On a recent afternoon, Rabbi Joshua Stampfer made his way to a light-filled classroom in Congregation Neveh Shalom, greeted other members of his study group and opened a volume of Talmud.
Everyone turned to page 119b(5) in Tractate Shabbos, but the real topic was “Why was Jerusalem destroyed?”
Rabbi Stampfer read aloud, in Hebrew and in English, exploring several explanations. The main point, he said, seemed to be that education and learning are community imperatives – and any place in which they are not, cannot survive. He noted the words of the sage Resh Lakish, who tells another sage that “any town in which there are no school- children studying Torah is eventually destroyed.”
He mentioned the sweetness of study, how young children would begin their studies with a taste of honey and how that had inspired him to create the motto of Camp Solomon Schechter: “Where Judaism and Joy Are One.”
The afternoon’s discussion seemed a fitting topic for a man who has devoted most of his life to learning and teaching, to exploring a myriad of interests and to establishing community institutions ranging from the vibrant summer camp to college programs in Judaic studies to a Jewish film series.
“He is an extraordinary leader,” said Steve Wasserstrom, Judaic studies professor at Reed College and a longtime member of Neveh Shalom. “He is a doer. It may seem like a small thing, but if he saw something that needed to be done, he did it. And he did it immediately.”
Today, at age 91, Rabbi Stampfer is preparing to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his arrival in Portland to lead Congregation Ahavai Sholom, a precursor of today’s Neveh Shalom. He led the congregation for four decades, and since 1993 has been rabbi emeritus.
Longtime friends, congregants and supporters are organizing events over the weekend of Nov. 1-3, including a special Sunday afternoon program tentatively titled: “Meet the Man and the Myth.” “We realized that about 60 percent of our members had not had Rabbi Stampfer as their pulpit rabbi,” said Carolyn Weinstein, the celebration’s co-chairwoman, who was 16 when Rabbi Stampfer moved to Portland in 1953. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to understand more of our congregation’s history, and how much Rabbi has accomplished.”
“There was no Camp Solomon Schechter, there was no Foundation School (preschool), there was not even a library in the synagogue,” Weinstein said. “We have all of these things – and more – today because of Rabbi Stampfer.”
As part of the celebration, Rabbi Stampfer is leading an effort to raise $2.4 million to retire the remaining debt on the congregation’s capital campaign. He and his wife, Goldie, have pledged $6,000 toward the campaign, and Rabbi Stampfer has sent a letter with a personal appeal for donations.
Toinette Menashe, who is co-chairing the celebration with Weinstein, said Rabbi Stampfer’s decision to use his anniversary to aid the congregation was another example of his dedication.
“He is always thinking about the community,” she said. “He is always trying to help.”
“This congregation has given me so much,” Stampfer said. “This is my expression of thanksgiving.”
Born in Jerusalem on Dec. 28, 1921, Rabbi Stampfer is the son and grandson of rabbis and pioneers. His paternal great-grandfather and namesake, Yehoshua Stampfer, was a founder of Petach Tikva, the first modern Zionist settlement in what is now Israel. His maternal grandfather, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, was for several decades Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Israel and a close friend of Rabbi Frank, served as Stampfer’s sandek (or “holder”) at his brit milah.
Stampfer’s father, Rabbi Elijah David Stampfer, came to the United States in 1924, eventually taking a position as rabbi of an Orthodox congregation in Akron, Ohio, where Stampfer celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1934.
Following high school, Stampfer went to Chicago, where he studied at both the Hebrew Theological College and the University of Chicago, graduating from UC in 1943 with a degree in biochemisty. He later completed a master’s degree in rubber chemistry at the University of Akron.
“I did not want to be a rabbi,” Stampfer said, reflecting on the challenges his father had faced over the years. But experiences at a Jewish summer camp, the Brandeis Camp Institute, in 1943 began to change his mind. In the fall of 1945, he entered Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
“The signposts had been there my entire life,” Stampfer told David Michael Smith in his biography, To Learn and To Teach. “Only now was I becoming willing to heed them.”
The summer institute changed Stampfer’s life in another important way: he met Goldie Goncher of Atlanta. They were married on Feb. 13, 1944, in Akron, with Rabbi Stampfer’s father officiating.
“I was drawn to him immediately,” Goldie Stampfer told Smith. After their marriage, she supported her husband’s decision to pursue the rabbinate. “When a person loves the work they do, it’s very fortunate,” she said in a 1988 interview.
