From the Post-Gazette…
When Rabbi James Gibson arrived at Temple Sinai in 1988 at age 34, the Squirrel Hill congregation had seen a succession of rabbis come and go in short order.
“The betting money was not on me,” Rabbi Gibson recalled. But he soon made clear he was committed to staying and fulfilling basic commitments to teaching, pastoral work and community service.
After 32 years as not only Temple Sinai’s rabbi but also as one of the most prominent participants in building interfaith and inter-racial ties in Pittsburgh’s religious communities, Rabbi Gibson will bring that tenure to a close when he retires following this weekend’s Shabbat services. The congregation had planned big celebrations, including a dinner and concerts, but the pandemic changed all that.
Instead, he’ll be leading the final Friday night service via livestream from Temple Sinai and other activities via Zoom on Saturday. “I cannot imagine ending my career and not being in sacred space,” he said. On Sunday, members will hold an outdoor “drive-bye” farewell, he said.
“It has been a 32-year love affair,” he added. “There have certainly been challenges, but … every time we confronted something difficult and acted on our best values, we have ended up where we were supposed to be.”
Rabbi Gibson, known to friends as Jamie, grew up mostly in northern New Jersey and Minnesota.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, “I spent three years doing every job under the sun,” he recalled.
At 24, he entered Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion — the rabbinical school for the liberal Reform Jewish movement. He studied at its programs in Cincinnati and Jerusalem and earned a master’s degree.
He then served a congregation in Wausau, Wis., for five years. “I was the only rabbi in around 100 miles in every direction,” he recalled, even traveling as far as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to conduct funerals.
A denominational official who had grown up at Temple Sinai put him in contact with current leaders. Knowing it had gone through an unhappy succession of short-term rabbis, he told Rabbi Gibson: “Why don’t you go and make peace in Pittsburgh and be my mother’s rabbi?”
When he first met temple leaders at a conference, “he looked really, really young” but proved to be “mature beyond his years,” recalled Rhoda Dorfzaun, who was president of Temple Sinai at the time.
“He seemed to have the same philosophy that our temple had,” she added, which has included being welcoming to interfaith couples and LGBT people.