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Earlier this week, with the death of Rabbi Allan Smith, – “Smitty” to all who knew and loved him – the Reform Jewish world lost a true giant.
After beginning his work for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ, formerly the UAHC) on the kitchen staff at a URJ camp, he quickly displayed a host of talents that led him to a career of more than three decades as the architect and builder of the URJ’s extensive youth programs, transforming the lives of generations of young people. He also served for many years as the beloved rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Honesdale, PA.
As the director of camping, the director of the URJ’s Kutz Camp, and the leader of the UAHC/URJ Youth Division, Smitty was the Reform Movement’s greatest champion of kids and the driving force of our youth programs. Camp and NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement were Smitty’s living laboratory, where he gave of himself, heart and soul, to fulfill the vision he created for our Reform Jewish youth.
“Universally recognized as the most accomplished and admired informal Jewish educator of his generation” is how Paul Reichenbach, recently retired URJ director of camping and Israel programs, describes Smitty. Reichenbach also had this to say:
He inspired countless Reform young people to be bold, creative, entrepreneurial, and compassionate – drawing them to Judaism and to Torah. He launched the careers of many of today’s rabbis, cantors, and Jewish professionals, who, standing on his shoulders, remember him as a mentor, a guide, an instigator, and a friend. His humor, boundless energy, and his belief in the creative survival of the Jewish people propelled him and compelled so many others to strive to be their best selves.
As Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the URJ, noted in remarks on the occasion of Smitty’s retirement from the URJ in 2001:
Rabbi Allan Smith is energetic, creative, frenetic, and voluble – never stopping to take a rest or even take a breath. When Smitty gets going, you can’t stop him. When he was a young rabbi in his 20s, he was great with kids; when he was a middle-aged rabbi in his 40s, he was great with kids; and now that he is – let us say – an older rabbi in his 60s, he is still great with kids. Because kids are drawn to his enthusiasm for Judaism and his personal dynamism; because they recognize a kindred spirit when they see one; because they know instinctively that Smitty gets what they are about and can relate to their concerns and problems.
Rabbi Roxanne Shapiro, director of lifelong learning at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation in Indianapolis, IN, and a former NFTY president wrote:
Smitty supported me in my role as NFTY president, he challenged me in my Jewish thinking and reasoning, and he cared for me like family. I’m not sure I would have become a rabbi without his influence and support. I am forever grateful for his gifts to Kutz, URJ camping, NFTY, the Youth Division, and to me.
According to Ruben Arquilevich, vice president of URJ Camps, NFTY, and immersive experiences, “He had a vision for camp, NFTY, [and] Israel and was a giant in creating the camps [and the] camping movement we are blessed to have today.”
Many years ago, longtime Reform Jewish camper and musician Doug Mishkin, together with Rabbi Ramie and Merri Lovinger Arian, wrote a song that remains in the hearts of anyone who was influenced by Smitty’s creative, frenetic energy and love:
We are all Smitty’s children,
We are all glory bound,
When we smile, when we sing his songs,
We show we know the truth he found
“He has an honored place in the history of the URJ and of the Reform Movement,” Rabbi Yoffie stated in 2001, “for a very simple reason: The lives of literally thousands of kids have been changed, and made more Jewish, because of who he is and what he has done.”
We extend deepest condolences to his loved ones and the countless others whose lives were touched and influenced by Rabbi Allan “Smitty” Smith. May his memory be an enduring blessing.