At Temple Isaiah in Fulton, a rabbi's time comes to a close

Mark Panoff stood in a courtyard on a Saturday evening in May, surrounded by the people he had long helped lead and the walls of a building he had helped build.

The Sabbath was drawing to a close.

So is an era.

For 26 years, Panoff has been the rabbi at Temple Isaiah, a congregation founded in Columbia in 1970 and now based in a sizable synagogue in Fulton. He was only the congregation's second rabbi, joining them in 1986.

His last day is June 30.

"I've worked almost 40 years as a rabbi," Panoff said at his farewell party Saturday, May 19. "It's a long haul."

He and his wife, Renee Panoff, the congregation's preschool director, will be moving to Boca Raton, Fla., to be closer to one of their two sons.

It was a different calling than the one Panoff had when he was a boy growing up in Massachusetts and daydreaming of playing second base for the Boston Red Sox. But it was also no surprise that Panoff wound up in a pursuit even more theological than baseball in New England.

"I was one of those rare kids that enjoyed Hebrew school," he said.

Mark and Renee met about four decades ago, when he was an assistant rabbi in New York City and she was a preschool teacher at the same synagogue as him.

They were in Hamden, Conn., when the position at Temple Isaiah became available.

"We were looking for a congregation that was different," Mark Panoff said. "When we heard about Columbia, we were attracted by the ideology, the philosophy and the values of the planned community. And the congregation was the right fit for me."

'A visionary'

Robert Dubin of Columbia was part of Temple Isaiah's search committee back then. Though many of the candidates were strong, there was a connection with Panoff that just wasn't there with the others, Dubin said.

After Panoff arrived in Columbia, Dubin said he "knew immediately" that their new rabbi was the right choice.

"He listens," Dubin said. "He evaluates what you're saying and takes it seriously, whoever it is he's talking to. He presents himself not only as someone who can teach, but who is good counsel. And he had good ideas for the congregation."

Cindy Sandler, a past president of the congregation, described Panoff as "a visionary who creates a vision of what will be helpful to us as a congregation and community, and then is able to put that into action."

In particular, there is the synagogue off Route 216, which took about a decade of fundraising and construction before opening in 2004, providing a new home for a congregation of nearly 400 that until then had been in Columbia's interfaith centers.

"They said it couldn't be done," Panoff said. "It cost a lot of money, and nothing had been accomplished like this before. It was a huge project for us, and we did it."

The rabbi also recalls another high point in the congregation's history, one that came in 1987, very early in his tenure. During the high holidays, he gave a sermon about the struggles that Jews were facing in the Soviet Union, and he encouraged those sitting before him to join in the protest.

"When I stopped, somebody from the congregation stood up in the back and yelled out 'Rabbi! You let us know, and we'll be there,' " Panoff said.

"This congregation had 14 buses, almost the entire congregation. We went down to Washington to demonstrate on behalf of Soviet Jewry. And we then relocated 100 Soviet Jews. People volunteered in incredible waves: medical support, housing, furniture, finding jobs."

The congregation's new rabbi, Craig Axler, begins July 1. Panoff expects Axler to find a similarly motivated group to the one he came to in 1986.

"The energy that was here in my time is going to be present to do great things," Panoff said. "We were grateful to have a terrific congregation that respected us, treated us as partners and embraced us. It doesn't get better than that."

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