ANDOVER — Rabbi Howard Mandell has always lived his life asking what God wants him to do. Searching for that answer has led him from aspirations as a creative writer; to becoming a civil rights lawyer and clerking for one of the South’s most courageous federal judges; to working as the first staff lawyer at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and founding Alabama’s first racially integrated law firm in Montgomery; to leaving his legal career behind to study for the rabbinate; and finally, today, to serving as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Andover.
“If I take the time to discern God’s will for me, I can sometimes hear the still, calm voice within,” said Rabbi Mandell. “I consider myself to be as much a spiritual as religious person, with God playing a central role in everything I do.”
Growing up in Providence, R.I., Mandell wanted to be a writer. After he earned a B.A. degree in English and creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, his father urged him to try law school, so he would have a career to fall back on. At Georgetown University, he studied constitutional law and began to “appreciate how the law can bring fairness and justice to the world,” said Mandell. “Suddenly I had a reason to get up every morning and go to class.”
During his last year of law school, Mandell picked up Time Magazine in a doctor’s waiting room. The cover featured Judge Frank Johnson Jr., a Lincolnesque figure who had served on the three-judge panel in Alabama that decided the landmark civil rights case in favor of Rosa Parks.
“I knew immediately he was the person I wanted to clerk for,” said Mandell. Although Johnson received numerous death threats and his mother’s house was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan, Mandell had no hesitation about working for him. “I was too idealistic and naïve to worry about my safety,” he said. “I wanted to make a difference. I asked myself, ‘What better way to serve God and community?’”
On his initial visit to Alabama, Judge Johnson took him out to dinner, and Mandell noticed that no one would sit near them in the restaurant. Then, immediately after being dropped off at his motel by the judge’s son, Mandell was stopped, frisked and questioned by police. Fortunately, the judge’s son saw what was happening, identified Mandell to the police as his father’s new law clerk and then walked him over to the room adjacent to his. The woman there was Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr. “My first night in Alabama, I got to spend several hours talking with Mrs. King,” he said.
Toward the end of his clerkship, local attorneys Morris Dees and Joe Levin, who were starting the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), approached Mandell, who subsequently became the center’s first staff attorney. He remains involved today and currently serves on its board.
After several years, he left to fulfill his dream of starting the first racially integrated law firm in Alabama. He teamed up with Delores Boyd, an African American woman, and for over two decades, the Mandell and Boyd Law Firm specialized in civil rights and constitutional law. Mandell also became the agent for Oscar Gamble, then a Chicago White Sox player, and several other major league baseball players.
Mandell has always found people in the South to be warm and welcoming, but because of the nature of his civil rights work, he sometimes got threats. He learned from an older civil rights lawyer to put tape on the hood of his car and always checked if the tape had been moved or broken, indicating that someone might have placed a bomb in the engine.
With little time for vacations over the years, Mandell decided to take a two-week vacation in the 1990s, which turned into a two-year sabbatical, including 10 months living in Israel. While in Israel, he got a call from Bobby Bright, the young newly-elected mayor of Montgomery, asking Mandell to come back and be the city attorney. Knowing that position might entail representing the same people he had formerly sued in his law firm, Mandell agreed after being assured he would never be asked to compromise his values and principles. “Mayor Bright is living proof of what good political leadership can accomplish for the public good,” said Mandell.
He again became involved in Montgomery’s Jewish community, and because he had lived in Israel, he was asked to lead the High Holy Day services at a small Sephardic synagogue. During this time, he met Rabbi Bill Lebeau, dean of the rabbinical school at Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, who was visiting Montgomery. Lebeau planted the seed about Mandell switching careers and attending rabbinical school.
“How blessed I’ve been to have role models of courage and deep character throughout my life,” said Mandell. “Had I stayed in Montgomery, I would probably have reached my goal of becoming a judge. Self-transformation required me to put myself in a different and sometimes uncomfortable setting.” For example, in his JTS class of 22 students, all but three were under the age of 30. “Each was far more knowledgeable. It was a real lesson in humility.”
After his ordination, Mandell became the rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Virginia Beach, Va., followed by a chaplaincy residency at Yale New Haven Hospital, where he volunteered to serve on the hematology/oncology floor. “You realize how fragile life is,” he said. “Some days, I felt so close to God and at other times, questioning and upset. Every day was full of meaning and holiness.”
Wanting to spend more time with his father, now in his mid-90s in Providence, Mandell accepted a position at Congregation Beth Israel (CBI) in Andover in 2013. He acknowledges it was an act of faith, on both parts, for CBI to hire him. “Because of my background, I’m not a traditional Conservative rabbi,” he said. In the past year, Mandell and his congregation have begun holding musical, spiritually moving Friday night services, featuring Beshert, a group of in-house musicians. A recent interfaith seder was highlighted by freedom songs led by the Andover Baptist Church gospel choir. CBI’s social action committee has initiated builds with Habitat for Humanity and participated in feedings at several shelters.
“My vision is to create a warm, vibrant and holy community — a place where people can derive great joy and meaning from Judaism and their connection to God,” he said. At CBI, Mandell has found a devoted core of committed, caring people. “I feel very fortunate. The congregation has assisted me in implementing my rabbinate vision and encouraged me to pursue my other interests.” He also teaches interfaith and social justice classes at Merrimack College and is active in the Andover interfaith community.
“I feel very blessed to be where I am in my life today,” he concluded. “For me, life is far more about relationships than achievement. My greatest legacy, by far, are my two sons, Josh and Charlie, their lovely wives and my grandchildren.”