A Teacher Of Torah
ROBERT A. SKLAR
here he was, so unexpected-
ly, that fall afternoon in
1966 — settling into our
cabin at Camp Tamarack in
''Ortonville. I couldn't believe Rabbi
'M. Robert Syme, so important and
busy, took the time to bunk next to
me, a teenager who liked the shad-
ows more than the limelight. I was
eager for the Temple Israel youth
group's Shabbat retreat to begin.
But I wanted to take part quietly —
getting in touch with who I was as a
Jew and mingling with friends.
I didn't want to have to prove
how much I knew or didn't know
about being Jewish — especially to
But in the chill of that crisp
Friday afternoon, as I anticipated
Shabbat, I discovered Rabbi Syme
was more than just the leader of the
congregation my parents helped
nourish during the 1940s and
I discovered he was someone I
could relate to -- and not feel
intimidated by or that I would be
made to feel less of a person.
He talked to me as a friend,
despite the gap in our ages.
He made me feel I was as good a Jew
as he was; I just needed to feel more
comfortable expressing who I was.
"Be all that you can be as a Jew,"
he said. "Know who you are and
why you must work at knowing and
nurturing that. The learning never
Rabbi Syme shaped a Jewish way
of life for many Jews deprived of the
joy of a Jewish upbringing. The
people he touched as a spiritual
leader at Temple Israel and as a dean
of the Detroit rabbinate tell an
inspired, inspiring story of a sweet,
engaging man who became the
Jewish conscience for two genera-
tions. Longevity helped him become
a defender of Zionism for one gen-
eration and a teacher of Judaism for
their children — my generation.
He was a messenger of God who
helped bridge the streams of our
faith. He grew up Orthodox and
never forgot his roots; as a Reform
rabbi, he brought congregants closer
Monte Syme arrived at Temple
Israel in 1953 as assistant rabbi to
Rabbi Leon Fram, a giant of Detroit
Jewry. Still, he grew in stature, partly
because of Temple Israel's emerging
role in the larger Jewish community
and deeper local interest in Zionist,
interfaith and communal causes.
It also was because of the charm
and sweep of Rabbi Syme's person-
ality. Congregants warmed as much
to his wit, hugs, storytelling and
approachability as his sermons,
which he always began by saying,
"Friends." His conversational deliv-
ery style made you feel he was talk-
ing directly to you.
He was as comfortable speaking
up about relations 13,tween Jewish
merchants and their black 'clientele
in inner-city Detroit in the 1960s as
he was urging young families 30
years later to observe Shabbat and
Jewish holidays at home and not
just send their children to Hebrew
Often. emotional, Rabbi Syme
didn't shy away from criticizing a
1990s Detroit Jewish history photo
exhibit that included the Purple
Gang or from welling up with tears
on the bimah whenever recalling the
mitzvot he learned as a child in a
devoutly observant home.
The Winnipeg native wore his
Judaism on his sleeve, and he wore
After learning Rabbi Syme had
died Tuesday at age 82 following
home hospice care, I smiled in awe
when Rabbi Paul Yedwab recounted
how his older colleague had the rare
ability to help people become more
confident in their decision-making.
"He would help you focus on your
problems in a way that you never
forgot," Rabbi Yedwab said. "His
gentle suggestions for the moment
became the wisdom of the ages."
For all his greatness and acclaim,
I'll most remember Rabbi Syme as a
teacher of Torah. He breathed vitali-
ty and meaning into this holiest of
sacred texts. He made its glorious
rhythms dance in your soul and res-
onate in your heart, Whatever your
level of observance.
May the lamp of learning he lit
continue to shine for all who
embrace its glow.
And may this be God's will. ❑
Rabbi Syme in July 1974.
S'YME from page 123
David, a concert pianist. "He was such
an inspiration to me and the greatest
friend I ever had. I learned from him
to be an ethical person and treat peo-
ple in a humane way."
David invited his father to join him
in recording a CD of Jewish music
several years ago, creating "Jewish
Music: Then and Now," with the
rabbi's singing accompanied by David
on the piano.
"My father lived through my being a
piano player and my brother being a
rabbi," David Syme said.
Rabbi Daniel Syme's memories of
his father include family life with his
father, a master story teller, known for
his dry wit. "No matter how busy he
was, Dad 'was always home for dinner
at 5:30," he said.
Rabbi M. Robert Syme was married
for 59 years to Sonia Syme, who died
in 2001. A longtime adult and youth
educator and lecturer, Sonia Syme cre-
ated the Institute of Judaism, a yearly,
daylong symposium established to
introduce Judaism to secular teachers
to help them understand the needs of
their Jewish students. She also taught
inter-religious and Jewish law classes
and was Temple Israel Sisterhood's
director of religion and education for
more than 25 years.
A singer, Clubbed "the boy chazzan
(cantor) of Winnipeg" in his home-
town at age 14, Rabbi Syme entered
rabbinical school after hearing
American Zionist leader Rabbi
Stephen S. Wise speak about the
killing of rabbis in the Holocaust and
the crisis that would ensue if there
were no rabbis.
He was ordained from Rabbi Wise's
Jewish Institute of Religion, the New
York City school that later became
Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion, the Reform
movement's main teaching school. He
later earned a master's degree in educa-
tion from the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1953, after holding several small
pulpits in New Jersey and
Pennsylvania, Rabbi Syme accepted
the position of assistant rabbi under
Rabbi Leon Fram at Temple Israel.
Bringing with him his Orthodox
upbringing, he began to institute more
traditional, religious practices to the
"We view ourselves as a traditional
Reform congregation, rather than clas-
sical Reform, and that in no small part
is his doing," said Rabbi Harold Loss,
a Temple Israel colleague.
It was at his urging that the Temple
Israel board of directors gave congre-
gants the option of wearing a tallit at
services. This offer was later extended
to kippot. But he continued to wear a
kippah and to keep a kosher home "so
everyone would be comfortable with