Rabbi Stampfer found the atmosphere at Jewish Theological Seminary, affiliated with Judaism’s Conservative Movement, exhilarating. “We were bombarded with ideas,” he said. “It was a place of intellectual ferment.” He recalls classes with scholars including Talmudist Shaul Lieberman, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordechai Kaplan (who founded Reconstructionist Judaism).
“There was a breadth of ideas, from Orthodox to decidedly not Orthodox,” he said. “I wanted to learn from all of these people.”
In 1949 – after having fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence while attending classes at Hebrew University – Stampfer was ordained at JTS and took his first pulpit in Lincoln, NE. Four years later, he and his family came to Portland.
One of the first tasks facing the new rabbi was performing the weddings that had been awaiting his arrival – he did four weddings in one day during his first week in town.
But Stampfer soon began addressing other congregational needs by establishing a weekly synagogue bulletin, a Jewish nursery school, a youth group, a young marrieds’ league, adult and youth education, and, in 1955, Camp Solomon Schechter. He also was instrumental in the 1961 merger of congregations Ahavai Sholom and Neveh Zedek, becoming the rabbi of the new Congregation Neveh Shalom.
Together with Orthodox Rabbi Yonah Geller of Congregation Shaarie Torah and Reform Rabbi Emanuel Rose of Congregation Beth Israel, Stampfer formed the Oregon Board of Rabbis and established a community “Introduction to Judaism” class for potential converts, both of which remain unusual examples of collaboration among different streams of Judaism.
“We were rabbis with very different points of view,” Stampfer said, “but joined together in a common effort for the benefit of the community.”
When Rabbi Stampfer retired in 1993, he left a congregation and a community much stronger than when he came.
The congregation, which as Ahavai Sholom had 200 families in 1953, was at 750 in 1993. Institutions such as the Oregon Jewish Museum, the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center, Institute for Judaic Studies and many others continue to enrich Jewish life.
“Portland has the kinds of institutions and organizations that only much larger Jewish communities have – and it’s all because of Rabbi Stampfer,” said Rabbi Daniel Isaak, Stampfer’s successor at Neveh Shalom. “All of these things he created with an idea – and he went f
rom one idea to the next. Thanks to him, Portland has all these ways for people to explore their Judaism.”
While he is grateful for all he has been able to accomplish, Rabbi Stampfer said he took “a special pleasure” in the success of Camp Solomon Schechter, where one of his granddaughters recently celebrated her bat mitzvah; the Oregon Jewish Museum and the Neveh Shalom Library, the largest Judaica library in the Pacific Northwest; and the Judaic studies programs at Reed College and Portland State.
He’s also been active in interfaith dialog, has led interfaith delegations to Israel and has worked to build bridges between many communities.
When Weinstein and Menashe asked Rabbi Stampfer to reflect on his years in Portland, he said one of the most meaningful accomplishments was his Talmud study group, which has been meeting for about 50 years.
He praises the “refreshing open-mindedness” he sees in the Talmud, in which rabbis argue with but also respect each other. In those exchanges, and also in Talmudic accounts of dialog between rabbis and Romans, Rabbi Stampfer has found inspiration and confirmation of his deepest values.
“They were very open,” he said of the Talmudic rabbis, adding that the Talmud focuses on what may seem like minutiae – the details of daily life. “The rabbis observed the behavior patterns of people they admired – adopting, questioning, and learning from those patterns and each other.”
“It is so fundamentally important,” Stampfer says of Talmud study. “It’s a kind of haven.
HONORING RABBI & GOLDIE STAMPFER: 60 YEARS IN PORTLAND BUILDING A LEGACY
Here is a listing of events to date for the Nov. 1-3 celebration. All events will be held at Congregation Neveh Shalom and are open to the entire community.
FRIDAY, NOV. 1
6 pm: Shabbat dinner honoring Rabbi and Goldie Stampfer (RSVP by Oct. 21 to Karen, 503-246-8831).
8:15 pm: Shabbat Services, with a D’var Torah by Rabbi Stampfer.
SATURDAY, NOV. 2
9 am: Shabbat Services followed by Kiddush lunch.
1 pm: Special Talmud study with Rabbi Stampfer, “Interfaith Study in the Talmud.”
SUNDAY, NOV. 3
11:15 am: ALIYAH religious School and Camp Solomon Schechter Family Program.
3 pm: “Meet the Man and the Myth” – a lively afternoon of memories and music with special guest presenters from the past six decades featuring tom grant, Cantor Linda Shivers, Cantor Bruce Ruben and Cantor Deborah Bletstein.
Check the Neveh Shalom website for full weekend details: nevehshalom.org.