By Lindsey Herring
On any given pre-pandemic day, congregants would often walk into the synagogue and immediately ask, “What smells so good?” The hallways were filled with the aromatic expressions of something magnificent. Only one man could answer that question. He’s this year’s Heavy Lifter Volunteer Award winner, Bernard Axel.
Bernard decided to lend his culinary, creative and administrative skills to Temple Beth-El some time ago, volunteering an untold number of hours not only in the kitchen, but anywhere anyone needed a hand. This is just Bernard’s way. “If it’s within my power, I will do anything to help you get things done,” Bernard said thoughtfully. And, sure enough, even amid a pandemic, his offer to help still stands. That’s what brought him into the synagogue just last week. He was helping prepare the most recent Connection for mailing. Some of you might not know he’s a bulletin mailing volunteer. He is. And, he’s pretty good at it, too.
He initially began helping with the bulletin mailing shortly after his wife Tobie, of blessed memory, became a regular bulletin “stuffer,” a volunteer who helps prepare the bulletin for bulk mailing. He’d come to the Temple with his beloved, patiently waiting while she engaged in this monthly ritual. The couple would return home, Tobie aflutter with news of the latest goings-on in the Jewish community. “She would tell me all the things happening in the synagogue,” Bernard said. “How do you know so much?” he would ask. Puzzled at first, he quickly realized one of the secrets of synagogue life: volunteering. See, the bulletin stuffing time is a wonderful hour (or two or three) of friendship and fellowship. The volunteers shave off hours for the staff by engaging reliably in this not-so-sought-after volunteer role. But they do it with light hearts, quick hands and an astounding sense of humor. It wasn’t long before Bernard quietly joined the fun, ready and willing to listen and learn about all the different things happening in the community.
Upon entering the synagogue last week for the mailing, Bernard was immediately greeted by the sound of prayer, something that filled Bernard with a sense of joy. Joshua Richman was leading a virtual Minyan service, his chanting just loud enough to echo faintly throughout the shul’s main floor. It was warm and inviting. “When I walked into Temple, it was so nice. When I opened the door, I heard prayers and it was very enriching,” Bernard said. He went on to complete the task he was there to do, but not before dropping off some tasty treats for the staff. Again, it’s just Bernard’s way. “Just open up your heart and you can get so much pleasure in doing things. I just get very happy when I do things for people. I always like to bring things to people, to give things to people,” he said. On that Thursday, those things were white chocolate truffles. And, the staff was elated.
If there’s one consistent thing about Bernard, it’s his ability to put smiles on so many faces. Some smiles are directly in response to his culinary creations. He’s been a chef and restaurateur for many years, so when he stepped into the volunteer role of regular kiddush coordination, congregants couldn’t be happier, to which Bernard responded, “I’m glad that I make people happy through food.” He’s worked with our kitchen staff, Warren Collins and Robin Lewis, to help not only refine their cooking skills, but also to enhance their creative food preparation skills and bring congregants a meal that allows them to embrace each other and their community. When food flows, so does conversation.
Now that he’s retired, he has more time to devote to the synagogue. This stems “… from a strong connection with the love of God,” Bernard said. “After I retired, I looked back at my life and said what direction am I going in? What’s happening in my life?” This thought led him straight to Beth-El.
“When I retired, everything just fit together, like hand in glove,” he said. “There weren’t any gaps in anything. God is always beside me. When I do something, whether it is doing the bulletins, or training Warren [Collins] and Robin [Lewis] at food production and creativity in the kitchen, or giving my neighbors something I prepared, I feel like God isn’t beside me, but inside me. I feel like he steps inside me. When I do a mitzvah, I’m emotionally satisfied.”
Bernard’s deep spiritual connections magnify his aspirations for TBE, a congregation in which he’s been a part of his entire life. “My love of the synagogue has been there my whole life. My parents were members of Temple Beth-El. I went to kindergarten and Hebrew school there. I was Bar Mitzvahed there. I was confirmed there. I taught Sunday school at Beth-El for a while,” he said. And now, decades later, Bernard is a regular fixture at TBE, where he shares his God-given talents, and he couldn’t be happier as a volunteer. His eyes are open to the possibilities of the synagogue’s future with Rabbi Stephen at the helm, and that’s something that is very exciting. “I’ve never been as close to a rabbi as I am this rabbi,” Bernard said. “He exudes warmth.”
Bernard hopes to continue to be a part of the synagogue’s transition into a center for Jewish life. After all, “That’s the way it used to be at Temple,” he remembered. He described a time long ago when all the Bnai Mitzvah events (parties and all) were in-house, everyone worked together to create the food for special functions and congregants proudly offered “their specialties” in contribution to these lively events. Nothing was outsourced, and TBE was more of a center for Jewish life. “I want to see it come back to some sort of version of that, and I want to be a part of it,” Bernard said. “God has been so instrumental in my life. I would love to do more for the synagogue, giving back a little of what God has given me.”
This Heavy Lifter is all heart, there’s no doubt about it.