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On June 5 the congregation of Beth Emet the Free Synagogue came together to honor and celebrate Rabbi Peter and Elaine Knobel’s 30 years of guidance, leadership and friendship.
Rabbi Knobel is only the second senior rabbi to lead the 750-family congregation in Beth Emet’s 60-year history. His journey to Beth Emet began when he was a pre-med student at Hamilton College. In an interview with the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, Rabbi Knobel recalled that there was a moment while he was studying for an anatomy exam about how many bones there are in the foot of a frog when he decided he was not going to be a doctor. He said, “I got on a plane to return for winter vacation and was in absolute crisis because I did not know what to do with my life. And then a question appeared, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ The second question was ‘Why were you going to be a doctor?’ and the answer was that I wanted to help people.”
Ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he continued his studies at Yale University, where he earned a doctorate.
Soon after he arrived at Beth Emet, a neo-Nazi group announced its intention to march in front of the synagogue on Yom Kippur. The City of Evanston and the police wanted to prevent the march, but Rabbi Knobel explained that he was committed to free speech and First Amendment values. He told the Police Department, however, that he could not vouch for the behavior of his congregation. The police announced that they would be at a rally at Northwestern and not at the march. The neo-Nazi group was notified, and the march at Beth Emet never materialized.
In addition to spiritual guidance, Rabbi Knobel has also encouraged community service through Beth Emet. Rabbi Knobel said although individual members had participated in soup kitchens at other institutions, he had long been an advocate of establishing one at the synagogue. After completing renovations, Beth Emet opened its own weekly soup kitchen.
Rabbi Knobel’s leadership has extended beyond the local Jewish and Evanston communities. He has participated in an interfaith clergy team and pulpit exchanges with Christian churches nationally and internationally. Rabbi Knobel met with Pope John Paul II and Presidents Bush and Clinton and last year attended President Obama’s Hannukah party at the White House. He also attended the U.S. Islamic World Forum, a gathering of 150 government officials and policy makers in Qatar, where he was the only rabbi among a group of religious leaders.
Rabbi Knobel helped develop a Reform Jewish commitment ceremony for gays and lesbians and supports the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis. He is also an advocate of patrilineal descent, which deviates from the requirement that for children to be considered Jewish, their mother must be Jewish. It would allow them to trace their Jewish roots to either parent.
For 20 years Rabbi Knobel has chaired an editorial committee for the first new prayer book of the Jewish Reform movement in 20 years, the Mishkan T’filah.
In April, Rabbi Knobel and members of his congregation traveled on a mission trip to Cuba, taking humanitarian supplies and medicine to the Jewish community, which has diminished from 15,000-16,000 to approximately 1,500 since the revolution. In 2001, 18 members of Beth Emet traveled to Simferopol, Crimea, in the Ukraine, to present as a gift to its sister congregation its first Torah scroll.
Over the years Peter and Elaine Knobel have led a number of study trips to Jerusalem in an effort to establish a community where Beth Emet congregants could study with local scholars. Mrs. Knobel set up the trips, which Rabbi Knobel said were extremely well-organized.
Rabbi Knobel described his relationship with his wife as a partnership in every sense. She was always extremely supportive, he said, and understood the genuine need for a rabbi to be available and accessible to the congregation; their home was always open to all. Mrs. Knobel offered him great advice, he said, and was his best critic over the years.
Rabbi Knobel said the people of Beth Emet have been a supportive and committed community and have brought him and Elaine great joy.
A booklet written for the June 5 celebration included tributes from elected officials as well as congregants. Mayor Elisabeth B. Tisdahl, on behalf of the entire Evanston community, wrote, “In a diverse community, fiercely proud of our ideas and ideals, you have been a wise and calming voice, helping us to find our better selves and turn words into actions. …”
Congresswoman Jan D. Schakowsky, a Beth Emet member, noted, “… you have been a courageous and progressive leader of our community. … You have not been afraid to take positions that some consider controversial. Under your leadership, our synagogue has developed and implemented compassionate programs. …”
Senator Richard J. Durbin wrote, “… you have distinguished yourself as a steadfast hard-worker committed to the growth of your congregation and have been active in advocating for social action and justice.”
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote, “… yours is a leading voice on behalf of interfaith cooperation and social justice within our Movement, eloquently and emphatically demonstrating that being a social activist is not only just doing good, but acting on the most fundamental teachings of Torah and tradition. …”
And from Phoenix, Ariz., former cantor Erin Frankel wrote, “… Beth Emet would not be what it is without your imprint, cultivated over many years. This congregation is your legacy, and there can be no greater honor.”