Rabbi Fred Guttman nudges Boomers on to the Promised Land

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A self-described “nudnik for justice,” 61-year-old Rabbi Fred Guttman has shared his opinions face to face with world and national leaders, including Desmond Tutu, Elizabeth Dole, Eric Cantor, Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. And each meeting is documented in an impressive gallery of grip-and-grin photographs outside his office at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro. You’ll even see the rabbi rubbing shoulders with actors Henry Winkler and Danny Glover.

So when Rabbi Guttman uses the Yiddish term, nudnik—meaning someone that nudges to the point of annoyance—it’s meant both as self-deprecating humor and the truth.

“I’m deeply concerned about where our state and country are going and how to build a more just society,” says Rabbi Guttman, who has been a vocal and visible champion for social causes since his boyhood in Nashville, Tennessee, where he drew inspiration from Jewish leaders in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the 1970s, a young Fred Guttman was an activist in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.

In 1998, Rabbi Guttman organized an interfaith council to bring a resolution to a local school board conflict that threatened the education system of Guilford County. Recently, he has stood in support for marriage equality and worked for immigrant rights. And Rabbi Guttman has always been a dedicated advocate for the poor and our senior population.

“I honestly think that the real test of a civilization is in how it takes care of its elderly population,” says Rabbi Guttman. In 2008, in a meeting with then-candidate Barack Obama, Rabbi Guttman seized the opportunity to admonish that the Ten Commandments were given to society, not to individuals. Then he asked Obama what it means if in a society we create situations where an elderly person has to choose between health care, paying for prescription medicine, food, heating a house and paying for rent?

“I hadn’t finished the question for more than a half a second, when the president lifted up his hand and said, ‘In that case, we are in violation of the Fifth Commandment,’ which I thought was quite impressive,” says Rabbi Guttman. “The Fifth Commandment is ‘honor your father and mother,’ which doesn’t just mean MY father and MY mother, but yours and everybody else’s.”

Rabbi Guttman’s own mother is now 83 and lives in a senior community in Nashville. Between him and his two siblings, caring for Mom is a shared experience that is common to many Baby Boomers. And with this in mind, the rabbi frames his generation with a Biblical reference.

“We (as Boomers) are like the ancient Israelites wandering through the desert,” says Rabbi Guttman. “We’re done raising our families, we’re empty nesters primarily, and we really have these two questions: ‘will we ever make it to the promised land?’ and ‘what is the promised land?’ Is the promised land to retire? Then what? Do I have enough money to retire? And now that my kids are not in my house, I still worry about them. Will I be blessed with grandchildren?”

The Guttmans, Fred and his wife Nancy, have three grown children, two sons—one about to be married—and a daughter. Nancy Guttman is a therapist with a practice in Greensboro. Rabbi Guttman was ordained in 1979 at Hebrew Union College, where he also earned a master’s degree in Hebrew Literature and, in 2004, a doctorate degree in divinity. He has a Master’s of Education degree from the University of North Florida and completed his undergraduate education at Vanderbilt University.

Living in Israel from 1979 to 1991, Rabbi Guttman served as a reservist in the Israeli Defense Forces and became rabbi and principal of a high school. He was invited to serve as Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in 1995, by way of Florida where he had been an associate rabbi. At that time, Rabbi Guttman had never heard of Greensboro. He claims that the Temple Emanuel search committee tricked him by scheduling his first interview when the azaleas were in bloom. But he was soon surprised by how much he grew to like it here year-round, noting his appreciation for the Greensboro Symphony and the Community Theatre of Greensboro, that happens to be headed by Temple Emanuel cantor, Mitchel Sommers. You’ll also find several guitars stored on the temple’s bimah, which the rabbi is inclined to pick up and play during services.

Under Rabbi Guttman’s leadership, Temple Emanuel has flourished with a growing congregation as well as an impressive new facility at 1129 Jefferson Road, next door to the American Hebrew Academy. The Temple hosts a variety of community events and organizations, including providing a site for the Adult Center for Enrichment to offer group respite services for caregivers of seniors, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Rabbi Guttman further articulates our community’s duty to seniors with a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.”

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