Rabbi Scott Glass is so well-known in Ithaca and Tompkins County that a simple trip to the grocery store will inevitably lead to someone recognizing him and striking up a conversation – even if Glass does not know them.
Glass, who has made a large impact on many facets of the community, is retiring after 43 years as the rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Ithaca. It has been a long journey for him, and those who knew him well are grateful for the mark he has left on their lives and the lives of others.
“I don’t think I had any notion that I wanted to be a rabbi until I was a teenager and my rabbi suggested that he thought it might be a good idea,” Glass said. “I was quite shocked and quite flattered.”
From there, Glass took the recommendation and began to focus on becoming a rabbi as a professional goal. Since Judaism was already a large influence in his life, going into rabbinical school seemed like a natural step for him, he said.
“I found the prospect of being able to live a life of faith and practice as fulfilling and especially meaningful,” he said.
When Glass, who is now 68, first started at Temple Beth-El at age 25, he had limited expectations, thinking that his role and responsibilities were only to his temple and Jews in the community.
But, he said, as time went on, he learned to expand his view, and he is glad he did. His job went beyond simply delivering sermons; it was also being a guide and support for anyone who sought it.
“I learned it wasn’t all glamour and respect and deference,” Glass said. “It was also hard work and the expectation that you would produce something intellectually and that you would influence people and that you would be involved in their lives in an intimate way that I don’t think one could ever articulate.”
Being involved meant that many, including those outside Judaism and the temple, would consider Glass their rabbi as well. Rick Bair, pastor at St. Luke Lutheran Church near Cornell University, can attest to that.
“If you get involved with him, that’s not going to be casual because he extends his heart, and that leads others to risk doing likewise,” Bair said.
Bair has known Glass for over 30 years and now considers him a brother.
“Our relationship is really one of, I think, great respect and appreciation that grew gradually over the years,” Bair said. “The rabbi is obviously a very intelligent, loving, caring, humorous person, and that led us, I think, to feel comfortable with one another.”
Glass said that, though it may not appear so at first, the religious community in Tompkins County is strong and well and has far-reaching effects in every facet of people’s lives.
“I think a lot of people believe that Tompkins County is a very secular place because of the college universities,” Glass said. “What I have found is that the religious communities in Tompkins County are very strong, very influential, very important, that the religious leaders have contributed enormously to the welfare and well-being of the community.”
That strong religious community led to an effort Rev. Tim Dean at Cayuga Medical Center said was very important to Glass – establishing a chaplaincy at Cayuga Medical Center.
As Dean tells it, in the ’90s, Rev. Gene Durham died following complications of a car accident. His wife, Mary, developed a trust to help raise money for a chaplaincy at the hospital. Glass was on the board of trustees for the Durham Trust for Chaplaincy, and he was instrumental in making the place what it is today, Dean said.
“Even though we’ve named it for Gene and Mary Durham, there are invisible fingerprints and footprints, folks like Rabbi Glass and others, without whom this wouldn’t be here,” Dean said.
Dean met Glass early in his tenure, around 2007, at a clergy meeting. Dean could immediately tell that Glass had a jovial air about him, and as the two grew as friends, it became clear there was no separating the man from the rabbi.
“When someone is doing the work that they’re meant to do in the world, it’s hard to peel apart the different layers,” Dean said. “He understands that the law of love and love and kindness is the greatest law, the highest law, and I think he lives his life by that.”
Unfortunately, in the past three years, Glass has lost both his parents, and combined with his health problems, he said, he has been in a lot of pain. So, after he had to get a pacemaker, and when he saw his contract was soon to end, he took it as a sign that it was time to move on. Plus, he said, he was starting to remember folks that were long gone.
“There comes a point in your life when you’re just a little bit out of sync and maybe it’s time to leave while they still like you,” Glass said.
Bair certainly still loves Glass, and he will forever feel the rabbi’s effect on his life.
“He is a superb sibling, has been, and I am blessed for the steps we’ve taken together,” Bair said. “The community has grown under his leadership, and I think he has provided a wonderful inclusion in the larger Ithaca and Tompkins County. … The community is going to miss him.”
Dean echoed that sentiment, saying that though moving to a new place will be good for Glass in the end, he will still be missed.
“It’s difficult for somebody who’s been in a position as long as Scott’s been in the position to stay in a community but not carry the mantle,” Dean said. “Ithaca’s a special place that finds its way into your heart if you have an open spirit about you, and I think Ithaca crawled into Scott’s heart, and vice versa.”
The next step on Glass’s journey will take him to New York City, he said, where he and his wife will move to live closer to their children and grandchildren and to start fresh. But, Glass said, he will never forget where he came from.
“My primary goal is to ensure that the life I lead sets a good example for other people,” Glass said. “I’ve learned that it’s rarely what you say that makes a difference; it’s what you do that makes a difference, … especially once you realize how much people watch you.”
Glass’s contract officially ends at the end of October, but Temple Beth-El will be holding a weekend-long going-away celebration for him Friday, Sept. 6 through Sunday, Sept. 8.
Friday’s service begins at 8 p.m. with tributes and refreshments to follow, and Saturday’s service begins at 10 a.m. with a tribute to Glass’s wife, Sharon, afterward. Both services are at Temple Beth-El and open to the public. A private brunch at Celebrations banquet hall in Ithaca will be held that Sunday.
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