In 1982, Los Angeles native Robert Orkand had never been to Connecticut.
Next month, he leaves Westport for Massachusetts. After 31 years, he’s retiring as Temple Israel’s senior rabbi.
Orkand’s road here wound through Miami, then Illinois. A placement organization told him about an opening in Connecticut. Knowing nothing about the state, he interviewed by phone.
Both sides liked what they heard. Orkand was chosen to be Temple Israel’s 2nd full-time rabbi, succeeding Byron T. Rubenstein after 24 years. His successor will be #3, after 55.
Rubenstein was well known for his social action work. But Orkand came with no preconceptions. “No matter what the profession is,” he says, “you can only close your eyes and jump into the deep end.”
In Westport, he found “a great community in which to live and raise a family.” His son Seth made “a wonderful home for himself here.”
Becoming the rabbi here — or at any synagogue — is “like entering into marriage,” Orkand says. “Both parties have to work at it.” He calls this marriage “very successful.”
When Orkand arrived, Temple Israel was the only synagogue in Westport. “I became the representative of ‘the Jewish community,’” he says. “The rest of the community was very welcoming. I very much enjoyed working with them.”
Orkand praises his congregation for “never saying ‘no’ to new ideas. They’re constantly exploring how to make Jewish education better, and bringing the best and brightest here to speak.”
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, 2 new congregations — one Conservative, the other Orthodox — formed.
“Jews now had a choice,” Orkand explains. That was good for his Reform temple, he notes, “because people who were not necessarily happy here could go somewhere they felt more comfortable.”
One result, he says, was “a fairly large influx of young Jewish families” through the early 2000s. That changed “the nature of Westport — certainly of our Jewish community. There were different expectations, different ways of dealing with each other.”
Also, the rabbi says, “over the years the ongoing national controversy around church/state separation has meant the lessening of connections between the religious community and the community at large.” When he first came to Westport, Orkand was often invited into the public schools, as a resource person to talk about Judaism. Fellow clergy talked about their religions, too. “None of us get asked anymore,” he says.
“Exposure to religion in public education is practically nil. The best neutral place to teach about religion is public schools. But there are no Comparative Religion courses there.”
Orkand is now the longest-serving clergyperson in town. (Unitarian minister Frank Hall — who arrived a year later — also retires next month. He’ll be profiled soon on “06880.”)
Orkand calls his fellow clergy “extraordinary. We have a lot of respect for each other, and we work well together. It’s a remarkable relationship.” With “1 or 2 exceptions,” clergy of all faiths get together once a month. They go on retreats together, talk often, and learn from each other.
As he leaves the synagogue he’s served for 31 years, Orkand reflects on his career.
“I come from a generation where my life is, and always has been, my work. Others who are younger have found ways to better balance their lives. But I was taught that being a rabbi is a 24/7 job. I have no complaints about that.”
Orkand and his wife Joyce are moving to Natick. Their son Seth lives with his wife Kate –both are attorneys — in Boston with their 22-month-old daughter Noa.
“I owe Joyce more of my time,” Orkand says. “And I owe myself the opportunity to expand my world.”
He plans to volunteer, travel and “continue to learn.” As he has always done, he will work on issues related to Israel. At some point, he may teach.
This Friday (May 31, 8 p.m.), Temple Israel holds a service in Orkand’s honor. The next day, there’s a “fun musical event.”
The last week in June, a moving truck arrives. And Rabbi Orkand leaves the place he knew nothing about when he interviewed for a job, 31 years ago.