Speaking from the pulpit of Newton’s Temple Emanuel, Rabbi Samuel Chiel used everyday stories to teach eternal truths in sermons his congregations considered masterpieces of morality.
“In his sermons, in all his encounters with others, in his books, my father asked himself and each of us the same questions: How can we be better people? How can we improve our society and our world? These questions were his passions,” his son Hillel said in a eulogy last week.
An opponent of the Vietnam War and an advocate for civil rights, Rabbi Chiel was serving a congregation in Malverne, N.Y., in 1963, after a stint at Quincy’s Temple Beth El. Malverne officials would not integrate elementary school classrooms, pending a court ruling on a desgregation plan. As tensions ran high, Rabbi Chiel encouraged his synagogue to let African-American parents use the building for a “freedom school” while they boycotted the public system.
“I have come to believe that a congregation is meaningfully educated only when its members are actually confronted with a crisis and … take specific action in response to it,” he wrote in “Malverne: A Case History,” an essay published in the summer 1965 issue of the journal Conservative Judaism. The experience, he added, convinced him “that real learning happens only through involvement in the process of making a moral decision and carrying it out.”
Rabbi Chiel, who served as rabbi of Temple Emanuel for 27 years and was instrumental in forging a closer relationship between Jews and Catholics in Greater Boston, died of heart failure Oct. 10 in Newbridge on the Charles senior community in Dedham. He was 86 and had lived for many years in Newton, where he became rabbi at Temple Emanuel in 1968.
“The most important sermon any rabbi ever gives is their own life, not what they say, and how they say it, but what they do, and how they do it. He embodied his words,” Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel, wrote for a sermon he delivered after Rabbi Chiel died.
“He did not only give great sermons,” Gardenswartz added. “He was a great sermon.”
Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, wrote in a eulogy that “for decades, Rabbi Chiel touched minds and hearts and souls at Temple Emanuel, but his impact extended far beyond this synagogue. The beauty and power of his teaching were central to making Boston a community where the best kind of Jewish learning is valued and loved and appreciated.”
Along with serving as rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanuel and scholar in residence at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Rabbi Chiel had been a special adviser to the president at Hebrew College in Newton and was the Jewish scholar for new directions in Catholic-
Jewish dialogue, an interfaith program sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and the Boston Archdiocese. To this expansive spiritual reach he brought a personal touch to every encounter.
“He would always start his sermons with the three words ‘my dear friends,’ ” said Rabbi Chiel’s son Jonathan of Newton, “and he meant it.”
The youngest of three children, Rabbi Chiel grew up in Pennsylvania, where by 9 he was helping his father, a cantor, teach in the Hebrew school of the synagogue in Farrell, Pa., on the Ohio border. “I liked being my father’s son,” Rabbi Chiel told the Globe in 1995, when he retired from Temple Emanuel. “I liked prayer, and I liked studying.”
Aspiring to be a Torah scholar, Rabbi Chiel went to live with an aunt and uncle in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was 11 to study at Yeshiva Torah v’Daas. He later graduated from City College of New York and from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained in 1952.
At a Zionist camp in Tannersville, Pa., he met Janet Eisenberg, whom he married in 1949.
“My mother, who loved him with a fierce and uncompromising love, provided him with constant support throughout his life,” their son Hillel, a neurobiology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said in his eulogy.
“It was a wonderful marriage; they really were soul mates,” said Jonathan, who is general counsel at Fidelity Investments. “She was the person to whom he confided when he had the whole world confiding in him.”
As for Rabbi Chiel’s eight grandchildren, no matter where they went, the moment they mentioned their last name “people’s faces would light up,” his granddaughter Rachel Katz, an English teacher at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, said in a eulogy. “ ‘Are you related to the rabbi?’ they would ask. When we answered yes, we were always told, ‘Your grandfather is a very special person.’ ”
After ordination, Rabbi Chiel was an Army chaplain, and a lieutenant, for two years, serving at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. He followed that with two years at Quincy’s Temple Beth El and a dozen years at Malverne Jewish center before taking the post at Temple Emanuel, which has named the sanctuary in his honor.
Along with his civil rights work in Malverne, Rabbi Chiel “was ahead of his time on reconciliation between the Jewish and Catholic communities. He was ahead of his time on freeing Soviet Jewry. He was ahead of his time on the women’s issue,” Gardenswartz said, adding “we now just assume that all our members are empowered, men and women, but before Rabbi Chiel, 50 percent of us were empowered. Rabbi Chiel empowered all of us.”
A service has been held for Rabbi Chiel, who in addition to his wife, two sons, and grandchildren leaves another son, David of Sydney, Australia, and a great-grandchild.
Rabbi Chiel, who also published several books and appeared on Boston Catholic TV, would speak from Temple Emanuel’s pulpit “with that gorgeous voice of his, mellifluous, honeyed, strong, reassuring, hopeful,” Gardenswartz said. “There were hundreds of people in the pews, and every person would say: ‘He was talking to me. Rabbi Chiel was having a cup of coffee and bagel with me.’ ”
In his eulogy Hillel said his father used his “wonderful sense of humor” to help people “rethink what they were doing, what they believed, and to hear his powerful . . . messages.”
Rabbi Chiel, Hillel added, “could reach people because he focused on what united us, not on what divided us. He knew, whatever our religion, our nationality, or our politics, that all of us wanted to be better human beings, and wanted our society and world to be better.”