Senior Rabbi, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple
For Rabbi Robert A. Nosanchuk, a lifelong love of Judaism started under a dome.
Members of Temple Beth Jacob in Pontiac, Nosanchuk’s childhood temple, he and his family frequently manned a booth at Detroit Lions football games, soccer matches and motorcycle events played at the Pontiac Silver Dome in exchange for a portion of the proceeds as a fundraiser.
“They always say Judaism begins in the home,” says Nosanchuk, “and mine began at the home of the Detroit Lions.”
The affiliation with the stadium was so strong that both of his older brothers held their bar mitzvah parties at the restaurant overlooking the field. Nosanchuk, however, chose a different venue for his 1982 party: Nifty Norman’s Family Tavern in Walled Lake, Mich., which he recalled was a burger bar.
In preparation for his bar mitzvah, Nosanchuk was excused from after-school Hebrew classes at his temple because he lived several miles away in West Bloomfield. Instead, he was tutored by a Mr. Lask.
“I used to say to my dad, we’re passing three or four perfectly good temples to go to the temple you grew up in,” he recalls.
Not only did his father grow up in that temple, Nosanchuk’s grandparents, Dr. Joseph and Betty Nosanchuk, helped found it. That temple merged when he was in high school, and Nosanchuk’s father, Michael, later helped found another temple in the suburbs of Detroit.
While Nosanchuk’s great-grandparents were Orthodox, he said his grandfather, Dr. Joseph Nosanchuk, made the decision to practice “a more modern form of Judaism.”
“He was a prominent physician, so I think Reform Judaism appealed to his rational, scientific side alongside his steadfast belief in the traditions of Judaism,” Nosanchuk says. “My zadie and bubbe were both part of the founding generation of that little temple, and then my parents were involved as well in their stage, but it didn’t last … a third generation.”
Nosanchuk said Temple Beth Jacob had fewer than 100 families at the time of his bar mitzvah, Thanksgiving weekend in 1982, and because his family was active, he knew the entire congregation.
“I’m sure that I chanted the Torah portion,” he recalls, adding that he also read or chanted haftorah. “I don’t remember learning how to chant it. I’m sure that what I did was just memorize the chant of it. I don’t remember if I chanted the haftorah verses or not.”
He participated in Friday night services and gave a speech on the morning of his bar mitzvah. The parsha was Vayetze in the book of Genesis, about Jacob’s dream of the ladder.
His mother read a poem by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr. called “The Man in the Looking Glass.” While Nosanchuk doesn’t recall his father’s words, he says he can still see his handwriting and vividly remembers his emotion at the time.
“I remember when my dad spoke at my bar mitzvah that it was the first time I saw him cry,” Nosanchuk says. “It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t tender or emotional, but that’s definitely clear to me.”
More memorable than his rite of passage, Nosanchuk said, was the 75th anniversary celebration of his great-grandparents the following day.
“And, so, after a big celebration of my accomplishments, the next day we celebrated with my great-grandparents, my dad’s grandparents … with whom I had a relationship,” he remembers. “That’s the first thing that comes to mind is that my bar mitzvah was unique because I had this incredible look the very next day at the whole … family lineage,” he says. “And what do people mostly talk about at their bar mitzvahs? The coming together with family.”
While that may be his most lasting impression, there was another moment in his bar mitzvah that stuck out. Photos from the formal family photo shoot that took place on the day of Nosanchuk’s bar mitzvah were somehow lost or ruined. As a result, subsequent family gatherings entailed photo shoots.
“Every several weeks of the rest of the year, I’d have to get all suited up, my hair just right, so we could take more bar mitzvah photos, for like 15 months,” he recalls. “I was already confirmed by the time we had a bar mitzvah photo album.”
As a result, Nosanchuk’s bar mitzvah photo album does not represent a specific moment in time.
“If you look at the photo album, you know, (between ages) 13 to 14½, (there) is a lot of growth that happens,” he recalls. “I break right out of my bar mitzvah suit and now I’m wearing, like, the suit my older brother was wearing at my bar mitzvah by the end of it. And I look different by the end of the photo album than I did at the beginning.”
Only after Nosanchuk became a bar mitzvah did he begin going to Jewish leadership camp at Camp Kutz in New York. It was there that he first thought about becoming a rabbi, and when he returned home, he worked with a rabbi as a way of exploring his interest.
Today, he is dean of faculty at Camp Kutz, and on May 1, Hebrew Union College will award him an honorary doctorate in Jewish nonprofit management in recognition of his 25th anniversary since graduation.
Nosanchuk’s father was unable to see Nosanchuk’s son, Zachary, become a bar mitzvah in 2013.
“He was in his final months of life,” Nosanchuk recalls. “I feel a sense of responsibility to my dad’s Jewish commitments to carry them forward for my children and to help (deliver) whatever messages I can to my nieces and nephews, my brother’s children.” BM