As two female high school graduates lead the Friday night special Shabbat service at B’nai Israel Synagogue last month, Rabbi Robert Waxman sat behind them singing along in Hebrew.
When the ladies were unsure of the words and their voices faded, Waxman sang a bit louder, smiling and guiding them through the stories and prayers of their faith.
For 30 years, Waxman has been the spiritual leader of Wilmington’s conservative Jewish congregation, guiding generations of bar and bat mitzvah students, officiating funerals and standing for justice in the wider community.
His congregation is honoring Waxman all weekend with an 8 p.m. Shabbat service Friday (June 8), a 9 a.m. Haftorah service, or readings of the words of the prophets, on Saturday (June 9), both at the synagogue, 2601 Chestnut St. An invitation only dinner dance will be at Landfall Country Club on Sunday (June 10).
This Saturday is also the 50th anniversary of Waxman’s own bar mitvah. The secret many people don’t know about Wilmington’s longest serving rabbi is his mother wanted him to become a cantor.
“I knew I could sing in high school, and I was involved in our youth choir,” in his native Ohio, he said. “But I decided I could always chant during services as a rabbi, but as the cantor, I couldn’t always be the rabbi.”
That decision put him on a path to Wilmington and to B’nai Israel 30 years ago with his wife, Barbara.
But what kept him here?
“I think Judaism is a good way of life, and I believe in this community. Tolerance is important,” he said. “All of my achievements are not really my own. All the progress at B’nai Israel has come through working with good people.”
In his time in Wilmington, B’nai Israel hosted a Jewish preschool, lent its space to the Orthodox Jewish congregation Chabad of Wilmington when it first came to town, helped organize funding for the first Jewish history chair in North Carolina at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and brought Jewish musicians such as Craig Taubman, Schlock Rock's Lenny Solomon and Jewish rocker Rick Recht to town.
The rabbi’s love of music is evident in his services, usually including performances by his choir The Kava Notes or Waxman himself strumming his acoustic guitar and singing a Debbie Friedman classic.
One major achievement for Waxman was pursuading his congregation to accept its female members reading from the bemah or pulpit area.
And of course, there are the marks Waxman’s left on individual lives in his congregation.
“He’s been a part of every life cycle event in my family from the birth of my son to my adult bat mitzvah 18 years ago,” said B’nai Israel member Roselle Evenson Margolis. “He did my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. And he officiated numerous family funerals including my father’s and my uncle’s.”
Waxman is especially proud of his teens in bar and bat mitzvah classes.
“I’m proud that I haven’t turned off any of my students to Judaism in 30 years,” he said with a chuckle.
His most recent bar mitzvah student, 13-year-old Jonah Siegel, said his teacher was a task master at first.
“He wants you to study very hard, and then he gets nicer as we go, and then the week before the end, he gets easy going,” Jonah said. “I enjoyed him being tough on me because otherwise I would have slacked off and not done it. It told me it’s good to practice your faith, even if you don’t want to.”
Waxman has also been active in the interfaith community, organizing events to promote racial reconciliation with the Ministerial Roundtable with other Wilmington clergy in Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations.
“Bob brings a great sense of congeniality to the Ministerial Roundtable,” said the Rev. Keith Grogg of Carolina Beach Presbyterian Church. “He is as compassionate for people—all people—as he is passionate about justice and righteousness.”
Seeing the growth of Waxman’s relationship with his congregation is good for the entire Jewish community, said Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky, leader of Temple of Israel.
“Like a marriage, a rabbi and congregation need to learn together, grow together, compromise and adapt together, in order to achieve a balance that allows the relationship to blossom and the congregational family to grow in a happy, healthy way,” Sidlofsky said. “I congratulate my friend and colleague, Rabbi Bob Waxman, and the members of B'nai Israel, for their tremendous achievement of forming such a bond over 30 years and counting.”
Amanda Greene: 910-520-3958 or