For 37 years, Rabbi Avis Miller and Chazzan Larry Paul have led High Holiday services in Washington, first at Adas Israel Congregation and then, beginning 11 years ago, at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.
They’ve developed such a close rapport on the bimah that sometimes people think they’re a married couple.
“People used to ask us if we were married and I would say, ‘No, not legally,’” Paul says. “We’ve had and have a wonderful time [together.] We have a great intuition of what the other is doing.”
Make that (almost) past tense. Yom Kippur, which begins at sunset on Oct. 8, will be their last High Holiday officiating together.
Last year, Sixth & I told the pair that it might be cancelling their service. Earlier this year, Sixth & I made it official.
“We’ve known for months,” says Miller, who is rabbi emerita of Adas Israel. “It’s a little sad that it’s ending.”
Neither Miller, Paul nor Sixth & I would talk about what happened. But a statement to Sixth & I supporters, sent in May from CEO Heather Moran and Board President Shelton Zuckerman, made clear that it wanted to replace the pair’s traditional services with Rabbi Shira Stutman’s Progressive High Holiday service for Jews in their 20s and 30s.
“At this juncture, 10 years into Rabbi Shira’s tenure and 15 years into Sixth & I’s existence, it feels most fitting for this service to be in the space our most active community members know best — our sanctuary,” the statement reads. “We understand that change can be both destabilizing and difficult but also meaningful and exciting.”
“There’s an era that’s coming to a close,” Paul says.
The first time Miller and Paul led High Holiday services at Sixth & I was in 2007. According to Miller, so many people signed up for tickets that it crashed the system.
“It was like the Jonas Brothers or worse,” she says, laughing.
Their services included a lot of interaction with the congregants.
“My favorite memory, [is that] I’m one voice going out over the PA system but I have almost a 1,000-voice choir coming back at me,” Paul says. “The greatest thing about the service over the years has been the participation. Its awe inspiring.”
And the crowd is diverse, Miller says: old and young, families and singles.
The two met in 1983. Miller was invited to lead High Holiday services at Adas Israel. She was still in rabbinical school and she needed a cantor. A mutual friend introduced her to Paul. When Miller asked, Paul said he replied, “Well I’ve never done that before, let’s try it.”
That’s all it took.
“I want people to understand the relevance of the liturgy — ancient to medieval to contemporary,” Miller says when asked about her plans for this year’s services. Her sermon will include poems by Maya Angelou and a focus on apologies. “Metaphor has become reality,” she notes.
It will also include the theme of ending. They want the final service to be special. Thirty-seven years is more than a generation of congregants.
“It’s what’s going to echo in my memory,” Miller says. “Over 37 years, I see how those who were kids are still coming. They grew up in that service.”
They don’t know what their next step is or where they’ll be next Rosh Hashanah. They both just want to finish these High Holidays before thinking about what they’ll do next.
Says Paul, “We’ll get through these holidays, and then we’ll have a discussion and see.”