New autobiography recounts life of Rabbi Harry Z. Sky
FALMOUTH — Sitting in his comfortable apartment at the Oceanview Retirement Community in Falmouth, Rabbi Harry Z. Sky is surrounded by a lifetime’s collection of artwork that includes Native American Inuit sculpture, autographed Tom Jones photography and a life-sized marble bust of himself created by a Maine artist.
His taste is eclectic and prolific, which mirrors the life he has led. In his recently published autobiography, “A Rabbi in Maine” ($15, Quiet Waters Publications, Bolivar, Mo.) Sky, 84, recounts his life and accomplishments.
Sky begins his narrative by recalling an incident when he was 5 years old and his mother called him a “mazek,” the Yiddish term for a mischievous child. Whether it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or a premonition, Sky’s life has been spent as a catalyst for change.
“I cannot accept any conservative answer that says ‘this is the way it
has to be because that’s how we’ve always done it,'” Sky said.
He set out on a path of reinterpreting what it means to be Jewish,
challenging the definitions and practices of conservative, liberal or orthodox Jews. During his tenure as the Rabbi at Temple Beth El in Portland, he reshaped the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony and pushed for equal rights for women, granting them full membership in the “minyan,” the quorum required for religious services.
While his decisions weren’t always popular with the congregation, he said, he continued to advocate for what he believed in. He recalled telling the lay leaders that “the first year, you’ll love me, the second, you’ll hate me, and the third, we’ll find a way to live with each other.” And they found a way to live with each other for nearly 50 years. Sky served as Temple Beth El’s rabbi for 30 years, followed by 20 years as the rabbi emeritus.
He also forged new relationships outside the congregation. In 1963, a Christian minister of the AME Ethiopian Church asked Sky to accompany him on
the March on Washington. With the temple’s blessing, Rabbi accepted
and was incredibly moved by the experience.
King reminded me of the Second Isaiah. … A prophetic voice calling
for justice rolling down as would a mountain stream,” Sky says in his
Inspired by what he had witnessed, he became an active member in the Portland chapter of the NAACP and rallied with other community members to stage a protest in response to the1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Ala. “I was angry,” Sky says in his book, “My heart cried out for these innocent victims.”
Over the years, he also became known within the temple community and the
greater Portland community as an advocate for civil rights for gays,
minorities, the handicapped and elderly.
He cites his role in the development of the former Senior College at USM, in the mid-1990s, as one of his proudest achievements.
He recalled telling Richard Pattenaude, then president of USM, that retired people like himself want something to do. “We’re alive! Our heads are still working. We’d like to have a place to study, peers with peers,” Sky said.
Pattenaude told him he’d think about it. Sky said he kept after him and was thrilled when USM established the Senior College in 1996. It has flourished, thanks in part to a strong cadre of volunteer teachers, including Sky, and a charitable endowment from the Bernard Osher Foundation. Now known as the Osher Life Long Learning Institute, it has more than 900 members in the Portland area.
Not surprisingly, Sky hasn’t slowed down in his retirement. His primary focus lately is on writing and he is currently at work on a meditative calendar and a collection of essays. He is also actively involved in resuscitating Portland’s Etz Chaim synagogue on Congress Street for “Jews without boundaries.” Sky also continues to teach and take classes at OLLI.
And he continues to embrace his life journey as a “mazek.”
“I feel that part of my life is being driven by its own energy,” he says in his book. “My siblings and my wives are deceased. I live alone in a retirement facility in Falmouth. Yet, I know I am still in the state of becoming.”
Heather Gunther can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 115 or email@example.com.
Rabbi Harry Z. Sky recently sustained a fractured elbow in a fall at his Falmouth apartment. After having surgery at Maine Medical Center in Portland over the weekend, he is rehabilitating at Falmouth by the Sea.