Rabbi Mordecai Miller
“I don’t know if I’ll make it to Heaven, but it sure is nice living next door,” Rabbi Miller is fond of saying. We can tell he loves living in Santa Rosa and serving as Rabbi of Congregation Beth Ami. In fact, when asked what advice he would give a new young rabbi, Rabbi Miller says, “You’ve got to be in love with your congregation.” And he is. And the feeling is mutual.
Growing up as an “RK” (rabbi’s kid) in Durban, South Africa, wasn’t that easy, but after earning his BA in philosophy and Hebrew at the University of Natal, Mordecai Miller returned to the US and, with the encouragement of his father, enrolled in Hebrew Union College. Since his father, Rabbi Meyer Miller, was a Reform Rabbi, Mordecai gravitated toward that branch of Judaism. He wasn’t entirely certain of his path, since his other great loves were mathematics and music. A leave of absence convinced him that he had left his true calling behind, and luckily the seminary took him back. This was fortuitous personally as well as career-wise because his future wife, Susan, was working at the school. They were introduced by mutual friends and have been together ever since.
A seminary professor required that the students become familiar with traditional liturgy as well as Reform, to understand the range of Jewish custom. Following his professor’s edict to daven the traditional prayers daily for a month, Mordecai fell in love with traditional liturgy. By the time he graduated with a BHL and MAHL and was ordained, he realized that his spiritual home was in Conservative Judaism. He was thrilled to secure a position as assistant Rabbi at a Conservative congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he served happily for seven years. There followed ten years in Canton, Ohio, and twenty-one years in St. Louis, Missouri.
His excellent Hebrew came from an early childhood visit to his mother’s family in Israel. That foundation was cemented by the fact that his parents spoke to each other in Hebrew when they didn’t want him to understand. When they realized he understood every word, they switched to Yiddish, and now he knows Yiddish very well, too.
As a teen, he’d read the Bible on the long bus rides to school. Later, at HUC, he learned Talmud and Midrash, studies which he enjoys to this day.
While the duties of a rabbi are many and varied, Rabbi Miller feels his chief task is to bring comfort into people’s lives. Another very important aspect of the job is connecting people to the deeper meaning of life and to our divine Creator, and making tradition alive and relevant for people.
What was the first thing he loved about Beth Ami? The MiSheberach envelopes. It’s a custom here to place envelopes in back of the sanctuary, addressed to those who are ill in the congregation. Congregants pick up these envelopes after services, add a personal note, and mail them. This custom “made Beth Ami seem like such a caring congregation. And I haven’t been disappointed.”
Rabbi Miller finds something spiritual about the area, with its hills, ocean, and magnificent views. “It has a wildness to it.” He frequently finds himself saying the verse, “mah gadlu ma’asecha Adonai, koolam b’chochmah aseeta. How manifold are Your works, oh Adonai, with wisdom You created them all.”
Among the things Rabbi Miller enjoys at Beth Ami are the spirited, participatory davening, the wonderful Shabbat potlucks and dinners—“they hold the community together”—and the many different types of people all working together.
Rabbi Miller and his wife, Susan Miller, shep nachas from the fact that both their children are involved in Jewish life. Their daughter Sarah, living here in Santa Rosa with her son, Miles, is USY regional director. Their son, Micah, living in LA with his wife, April (Aviva), studies at the Ziegler Rabbinical School. Micah hopes to become the third-generation Rabbi Miller.
In his free time, Rabbi Miller enjoys studying Jewish texts, reading, singing, playing the clarinet, cooking, and baking. Visitors and members passing by his open office door love hearing him practicing clarinet in anticipation of jammin’ with the band at Friday night dinners.
Beth Ami appreciates Rabbi Miller’s warm, welcoming, and inclusive manner; his appreciation of the people around him; and his emphasis on respectful communication. Oh, and his jokes.
A guy goes into a restaurant and says to the waiter, “I’d like a chicken sandwich.” The waiter replies, “Sir, I’m afraid we’re out of chicken.” The guy says, “Well, in that case, I’d like a turkey sandwich.” The waiter responds, “Sir, if we had any turkey, you would have had a chicken sandwich.”
–by Esther Baruch