Rabbi Howard Kutner, director of spiritual living at Menorah Park in Beachwood, was remembered as a meticulously observant Jew, an effective teacher and as a congregational rabbi for the residents – in every sense.
Kutner died June 29 at age 63.
“Rabbi Kutner’s friendship and guidance were felt throughout Menorah Park among staff, residents and families alike and we will cherish the memories of the times each of us spent with him,” Menorah Park CEO Jim Newbrough said in a statement to the Cleveland Jewish News June 30.
“When I joined Menorah Park, Rabbi Kutner spent the first year teaching me many meaningful aspects of Judaism from holidays to traditions. I gained a deeper understanding in Judaism and great respect for Rabbi Kutner. His important Judaic lessons have and will stay with me, because of how he taught. Through humor and a quick wit, he helped all of us, including me, feel comfortable and open to learning with a strong sense of enthusiasm.”
Residents of Montefiore on the same campus praised his teaching, said Rabbi Akiva Feinstein, director of spiritual care at Montefiore. Residents often said they were surprised at how Kutner could present material in a way that was enjoyable, Feinstein said.
“He was really a great teacher because he could explain contents that were deep to anybody,” Feinstein said. “His persona was that he was a community rabbi. Many of the residents would always tell me, ‘I feel like I have a rabbi.’”
Feinstein said Kutner took that responsibility seriously and was, at the same time, approachable and “at people’s level.”
Kutner, who was born May 8, 1957, became director of spiritual learning in 2017 after serving as associate rabbi under the mentorship of Rabbi David Bader at Menorah Park for 13 years.
Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum, founder and director of Jewish Learning Connection in University Heights, said he first met Kutner at Menorah Park.
At some point, Kutner began attending services at Jewish Learning Connection, and he regularly attended services there on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. He often led the davening, Nisenbaum said.
“He felt connected to G-d when he prayed,” Nisenbaum told the CJN. “He really did. He said each word so carefully. He enunciated each word carefully.”
Nisenbaum said the two engaged in discussions of Jewish law, or halacha, as well, both theoretical and practical concerns.
Nisenbaum said while Kutner was meticulous in his observance, he was also respectful of the different levels of observance among residents at Menorah Park.
“He knew how to make people feel good,” he said. “Both in his personal life and his professional life, he walked a balance.”
Kutner grew up in Queens, N.Y., and received rabbinic training at Yeshiva University in New York City. He came to Beachwood after working as a pulpit rabbi at Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, Neb. He told the CJN in a 2017 interview he was drawn to the quality Cleveland-area educational opportunities for his four children, leading him to the Menorah Park position.
“He came to Menorah Park with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and dedication, and established relationships with his new congregation very quickly,” a statement from Menorah Park read.
“In his role as associate rabbi, he increased the number of weekly classes and led well-attended ‘Ask the Rabbi’ classes and conducted Shabbat services,” the statement continued. “On several occasions, questions arose during these services which then become part of the next ‘Ask the Rabbi’ session. Rabbi Kutner observed women on campus stating they did not have a bat mitzvah as young girls. Acknowledging the void, he extended a bat mitzvah invitation to residents. Ten women, ages 89 through 96 signed up for bat mitzvah classes, and they named their group WOW, Women of Wiggins. They shared their life lessons with the nation as they studied and prepared.”
Kutner said in the 2017 CJN interview, “When you become their rabbi, it’s a wonderful thing because many of them are no longer members of synagogues at their advanced age. They can still feel like they have a rabbi that cares about them and has taken care of their religious and spiritual needs.”
According to the statement, “Their great sense of accomplishment is thanks to Rabbi Kutner and the way in which he made learning an engaging and interesting experience. He was not only an exceptional spiritual leader with a vast knowledge of Torah, but also an incredible teacher with ever-present warmth and humor. Several bar and bat mitzvot followed throughout the campus, and he also led vow renewals with several couples joining together in these heartfelt ceremonies.”
Along with Associate Rabbi Joseph Kirsch, the spiritual team offered services inclusive of all segments of the community, the statement said. “Their focus was to enrich the lives of residents through spiritually uplifting services, educational opportunities and special programs. Rabbi Kutner furthered his education by studying chaplaincy and served as chaplain-in-training at the Cleveland Clinic. He along with Rabbi Kirsch supported pastoral and spiritual needs. He also implemented a strong kosher supervision process throughout campus. Pastoral visitation, intergenerational programming, hospice, end-of-life counseling and decision making, kosher supervision, Jewish holidays and special programming were all important aspects of his role.”
Kutner, who was trained as an Orthodox rabbi, led d’Var Torah sessions at board meetings and acted as cantor while reading from the Torah at services.
Kutner is survived by his wife, Nechama, and their four children: Yechiel, who is studying in Israel, and Eliyahu, Binyamin, who is studying at Yeshiva University, and Chana Lieba, who lives in Greater Cleveland.
A graveside funeral was held June 30 at Mount Olive Cemetery in Solon.