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Rabbi relishes new life as new year approaches

Life has changed since Rabbi Jonathan Mielke moved with his family from South Africa, but he is now feeling "quite at home.''


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2000

GULFPORT -- Ayear ago, Rabbi Jonathan Mielke was getting ready to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, in a new synagogue, in a new country.

[Times photo: Jill Sagers]
Rabbi Jonathan Mielke blows a shofar Thursday during the morning prayers at the Pinellas County Jewish Day School.
He had arrived from his native South Africa just weeks earlier and barely knew the congregation in Gulfport he had been hired to lead. The transition was no easier for his wife and young daughter.

Faye Mielke, unfamiliar with American shops, was anxious about being able to purchase the products she needed to maintain her kosher household.

Their daughter Keren, then 5, was shy around her new classmates.

How things have changed.

Today, the first full day of Rosh Hashana, Mielke is secure in his role at Congregation Beth Sholom. He savors the area's Jewish community and rejoices at its cooperation with believers of other faiths, especially in social justice efforts. Furthermore, Mielke, who is in the United States on a religious worker's permit, yearns to make this country his permanent home.

His family also has become more comfortable. Referring to the United States as "a shopper's paradise," Mrs. Mielke raves about the availability, variety and abundance of kosher products and everything else. And much to her parents' amusement, Keren, a first-grader at the Pinellas County Jewish Day School, has acquired an American accent.

"She has acclimated quite a bit," Mielke said of his daughter. "She is an American 6-year-old. When she talks to me, I hear an accent. She participates,, and she really enjoys her work. And she goes to gymnastics."

As for his wife, Mielke said: "She is a star now. She knows where to go to shop. She does volunteer work. Faye has enabled me to do my work. She has maintained the infrastructure of our home."

But the past year has not been without its difficulties, Mrs. Mielke said.

"It's been a hard year for me, but after having been here a year, I feel quite at home," she said.

"I had the help of the Almighty and that helped me through each day of the transition period and there are two wonderful couples in our lives and they have made such a wonderful difference to our transition to America."

It was August 1999 that Mielke arrived from South Africa to fill the post vacated months earlier by the Gulfport synagogue's previous rabbi. Beth Sholom, at 1844 54th St. S, had been searching for a new leader, while Mielke had been hoping to escape South Africa's growing economic and social instability.

The prayers of both parties were answered when Mrs. Mielke won a trip to Florida and she and her husband read the congregation's advertisement for a rabbi in a Jewish publication. Mielke, who also works as the director of Hebrew and Jewish studies at his daughter's school in Clearwater, thinks his skills are needed in the United States.

"Since I've arrived here, I've noticed that there is a shortage of teachers, a shortage of rabbinic staff in the whole area," he said from his Largo apartment.

Mielke said he is pleased to have the opportunity to teach both his congregation and students at the Pinellas County Jewish Day School.

"I love it. I can work easily with both groups, both ends of the spectrum, the older people and the children," he said.

Though he misses his two adult children, Allon, 25, and Gila, 23, who still live in South Africa, Mielke has grown to enjoy his life in the United States.

"I love the freedom to be able to advance my academic study and research and to be at the cutting edge of civilization," said Mielke, adding that his only frustration is being denied a credit card because he is not a permanent resident of the United States.

Beth Sholom's president, Sam Einstein, said the Conservative congregation, made up of about 100 members, is pleased to have found the Mielkes.

"They are doing very well. They are bringing in some very good members to the shul (synagogue)," Einstein said. "We renewed his contract. He does a very good job. His sermons are terrific."

The aging congregation is eager to attract younger members. Mielke is preparing two girls for bat mitzvahs in June. The ceremonies will be the first at the synagogue in several years, he said.

Since he arrived "the congregation has grown somewhat and the activities have increased," Mielke said.

Einstein agreed that the rabbi has introduced several new programs, including spiritual talks over specially scheduled dinners and coffee gatherings. He also hopes to introduce more music into the synagogue's services.

Mielke said he has an important message for those who attend this year's High Holy Days services. During this annual period of prayer, reflection, atonement, charity and family gatherings, Jewish people believe that God judges his people and writes their fate for the new year in the Book of Life or Book of Death. That fate is sealed on Yom Kippur, which also is known as the Day of Atonement.

"Universality and Prophecy in the New Millennium" will be the theme of Mielke's sermons for this sacred time.

This week, the rabbi summarized his message, "There is a general concern in society that we do not teach future generations about mutual respect and this is particularly evident in religious controversy. The prophets of the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah, stressed the idea of universality, which is the brotherhood of man under the fathership of God."

For Mrs. Mielke, the weeks approaching the High Holy Days have been a time of spiritual preparation.

"We try to be introspective and we must think of our creator and we must think of the things that we did in the past," she said in the days before Rosh Hashana.

"We must try to make amends and that means turning to one's fellow human beings and asking for forgiveness. . . . The main thing for me is to think about the Almighty."

Besides focusing on spiritual readiness, Mrs. Mielke also cleaned her home and shopped for holiday foods.

"I look forward to seeing what different things they have at the kosher counters," she said a week before Rosh Hashana. "I know that I will find different things than we had at home."

It is a little different being Jewish in America than it is in South Africa, her husband said.

"The Jewish community here is very active," he said. "The other thing that I find is very beautiful is the interaction between the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community. We have Jewish friends and we have non-Jewish friends. Quite honestly, I think it is something that's very good."

Naturally, Mielke added, there are many similarities between Jews in South Africa and those in the United States.

"I found it very interesting that coming from the South African Jewish community that I had a lot in common with the American Jewish community because of the common origin of the two. The Jews that came to America were from Eastern Europe and Germany, just like those who went to South Africa," said Mielke, whose grandparents emigrated from Lithuania and Germany.

Regardless of where they are from, as Jewish people celebrate Rosh Hashana, they will bestow on each other the universal blessing for a good year. For many the greeting will be, "L'shanah Tovah!"

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