There is a large and vivid oil painting displayed on a wall in the rabbi’s study at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. The painting depicts a man standing by a window, wrapped in tallis and tefillin, and holding a siddur, deeply engaged in prayer.
The painter is Moshe Mahler, lead artist at Disney Research. The subject of the painting is Mark Mahler, Moshe’s father and rabbi of Temple Emanuel for the past 36 years.
“You see how my thumb just kind of disappears into the prayer book?” Mark Mahler says, pointing at his right hand in the portrait, which melds into the siddur. “I think this is beautiful. The idea of me disappearing into the prayers, and the prayers being absorbed into me.”
Mahler then shows a photograph of himself holding a Torah, taken a couple years later when he was teaching a course for students at Seton-LaSalle Catholic High School. His left hand had moved as the camera captured the image, causing it to blur into the Torah cover.
The images of Mahler blending into symbols of Jewish spirituality are apt, capturing the essence of a man who has devoted his career to bringing compassion, learning and faith to his congregation, and to the wider South Hills Community.
Last week, Mahler announced that he would be retiring in June 2018, at which point he will become rabbi emeritus at the synagogue.
“There is a quip among rabbis,” Mahler said. “You should leave when the congregation is asking not ‘when’ but ‘why.’”
“We are very, very lucky to have had him as our rabbi,” said David Weisberg, president of Temple Emanuel. “He has been a great leader for our congregation and has touched thousands of lives through life cycle events from births to baby-namings and brisses, to bar and bat mitzvahs, to confirmations, to weddings, to funerals.”
At a time when other congregations are struggling to keep their membership numbers up, Temple Emanuel has stayed strong, in large part due to Mahler, Weisberg said.
Mahler was raised in northern New Jersey, and when he began college, his intention was to go to medical school. But one day while walking in a park across from where he grew up, he found himself reciting Psalm 23, which he had learned in public school.
“I thought to myself, ‘I think I’d like to be a rabbi,’” he recalled. “And for me, at that point in my life, it was like out of left field. So, it was an idea I needed to nurture. As I look back on it, it was really a happy decision. I can’t think of anything I could have done otherwise with my life that would have been so multi-dimensionally fulfilling.”
Rabbis wear many kippahs, he said.
“I love Judaism, I love Jews, I love Israel, I love community, I love the mystery of life, and I certainly love God,” Mahler said. “And you factor all these things together, and this was the perfect job for me. And I was at the perfect place, too.”
At Temple Emanuel, Mahler said, he had the good fortune to serve “nice people, people who care about Judaism, people who are willing to be challenged by Judaism.”
Mahler will be leaving an indelible mark on his congregation, according to Joan Rothaus, a past president of Temple Emanuel and a member for 45 years.
“He cares deeply and totally about Judaism and about every single person in this congregation,” Rothaus said. “He has so much compassion, and he is also erudite, but humble. He imparts things in the nicest way.”
Dr. Betty Jo Hirschfield Louik, a lifelong member of Temple Emanuel and a past president, agrees.
“There are so many special things about Rabbi Mahler,” she said. “Reform Judaism is always reforming. He took Temple Emanuel from the classic Reform Judaism of our parents’ generation to the warm, participatory, music-filled Reform Judaism of our generation. The movement was changing nationally, and he was moving us with the movement.”
Hirschfield also noted Mahler’s personal touch.
“He knows his congregants,” she said. “When you enter that building he knows who you are. His heart is always in the right place. And he is at the synagogue all the time.”
Mahler is not only beloved among his congregants, but is greatly respected by his colleagues.
“Over the past 15 years, Mark has been more than just a colleague to me,” said Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. “He is a mensch and his retirement is not just a loss for Temple Emanuel, but for our entire community as well.”
Rabbi Mendy Rosenblum, spiritual leader of Chabad of the South Hills, became friends with Mahler when he lived next door to the Reform rabbi for five years.
“I met him as I was a new rabbi in the South Hills,” Rosenblum said. “He was gracious, and we started a friendship. We studied together for a time. He is a warm and caring person. He is a mensch, and he will be sorely missed.”
Mahler intends to stay in Pittsburgh during his retirement, and after a period of relaxation, hopes to work on a book he started many years ago “updating the 613 mitzvot,” and on a double album of his liturgical compositions. And, as rabbi emeritus, he has no intention of leaving behind the relationships he has built with his congregants over the years.
“I’m not done yet,” he said.
Temple Emanuel leadership will be discussing a transition team and a search committee in the coming weeks, Weisberg said, and planning events to celebrate Mahler and his wife, Alice.
“It’s going to be rough,” Rothaus said. “Rabbi Mahler is one of a kind.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.