Most members of Temple Sinai of Glendale remember the late Rabbi Carole Meyers for her historic presence in their lives — serving from 1986 to 2001, she was the first female rabbi to lead a congregation throughout Greater Los Angeles.
Beyond that distinction, those who knew the La Cañada Flintridge wife and mother of two recall her warmth and authenticity as a spiritual counselor as well as her constant search for the presence of God in everything around her.
Meyers’ sermons — faithfully inscribed each week on yellow legal pads and kept to a strictly enforced eight-page limit — dealt honestly with matters of life and death, of living with and through loss and making sense of the human experience. It was an approach that won hearts and helped the Reform temple grow its membership by half during her tenure.
Ralph Zarefsky, who came to the Glendale synagogue one month after Meyers’ arrival, partly out of curiosity to see a female rabbi, recalled the captivating power of her sermons.
“She was a very compelling speaker,” he recalled. “She had a very lyrical voice, a very smooth speaking style and an encompassing demeanor. She just made you want to be engaged.”
Zarefsky and Meyers were mutually attracted. The couple were wed in late December 1990.
Although she left Temple Sinai in 2001 to devote more time to her two young sons, regroup and seek out a new direction, Meyers’ personal and spiritual ties to the congregation remained strong all the way up to her swift death from cancer in 2007 at age 50.
The community was shocked by her passing, unable to understand how someone so vivid and alive could suddenly be gone. For a time it seemed the wealth of sermons she’d delivered since her ordination in 1983, after graduating from Hebrew Union College in New York, would disappear with her.
Zarefsky, today a retired federal magistrate judge, could not let that happen. A year after his wife’s death he began sifting through her legal pads, stored in four bankers’ boxes, with the thought of compiling them in a book.
“It was quite a process,” he recalled of the side project. “I read them all and just picked out the ones that seemed the best.”
After years of reading and sorting, and with the help of others willing to transcribe the handwritten sermons into a digital format, Zarefsky had completed his labor of love.
The result, “Leaning on God: The Sermons of Rabbi Carole L. Meyers,” was published by Steel Cut Press in June. The 278-page book comprises 40 sermons categorized into sections: Loss, Evil and Faith; the World Around Us; Our Emotional Lives; Change and Ritual; and God.
“I wanted to leave a memorial for our sons,” Zarefsky, since remarried, said of 25-year-old Joe and Gus, 21. “[But] I also felt she had something to say to the larger community. For people who’ve never heard her speak, I think it will open something up.”
For those who knew and loved “Rabbi Carole,” the new book offers a cherished window of remembrance.
La Crescenta resident Pilar Apodaca Oppenheimer began attending Temple Sinai, where her husband’s family worshiped, in 1988 and converted to Judaism about a decade later. She said Meyers’ influence and teachings played a large role in her decision.
“She definitely, in her sermons, moved me and many others to a place of feeling connected to the bigger whole of humanity, and to live in a manner that respected that connection,” Oppenheimer said. “When she spoke you felt elevated to a different realm.”
Oppenheimer looks forward to revisiting the sermons from “Leaning on God” with her two sons and their having the opportunity to do the same with their children.
Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard Temple credits Meyers for her own decision to enter rabbinical school at a pivotal time in her life.
“Meeting her kind of brought it all together in a way I hadn’t expected,” she recalled. “It was really meaningful to learn with her and from her because she lived the teachings.”
Goldberg said she is grateful to now have a collection of her mentor’s words.
“There’s a special poignancy for those of us who knew her but also for people who didn’t know her to receive the teachings,” she said of Zarefsky’s book. “It’s great what he’s done.”