'Rabbinic giant' to step down after 37 years at local synagogue

Rabbi Edward Garsek plans to retire at the end of the month from Congregation Etz Chayim, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, and move to Chicago.
Rabbi Edward Garsek plans to retire at the end of the month from Congregation Etz Chayim, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, and move to Chicago.

Rabbi Edward Garsek is a scholar, an expert in Jewish law, and an accomplished speaker, but there's one word he doesn't know.

" 'No' is not in his vocabulary," said Sandy Marcus, bookkeeper at Congregation Etz Chayim, the Orthodox Jewish synagogue in West Toledo where Rabbi Garsek has served for 37 years.

The 66-year-old rabbi, who is retiring at the end of the month, will do anything for anybody, Mrs. Marcus said.

"He's done Chinese funerals. He'll do circumcisions for non-Jewish people. He'll drive for hours to preside at rituals. He knows everybody and everybody falls in love with him. He's like the Pied Piper," she said.

One time when Mrs. Marcus was in the hospital, Rabbi Garsek knocked on the door and was told by hospital staff to wait outside.

"I heard him start singing and dancing a jig outside my door -- just to cheer me up," Mrs. Marcus said.

There is no shortage of stories about Rabbi Garsek's love of people and his efforts to help them and lift their spirits.

He was in a grocery store one time when a stranger, noticing that he was a rabbi, asked for a ride, saying his car had broken down.

"He didn't know him from anybody," said Elsa Leveton, synagogue administrator, "but he took him to his car. The man could have been a serial killer. But he just goes the extra mile to help another human being. That's just the way he is."

Rabbi Garsek, with a friendly smile and a gleam in his eye, does not hesitate to say that people are his priority.

"I really like people," he said. "I like working with them. I look upon my job as a way of helping people to experience their Judaism. And I enjoy counseling people."

He may not sing and dance to lift everyone's spirits, but he seems to know the right thing to do for each person, Cantor Evan Rubin said.

"He just has a unique knack for knowing what's called for in any given situation," said Cantor Rubin, who has worked with Rabbi Garsek for 18 years. "Singing and dancing is not his general M.O., but if he feels that doing it would help a patient in the hospital feel better, by all means."

Rabbi Garsek, the son of a rabbi, never considered another vocation.

"My mother told me that from the earliest time she remembers, that's what I said I wanted to be -- a rabbi," he said in an interview in his synagogue office. One wall of the room is lined with overflowing bookshelves and two others are decorated with artistic portraits of rabbis. Near his desk is a shelf crammed with photos of his family -- Sara, his wife of 42 years, their six children, and their grandchildren, including one born this month. He has so many grandchildren that he gives a ballpark count: "In the low 20s."

Rabbi Garsek grew up in Fort Worth, going to public school through ninth grade and attending Hebrew school two days a week after school and on Sundays.

"After a full day of school, it wasn't always something that I would look forward to," he said. "But I did have an edge on the other students because I was the son of a rabbi," he said.

He received a bachelor's degree in history and philosophy from Loyola University and a bachelor's in Hebrew literature and teaching from Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Ill. He graduated from rabbinical school in 1971 and was ordained in 1972.

His first assignment as a rabbi was assisting his father, Rabbi Isadore Garsek, in Fort Worth, from 1971 until 1975.

"That was a wonderful experience and I learned a lot. When he would go out of town I would take over. I began to understand what a rabbi was. School is fine, it's good for theory, but it's the experience that really makes the rabbi," he said.

He went on to study counseling at his alma mater, Hebrew Theological College, and, after moving to Toledo, at the University of Toledo, receiving master's degrees from both institutions.

Rabbi Garsek arrived in Toledo in 1975, joining the newly built synagogue on Woodley Road as assistant rabbi, working under the leadership of Rabbi Nehemiah Katz.

"I worked under Rabbi Katz for six years, and it was awesome, a very good training experience," he said.

Rabbi Alan Sokobin, rabbi emeritus at The Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim, the Reform Jewish synagogue in Sylvania, remembers the city's new rabbi joking about his relatively short stature.

"When he came here, one of his quips was that not everything that comes from Texas is tall," Rabbi Sokobin said. "But he has been a rabbinic giant as far as I'm concerned. He touched not only the lives in the congregation, but he has touched people outside the congregation. He's not limited. His head is filled with ideas, his heart is filled with love, and his feet are on the ground."

Rabbi Garsek said he treasures being with people during life's landmark moments.

"It's very special, it's very rewarding to me. I'm honored to be a part of these special occasions, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, graduations and weddings," he said. "And unfortunately there's the other end of it as well, the sad times and times of loss. But all of that has helped build a bond within our synagogue, and I would have to say within our community."

Mrs. Marcus said Rabbi Garsek has performed weddings throughout the country and as far away as Israel for former congregation members. "They call and ask, 'Can you come here?' He has touched so many lives. He's just a kind, generous, warm person. He's such a spiritual person," she said.

One area of life that the rabbi hasn't mastered is taking care of the details, such as making sure he puts the new stickers on his car's license plates.

"He's lost them enough times that when it comes in the mail, I walk with him out to the car and watch him put the sticker on the plate," Mrs. Marcus said. "And I make a copy of the registration and keep it someplace safe. His mind is on less worldly things."

Cantor Rubin said conventional wisdom is that rabbis and cantors don't get along, but that's not been the case at Etz Chayim.

"It's been anything but. He is an amazing leader and an amazing mentor, and a superior rabbi," he said. "The first year I was here he said that in order to be a leader of the people, the first thing you need to be is one of them. He's a leader because he is a part of the community."

Rabbi Garsek said he plans to move to Chicago, where four of his six children live. Mrs. Garsek already has a job teaching Hebrew and Judaism in Chicago, he said.

The rabbi plans to use his free time to take classes, "going out and hitting the golf ball around," and doing some light reading.

One thing he won't be doing is watching television. The Garseks have not had a TV in their home for 18 years.

"When you're around garbage long enough, it doesn't smell anymore. You don't notice it," he said, obviously not a fan of most television programs.

The rabbi has spent much of the last year helping his successor, Rabbi Jonathan Bienenfeld of New York, settle into his new role at the synagogue, which has about 250 member families.

Rabbi Bienenfeld was 27 when he arrived in Toledo last September, and Rabbi Garsek said it's nice to see the congregation get an injection of youthful energy.

"When I came here I was the young man, and because of that it helped bring in a younger group," Rabbi Garsek said. "I think that Rabbi Bien- enfeld is doing that now. My main interest, my professional interest, is that the synagogue continues and that we have an Orthodox synagogue in Toledo."

A special Saturday morning service honoring Rabbi Garsek is set for this weekend at Congregation Etz Chayim, and a dinner is scheduled for Sunday at the Grand Plaza Hotel downtown. He will become rabbi emeritus on July 1 and the synagogue's sanctuary will be named in his honor.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.