In his mid-teens, Lyle Fishman thought he’d become a lawyer. At 17, he went on a Ramah program to Israel. It was 1968 and he returned from Israel with this announcement: “I came back and said, ‘I think I want to become a rabbi.’”
He’d grown up in a kosher, Conservative but not observant, home in Maplewood, N.J., a town where a cross was burned on a neighbor’s lawn.
Sticking with him from that trip to Israel — through Yale University and the Jewish Theological Seminary — was this: “Maybe I could adapt my background to other Jews, and live a serious Jewish life … and become a good rabbi.” He adds: “I hope I’ve been a good rabbi.”
His congregants think so. Fishman is weeks from retiring at 70 from being only the second rabbi of Ohr Kodesh Congregation. He has led the Conservative synagogue in Chevy Chase for 37 years. With his wife, Debby Rosenman, he arrived in 1984 from a Westchester County, N.Y., pulpit. The couple now has two grown sons.
Ohr Kodesh congregants say that Fishman has enriched their synagogue, their lives and the Jewish community in many ways; he says the same of them: “They have been involved in Jewish life and shared that knowledge with me. I hope I have gained from them. It has never been a one-way street.” He’s learned from everyone who has taught him throughout his life, he says in a recent interview.
“The people here are wonderful,” he says. “My attitude was when I came to Ohr Kodesh, I would like to work with people, and wherever they are they would move Jewishly one step. I would like to help them accomplish that.”
He says: “I think what we have been able to do is build a caring community, a learning community and a davening community.”
Many congregants are transplants to the Washington area. “For those Jews, they do not have family here, and we are their safety net. We need to be there for them when they need us.” There already was a chevra kadisha, a funeral practices committee.
“But we did develop a chesed committee,” he says, noting other synagogues have them, too. “There are people for whom their path to Judaism is acts of chesed, acts of kindness.”
“He is just a real mensch,” says Stuart Eizenstat, the former ambassador and expert adviser to the State Department on Holocaust-era issues., and who Fishman says taught him a lot about the Nazi era through his work on the well-being of Jews around the world, especially on behalf of Holocaust victims.
Eizenstat recalls that Fishman went out of his way to offer comfort following the 2013 death of Eizenstat’s wife, Frances, including leading shivah minyans and taking care of arrangements for then-Vice President Walter Mondale to speak at the memorial service for her. The rabbi again went out of his way to be helpful to Eizenstat who was bringing a program to Ohr Kodesh marking the fifth anniversary of her death, with an organization the couple was long involved with, the Defiant Requiem Foundation. It is devoted to the story and lessons of the prisoners at the Terezin concentration camp who turned to music and arts as a way of defying Nazis by maintaining their humanity.
“He attends virtually every morning minyan. And he doesn’t try to lead the service, he lets others do it. He does a quick drash for it,” Eizenstat says. He says he has seen Fishman’s “evolution as a Conservative rabbi,” as Ohr Kodesh moved toward including women in more roles.
Congregants lead weekday minyanim, having learned while youths or as adults. “Some lead minyan during shivah at shivah homes,” Fishman says, which adds to a sense of community at the synagogue, which has 450-member households.
In recent years, Fishman’s sermons have become more contemporary — yet not political — with Jewish perspectives on such topics as racial divides and economic inequality.
“It is not just the sermons being relevant. He is able to draw from a very wide range of history and Judaic history,” Eizenstat says, as well as Rashi and other rabbinic theologians, philosophers and commentators, calling him “a scholar.”
“What makes him very special is that he has built a very tight community across the spectrum,” said Bob Kott, a former Ohr Kodesh president. The Kott and Fishman families have long been friends. The two walk home from synagogue together. “We have discussed every possible topic on these walks,” Kott says, some serious, some funny. Fishman has also seen Ohr Kodesh through a major renovation, and Kott, who co-chaired that effort, says Fishman was enormously helpful.
Years ago, when Kott and his wife went to see a movie with the Fishmans, “in the middle of the movie the rabbi was taking notes.” But, he says, “He’ll give a d’var Torah on a Shabbat morning and he’ll reference a movie.”
Rise Ain, the incoming president, calls Fishman “a role model. He is a lifelong learner and he promotes education for all ages.” Congregants take him up on it.
Fishman helped her start a kiddush lunch-and-learning program, with congregant-prepared study materials and a person at each table facilitating the conversation. An example: a congregant’s experience growing up Jewish in Cuba. Such programs, Fishman says, extend Shabbat as a sharing community.
Ain says at Shabbat morning services, Fishman’s approach to the children who come onto the bimah toward the end of the service is notable. “The rabbi shakes hands with each of them and he knows each one of them by name.”
Fishman says he wants children to know he is accessible: “They are our future. … I know their names because their names matter. They matter.” Later, he says: “Sometimes people who don’t know me ask what I do. I like to say that I am a farmer. I plant seeds. I hope that many of them will grow and that is a wonderful feeling.” Fishman says. A child he knew from birth became a rabbi, for example, and he takes pleasure in officiating at weddings of people who became b’nai mitzvah on the Ohr Kodesh bimah during his tenure.
A decade ago, some members asked the rabbi to start a biblical Hebrew class. “I said, ‘If you can get 10 members, we will do it.’ And they did, they found 10, actually a little more,” Fishman recalls.
The group’s makeup has changed over a decade of classes. “In biblical Hebrew, we can look at a word and say, ‘This Hebrew word, like kodesh, has 2,000 or 3,000 years of history.’ If you know these words, you are going to be more tied into being Jewish.”An informal program is a congregational retreat that includes hikes and a campfire along with Jewish learning. “It’s a lot of shmoozing,” says Ain.
Congregant Mark Lerner, managing principal owner of the Washington Nationals, calls Fishman, a Yankees fan, “a big Nationals fan as a resident of the area.” He recalls Fishman throwing out the first pitch for the game on Ohr Kodesh Day in 2010. “The throw was not quite a strike, but it was a great effort and made us all proud.”
Fishman jokes, “I’m still a Yankees fan. That creates a conflict of interest some of the time, but generally it doesn’t.”
The rabbi donned a Nats uniform for Purim, Eizenstat recalls.
He says, “One of my important roles as a rabbi is to network with people. I think it helps to make the Jewish world closer.”
He has taken on roles in the community, co-chairing Super Sunday and serving as president of the regional Rabbinical Assembly.
Fishman will become rabbi emeritus at Ohr Kodesh, as Rabbi Corey Helfand assumes the pulpit this summer. Fishman wants to continue teaching at the synagogue, which has been having a yearlong celebration for him and his wife. There will be a conversation (pre-recorded) May 20 with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and a virtual gala May 23.
He wants to devote time to learning about jazz. He may play a little trumpet, too, having taken lessons when growing up. His days as a drum major began and ended with his high school marching band.
And that law career he thought he wanted? He’s been teaching Jewish law at Georgetown University Law Center for about six years, and hopes to continue that.
Corrected May 21, 2021 11:40 a.m.
An incorrect reference to Stuart Eizenstat as founding chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was deleted.