Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth and Rabbi Jeffrey B. Stiffman, Rabbi Emeritus, recalled the long friendship between Shaare Emeth and B'nai Amoona, which for decades were neighbors in University City. Rabbi Bennett said, "We mourn with the rest of the St. Louis community at the great loss of Rabbi Lipnick. He was a great man, a wonderful and caring rabbi, a powerful visionary and a true mentsch. His presence is missed already. May his memory be a blessing. "
Jewish Federation Executive Vice President Barry Rosenberg said, "Rabbi Lipnick was a giant in our community and nationally and remained actively engaged in Jewish life and leadership right until his death. He will be lovingly remembered and sorely missed."
Jewish Federation President Sanford Neuman remembered Rabbi Lipnick as a legendary figure. "He was a visionary and inspiring religious leader and captivating speaker who played a major role in helping the Jewish community. Our community was fortunate to have had such a dynamic and charismatic rabbi."
Rabbi Lipnick was also remembered for his courageous work on behalf of the civil rights movement, which included marching with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along with his cousin, the late Rabbi Jerome W. Grollman of United Hebrew and William Kahn, former executive vice president of the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Federation. Philip Deitch, a local community activist, recalled that back in 2006, Rabbi Lipnick recieved, along with Sister Antona Ebo of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, the prestigious Heschel-King Award from Jews United for Justice. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of whom Rabbi Lipnick was especially fond, had marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery.
Deitch said that when she heard of the passing of her dear friend and fellow honoree Rabbi Lipnick, Sister Ebo wrote, "The Eternal has united us in sharing in life the loving friendship of our dear Rabbi Bernard Lipnick. Circumstances beyond my control prevent my actual presence with you during these days of grief and loss. Nevertheless, I ask the Eternal and you, Rabbi Lipnick's family and congregants, to know that I am spiritually present ‘sitting shivah' in your circle of remembrance."
A full and remarkable life
Rabbi Bernard Lipnick was born April 29, 1926, in Baltimore, Md., the son of the late Thomas and Augusta "Gussie" Lipnick. He received a bachelor's of arts degree in Semitics from Johns Hopkins University in 1947. He attended Baltimore Hebrew College, where he earned an academic diploma in 1945, and a teacher's diploma in 1944. He attended the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary of America, graduating in 1951 as an ordained rabbi. He received a master's of Hebrew Literature degree from JTS, of which he was a lifetime and passionate supporter. He also earned a Ph.D. degree from Washington University in 1972, and later was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree, along with the Alexander Dushkin Prize from Hebrew University.
Following the passing of Rabbi Abraham Halpern in 1962, Rabbi Lipnick was named Senior Rabbi of B'nai Amoona, serving in that position until his retirement in 1991. At the time, the St. Louis Jewish Light editorialized, "Rabbi Lipnick has been a tower of strength not only to his own beloved synagogue, but to the entire Jewish and general communities of St. Louis."
After his retirement, Rabbi Lipnick and his wife Harriet moved to Idylwild, Calif., where they built a home on a mountain top. He served in 2001 and 2002 at Congregation Beth Shalom in Bermuda Dunes, Calif. The Lipnicks returned to St. Louis in 1993, and Rabbi Lipnick immediately rejoined the clergy team of B'nai Amoona, St. Louis' largest local Conservative synagogue.
Rabbi Lipnick was preceded in death by his brother, Rabbi Jerome "Jerry" Lipnick, a highly admired rabbi and scholar, and by his son, Daniel Lipnick.
In addition to his wife of 36 years, Harriet (nee Pogrelis), Lipnick is survived by a sister Len (the late Stan) Saulson, two sons, Dr. Jesse (Corrine) Lipnick, of Gainsville, Fla., and David (Becca) Lipnick of Farmington, N.M. He is also survived by his stepchildren, Jayme (Mark) Schwartz, of Arlington, Va., Mark (Nancy) Sophir, of St. Louis, and Tammy (Alan) Parry, of Poway, Calif. He also had nine grandchildren, who called him "Saba."
Among the speakers at the nearly three-hour long funeral service were Rabbi Irwin Kula, who served as Associate Rabbi at B'nai Amoona from 1982-1987, and Rabbi Jack Riemer, who had served with Rabbi Lipnick at B'nai Amoona as scholar-in-residence.
Rabbi Kula, who like Rabbi Lipnick is widely admired for his charisma and powerful speaking ability, moved those in attendance with his description of the final days of Rabbi Lipnick's life at Missouri Baptist Hospital. Both Rabbi Kula and Rabbi Lipnick's stepson Mark took note of the fact that Rabbi Lipnick's last word was ‘great,' when Harriet told him that she was going to take him home so that he could be in familiar surroundings.
That word summarizes much about the remarkable spiritual and temporal leader who was lost last week. He was truly a great rabbi, a great teacher, mentor, friend, husband, father and grandfather. The gathering of all of the community's rabbis - Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Traditional and Jewish Renewal - along with cantors and past presidents of B'nai Amoona who gathered around his casket to lovingly escort his remains to the cemetery, were expressing the collective grief and admiration of a grateful community.
The Lipnick family would appreciate donations in his memory to the Bernard Lipnick Foundation for the Conservative Movement at Congregation B'nai Amoona, 324 South Mason Road, St. Louis, Mo., 63141.