Rabbi Howard Mandell is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Andover. He has been the congregation’s spiritual leader for nine years. Rabbi Mandell grew up in Providence and became a civil rights lawyer and was the first attorney hired at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. After a long career as a lawyer, he decided to become a rabbi. Rabbi Mandell lives in Andover, and has two sons: Josh is married to Mary Virginia, and lives in Birmingham with their three children; his son, Charlie, lives in Denver with his wife, Dr. Marissa Robinson.
You grew up in Providence. Can you tell us a little about your family background and your childhood influences?
My childhood was spent living primarily on the east side of Providence, in the midst of a large and diverse Jewish community. There were, for example, two large and vibrant synagogues, each within walking distance, one Reform and one Conservative, both of which my family attended.
To be candid, I was not particularly enamored with religion as a young person. For example, what I enjoyed most about my Jewish education as a child were the rides that my grandfather would give me to and from Hebrew School, each week, during which times he would regale me with stories about his youth in Riga, Latvia – his father put him on a ship, alone, at the age of 16, to the United States, because he did not want him killed or injured, as his older brothers had been, by the Czar’s troops.
My parents were the greatest influence in my life as a young person. They taught my siblings and I the importance of family and of education, of demonstrating compassion to all of God’s children, and of service to the Jewish and greater communities. The greatest external influences on my life were the then nascent civil rights, feminist, etc., social justice movements.
You went to Georgetown Law School. Why did you want to become an attorney?
Upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, I wanted to attend Yale’s graduate school in English and creative writing, but to honor my dad, who believed strongly in obtaining a professional education, I agreed to apply to law school, hoping that I would not get into the schools to which I applied. I am, therefore, likely the only student every having been accepted to Georgetown Law School, who was disappointed, when he received his acceptance letter.
I remember well telling my dad, after my first semester of law school, that my first semester classes had not inspired me in the least, that I would give it one more semester out of respect for him, but that I would likely be living in New Haven come the fall. As the Yiddish saying teaches, however, “Humans plan and God laughs.” I took a class the second semester in constitutional and civil rights law from a professor who had litigated a number of civil rights cases in the South. He said that he had had another student, who also had talked of leaving after his first semester, and suggested that I talk with him, which I did.
The lawyer, who not surprisingly was also Jewish, had changed his mind about leaving law school after taking the same constitutional law class, and as a young lawyer litigated and won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the anti-miscegenation statutes [criminalizing interracial marriage] in every Southern state. I knew right then that I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, and I worked for this lawyer for my last two years of law school.
You clerked for Frank Johnson, a federal judge in Alabama who is honored for his landmark desegregation rulings, and then became the first attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. What attracted you to work on civil rights cases?
There are likely many factors that inspired me to become a civil rights lawyer but three stand out for me. The first was my parents’ having taught my siblings and me to honor and respect the dignity of all human beings. The second was my having grown up as a young person witnessing, on a daily basis, the evils of racism, sexism, etc. At the same time, I was inspired by the loving-kindness and courage of people like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Judge Frank Johnson, for whom I had the privilege of clerking upon graduating from law school. As a result of his having decided cases like the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March and the Rosa Parks’ bus cases, Judge Johnson’s mother’s house was bombed by the KKK, and his immediate family had to be guarded 24/7 by the U.S. Marshals Service.
It was not until I was completing my application to rabbinical school, however, some several decades after I had started my own civil rights law firm in Montgomery, that I came to appreciate a third and perhaps even more important factor. While I had always been proud of the fact that so many Jews were involved in the civil rights movement as lawyers, as volunteers like Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, as clergy, etc., I had never before taken the time to think about why this was the case. It was while I was crafting my essay for rabbinical school that I came to appreciate that what all of these people had in common were their Jewish values, such as loving thy neighbor, caring for the stranger, and respecting the rights and needs of all those less fortunate.
You eventually established a private law firm, took a sabbatical and then decided to become a rabbi. What made you want to become a rabbi, and can you explain your journey toward the rabbinate?
People often ask me why I made the decision to leave a profession from which I derived great joy and meaning to move to Manhattan to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary and pursue a career as a rabbi. Rather than making carefully thought out decisions, I have always tended to make decisions based on intuition and what feels right, even if I cannot objectively explain at the time the basis for my decision. While I would never recommend this approach to decision-making to anyone else, it seems to have generally worked for me in my life.
After taking a sabbatical from my law practice to visit Israel and the Middle East, I returned to Montgomery, at the request of the city’s new mayor, to serve as the city attorney and his chief of staff. One day, I got a phone call from one of the rabbis in town telling me that the rabbi, who had married his wife and him, was in town and asking me, if I would I introduce him to the people at the Southern Poverty Law Center and to the mayor and to give him a general tour of Montgomery. What he did not tell me was that the rabbi, who officiated at his wedding, also happened to be the Dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school, Rabbi Bill Lebeau. It was Rabbi Lebeau, a rabbi and a human being, for whom to this day I have the utmost respect, who planted the seed about rabbinical school.
It was not until after I had been a congregational rabbi for several years that I came to really understand, why I had made the decision to become a rabbi. The answer came to me after a long conversation that I had with another friend and mentor, Rabbi Ed Feld. What I came to appreciate, based on our conversation, is that, at some unconscious level, I recognized that while I had done good work as a civil rights lawyer, if I ever hoped to become the unique human being that God created me to be, it would be as a rabbi, not as a lawyer.
America is quite divided now. You’ve been part of the legal system and also a rabbi. Any thoughts on how to bring the country together?
My answer to the complex and difficult question you pose of “How do we bring people together in our country” is a simple but profound one at the same time. We need, individually and as a nation, to focus on the best of the values offered by the Jewish tradition, by all of the great faith traditions, values such as loving-kindness, humility, gratitude, forgiveness, and community.
Are there similarities between professions – being a lawyer and a rabbi?
Yes, there are definitely similarities between being a congregational rabbi and a civil rights lawyer. They are both grounded on service to others. I would say the same about my teaching social justice at a small Catholic college. A major difference between my having been a civil rights lawyer and my rabbinate is that, as a civil rights lawyer, what I did I did primarily for myself, that is, to fulfill my own set of values. As a rabbi, however, I see myself serving b’malchut Shaddai, as God’s junior partner in bringing peace and justice to the world.
You went to the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school as a middle-aged student. How was that experience?
I was in my 50s when I matriculated to JTS. Most of my classmates were, at the time, not much older than my two sons. The best word to describe my rabbinical school experience was “humbling” in a good way. I went from a profession in which I was relatively proficient to one that required me to learn how to walk – no crawl is a more accurate term, all over again.
My classmates were exceedingly bright and, while much younger than me, were far more accomplished than I was Hebraically and Judaically. I was constantly going to them to translate a verse from the Talmud or some other Jewish sacred text. I cannot say enough good things about my classmates; they were always accommodating, warm, and helpful.
You’re the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Andover. Every synagogue has a unique congregation. What do you love most about yours?
I will soon be starting my 10th year at Congregation Beth Israel. What I love most about CBI is the warmth, kindness, and inclusiveness demonstrated by its members, as they live out the same Jewish values that make Judaism so meaningful to and rewarding for me.
What’s the most rewarding part of being a rabbi?
What I find most rewarding about being a congregational rabbi is twofold in nature: First, I am given the opportunity to serve God, the Jewish community, and the greater community in a variety of different ways. For example, I now serve on the board of a wonderful Catholic food pantry/homeless shelter because I am a rabbi; and second, my rabbinate allows me to continue growing, learning, and hopefully becoming a better human being on almost a daily basis.