Congregation Agudas Achim Celebrates Rabbi Neil F. Blumofe’s 25 Years of Building Community
Left to right: Harriet Saikin, Rabbi Neil F. Blumofe and Mary Jane Saikin at the Shalom Austin Adults 60+ Passover Luncheon. Credit: Jolie Estes
By BJ Friedman
Rabbi Neil F. Blumofe and Congregation Agudas Achim (CAA) will celebrate 25 years of collaboration with a celebration weekend on December 7-10, 2023. Rabbi Blumofe began his association with CAA in 1998 as its first full-time hazzan. Tank Rubinett, an esteemed CAA leader, met Blumofe as he was graduating from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rubinett came back to Austin and said, “We’ve got to hire him!” Ever since then, Blumofe’s voice has brought joy and ruach to Shabbat services and all occasions at CAA.
As Blumofe progressed in his calling, he pursued ordination at both the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles, California and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He became CAA’s Senior Rabbi and Spiritual Leader 2009.
Community is central to Blumofe’s vision. He is a rabbi, spiritual leader, community leader, and holds leadership roles in the Conservative Jewish movement, as well as in secular organizations. As rabbi and spiritual leader at CAA, he leads services that are congregationally oriented and inclusive, from inviting congregants to lead the various sections of Shabbat services to including non-Jewish family members on the bimah for simchas. His welcoming smile and warm greetings encourage congregants and visitors to feel they are part of the CAA community to remove barriers of misunderstanding and educate them about the Jewish faith and how we are all connected. In fact, he regularly invites people from other faith traditions to experience and participate.
With a focus always on community, especially during times of crisis, during the first weeks of the COVID pandemic, Blumofe and Associate Rabbi Gail Swedroe, along with CAA lay leadership and staff discussed how to maintain connections with the CAA community. After much consideration, they decided to pivot and livestream Shabbat and minyan services. Online services resulted in participation from CAA members and Jews nationwide, some who were former congregants and others who were seeking a way to continue to study and pray during this time of isolation. During that time, Blumofe continued his tradition of inviting congregants to lead portions of these service. Additionally, several b’nai mitzvah were also conducted online, helping to ensure that the rhythm of Jewish life was not disrupted more than it had to be for young people and their families.
The CAA community Blumofe has nurtured includes children, welcoming the wandering and noisy toddlers, and encouraging parents to bring their children to services while allowing them to be themselves. Post b’nai mitzvah and teens are encouraged to continue their study of Torah and to participate in services by reading Torah and leading prayers.
Another focal point of Blumofe’s practice is music. His beautiful voice and vast knowledge of the various traditions of Jewish liturgical music as well as his love of jazz combine to bring energy and joy to services. When bar or bat mitzvah children are called to their first aliyah, they are called with his soaring and unique vocal invitations.
Rabbi Neil Blumofe and Jazz Historian presents Wednesday Night Jazz Meeting Series at the historic Cactus Cafe. Nights of sublime music and conversation with Austin’s top jazz musicians. Courtesy: Congregation Agudas Achim
And speaking of jazz, Blumofe organizes and hosts the jazz series which includes local musicians interpreting the music of famous jazz performers, Wednesday Night Jazz Meeting, formerly known as Views and Brews, at the Cactus Café on the University of Texas campus. His purpose is to engage the community to share thoughts, inspire new perspectives, and give access to new ideas, art, literature, music and imagination. Blumofe’s historical perspective connects the music to current community topics.
Blumofe’s community extends beyond the congregation to include Austin, the nation and the world. He is a faculty member at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the Seminary of the Southwest. He has been a board member and board president of Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT) whose mission is to build relationships among the different faith communities in Central Texas. He currently serves on the board of Leadership Austin. Blumofe regularly participates in grassroots activism whenever group and individual rights are threatened, involving himself with issues including immigration, school curriculum, and religious freedom. In Texas, he serves on the Governor’s Response Against Child Exploitation (GRACE) Task Force, which fights child sex trafficking in Texas.
Blumofe seeks to connect to people in many different ways. One of these was the “Rev and Rav Road Trips,” where he and Reverend Dr. Daryl Horton, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Austin, traveled to important historic touchstones for American Jews and African Americans. During these trips, Blumofe and Horton shared experiences and insights on the history of Jews and African Americans, guided by their respective religious traditions. They traveled the South, visiting important civil rights locations and memorials such as the Holocaust Museum in Houston and civil rights landmarks in Selma and Montgomery, AL. Another trip took them to New York City, where Blumofe introduced Horton to New York Jewish culture.
Beyond Texas, he is a Rabbis Without Borders fellow, as well as a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Blumofe is a staunch supporter of Israel and regularly organizes tours to Israel with CAA congregants, welcoming non-Jewish participants as well. He has also led trips to Poland and other sites where European Jews once thrived.
Community building and tikkun olam (repairing the world) define Blumofe’s work. “We are the ones who determine the tenor of our community. Like the Maccabees of old, we are to fight for the world that we seek and not passively wait for it to occur around us. We are not to apologize for our differences— rather we are to highlight them as we offer our friendship. We are to engage, creating bonds of connection and wide networks of alliances that go deep. We are to cherish these bonds and networks with care, respect and diligence,” said Blumofe. The Austin Chronicle stated that Blumofe is, “A religious leader, yes, but also a damn fine human being.”
In celebration of the achievements and impact Blumofe has made while serving as senior rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim, a weekend-long celebration is planned for December 7-9, 2023. The events coincide with Hanukkah and will commence with a first night of Hanukkah menorah lighting along with “Latkes + Vodka.” The weekend will conclude with a large celebration on Sunday, December 9 with The Rumble of New Orleans, as well as other musicians, performing in concert at CAA. For more details on the full schedule of events, visit theaustinsynagogue.org/nfb25/.
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