Detour En Route To An M.d. A Broomall Rabbi Is Retiring From A Career That Came To Him.

Posted: March 21, 1999

His parents knew exactly what he should do with his life: Be a doctor.

So, he enrolled in premed classes at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., to please them.

It worked out, sort of. Today, you can call him doctor, which would please his mother enormously. But you shouldn't call him if you get the flu.

Rabbi Mayer W. Selekman has a doctorate in divinity, not in medicine. As a healer, he helps not the body but the soul.

On June 30, the rabbi, 61, will retire after 29 years as head of Temple Sholom in Broomall.

The career path worked out just fine, yet he takes no credit for the right choice.

``Most of the important decisions in my life were not made by me,'' he said, sitting in his cozy office at the synagogue. ``They just came to me.''

One night in the school library, while he was studying for an organic chemistry exam, the word ``rabbi'' simply erupted within him, he said. ``I had this incredible sense of well-being and direction.''

He went back to the fraternity house and called his parents.

``My mother, who is not known for silence, was speechless for 15 minutes, and my father's initial response was significantly negative,'' he said.

He enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, a Conservative rabbinical school. After earning a master's degree in Hebrew letters there, he went on to the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and received a master of arts and Hebrew letters.

Rabbi Selekman completed his doctoral course work at Hebrew Union in 1969. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union in 1992. He was ordained a rabbi in the Reform movement in 1967.

Why he switched from Conservative to Reform says a lot about the kind of rabbi he is today, one who displays a sign on a shelf near his desk: ``When God Created Man She Was Only Kidding.''

``I grew up in a warm Jewish home,'' Rabbi Selekman said. ``I had expected to find affirmation and reinforcement of that when I went to the Conservative seminary, but it didn't happen.

``The seminary felt I was not turning out the way they wanted their rabbis to turn out. I decided to leave, and they were not unhappy that I did.

``It's important to me that people live their Jewishness on their own terms.''

He backs up those beliefs by performing interfaith marriages and same-sex commitment ceremonies at the synagogue.

``Sometimes my colleagues get annoyed at me, but we are an open and accepting synagogue,'' Rabbi Selekman said.

During his tenure at Temple Sholom, the congregation has grown from 135 families to 600, and renovations and additions have been made to the property.

``This is a wonderful congregation,'' he said.

``I don't refer to myself as rabbi. I had a vision as to what a congregation should be. I thought a synagogue should be an extended family where the rabbi is the facilitator'' for the lay leadership.

``That's what I have here,'' he said.

The rabbi and his wife, Ann, who live in Bala Cynwyd and have been married for 37 years, have four grown children and three grandchildren.

Through the years they have had an assortment of pets, cats named Funny and Nosh and a beagle named Shabbos.

``I named him that so I could say, `Good Shabbos, good Shabbos,' even when it wasn't the Sabbath,'' Rabbi Selekman said.

He has taught at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Gratz College, and for the last couple of years he has taught a course on the heritage of Judaism at Villanova University.

The Rev. Kenneth Haubert of Grace Lutheran Church in Broomall said Rabbi Selekman is respected among the other clergy in the area and is a past president of the Marple-Newtown Clergy Association.

Members of the association were guests at the big party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the rabbi's ordination.

He thanked God, his family and the Christian community for their support, Mr. Haubert said. ``And then he said: `I thank my congregation, too. Well, most of you, anyhow.' It was refreshing. He's an honest guy. I love him dearly, and I'm missing him already.''

The rabbi has no definite retirement plans except to spend all his time with his family.

``When you're married to your shul and you love it, and you're married to your wife and you love her, it's a sacred menage a trois.

``Now it's time for Ann and me to be a menage a deux.''

Oh, and one more thing. He's going to take a course in ``home repair for klutzes'' at Home Depot.

``To give you an idea of my handiness, we had carpets put down in the bedroom and needed to cut off a piece at the bottom of the door. I used a chain saw and held the door between my legs.

``I've never fixed that lightning-bolt jagged edge on the door,'' he said. ``It's a constant reminder that I have work to do.

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