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Emanuel Congregation Continues To Build Community After 140 Years, Meet Its Senoir Rabbi Michael Zedek

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Photo: Emanuel Congregation Facebook

Since July 2004, Rabbi Michael R. Zedek has been Senior Rabbi of Emanuel Congregation of Chicago at 5959 N. Sheridan Road.  The congregation has served Chicago for more than 140 years and is known for its values on building community and inclusive views. Before accepting his current position, Rabbi Zedek was Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati for four years and the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City for 26 years.

Ordained in June 1974, Zedek was chosen to be alumnus-in-residence at the Cincinnati and Los Angeles campuses of Hebrew Union College (HUC-JIR). Rabbi Zedek is the youngest man to receive this honor. He was also the recipient of the Danforth Graduate Fellowship for outstanding teaching, a Fulbright-Hays Grant for advanced study in the United Kingdom and is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.

In addition to his professional activities, Rabbi Zedek is deeply involved in civic affairs having served on a number of national and international boards. He has also had numerous teaching and speaking appointments around the world on a wide range of topics, especially focusing on spirituality and folklore. He has taught and lectured in South Africa, Russia, China, the former Yugoslavia, Israel and in many other venues. Rabbi Zedek is a regular presenter at Rancho La Puerta, a spirituality and retreat center, in Tecate, Mexico. He also serves as the host of a radio show, Religion on the Line, which has been on the air for more than 20 years.

We asked Rabbi Zedek the following five questions:

1. Emanuel Congregation has a truly diverse population. How has diversity shaped your community?

RZ: Emanuel Congregation looks much like the city we serve. The membership is diverse in every imaginable way. That includes economically, socially, racially, as well as with regard to sexual orientation and diversity in age (from infant to 111!) More immediately, we embrace and celebrate difference, rather than view such as something to be suspicious of or worse.

2. Are there any unique programs or values your congregation has that sets you apart from others?

RZ: Often, perhaps too often, communities of faith are experienced by newcomers as “closed shops.” That is in stark contrast to the “DNA” of Emanuel. All are welcome, and all are valued, not only for the ways in which they may contribute time, talent, and treasure to communal endeavors but also simply because they may wish to be part of our family of families.

3. You have done much work with the Center for Practical Bioethics. What ethics issues through the Center have affected you the most and why?

RZ: The Center for Practical Bioethics — a Kansas City-based institution — came into being right at the time medical advances were pushing boundaries, including long-accepted notions about the definition of death. The Center’s efforts grew out of that imperative, one that has impacted my approach to and love for the precious and fragile gift of life.

4. Are there any big plans in 2016 for the Congregation?

RZ: Big Plans: I should say so, as Emanuel will have a new rabbi beginning in the summer of 2016. At that time, as I approach my 70th birthday, I shall join Rabbi Herman Schaalman (our nearly 100-year-old treasure) as a rabbi emeritus of the Congregation.

5. In a world that sometimes seems so chaotic, how do you find inner peace?

RZ: This is a fascinating query, and while I do practice meditation and have (I hope) a serious prayer life, which help to keep a sense of balance or, a buzzword for our time, mindfulness, it is, at least from a Jewish perspective, either the wrong question or an inadequate one. Judaism doesn’t “sell” peace of mind. Rather, the imperative at the heart of Jewish life is the conviction that we are here, for whatever time, to make a difference, to bridge some of the distance between the world as it is and as it should be. For as long as we are custodians of the breath of life, that is our true calling, one both more essential than inner peace and one that provides a sense of obligation, mission, and privilege for all our time and for all time.


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