Refresh Your Soul 2019 Speaker Rabbi Abie Ingber sat down with us and answered a few of our questions.
ERS: We’re riding on an elevator. You have 1 minute to tell me your story. What is it?
RABBI: Just like everybody else, I was born before I was born. I inherited the Holocaust experiences of my parents, even though I was born in freedom, and here in America. I served for 30 years at the University of Cincinnati, retired once, then served for a decade at Xavier, and retired a second time. Now, I am pursuing projects that I am really excited about, and serving as Rabbi-in-Residence at the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral. I am very eager to be one of the presenters at the Refresh Your Soul Conference on March 18 at the Cintas Center at Xavier.
It will be good to be back at Xavier, having just retired, but more importantly, to be with the hundreds of professionals who are coming to the Refresh Your Soul Conference. My operating principle has always been that we have to go beyond tolerance to get to the celebration of the ‘other.’ And I think that principle will be evident both in the presentation about Mother Teresa, and in my own words.
ERS: How did you get involved with the Refresh Your Soul Conference?
RABBI: ERS reached out to me, and asked if I would do a presentation for Refresh Your Soul. I am honored to do so, not just because I am on the same program, in a sense, as Kathryn Spink, the official biographer for Mother Teresa. But also, because of the work of those individuals who come to the Refresh Your Soul Conference, for continuing education and opportunities to grow.
ERS: What is your message?
RABBI: My message to some extent will be birth through The Holocaust, the adversity and trauma of that. And, what can we do to create a life of purpose? My adage has always been “the purpose of life, is a life of purpose.” And so, there are certain ways, I think, that can be pursued, and I will try to detail those and share anecdotes to try to convince individuals that it is totally, totally worthwhile at any point in life to pursue a life of purpose.
ERS: What are your connections to Cincinnati?
RABBI: I was not raised in Cincinnati, though I did have the privilege of raising my four daughters here. So, though I did not go to a Cincinnati high school -- I didn’t go to Elder or St. Xavier -- I think that 10 years after I am gone, the elders of Cincinnati will sit down and consider this Rabbi Abie guy. And I think I’ll get a couple votes.
ERS: Your message is timeless. How do you describe it in brief?
RABBI: My message, to perhaps offer the short thumbnail icon of it, is you can’t give love until you find love for yourself. You have to be there for others, and you have to let them know. And the last part is we are not required to complete the task in front of us. But we are not allowed to not begin it.
ERS: America has always been in an uproar about something. Is today’s turmoil just a phase?
RABBI: I am unashamedly a child of the 1960s. I would love to get rid of a few long-haired, hippie photographs, but I did come to believe in the 1960s that we could change the world. In hindsight, I was wrong. I didn't change the world. I left it arguably not much better for my daughters. But thinking that I could change the world? That transformed me.
ERS: How so?
RABBI: One of my partners in this transformation was, ironically, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I talked my way into their bedroom on June 1, 1969, literally 50 years ago, when he was recording the famous song, “Give Peace a Chance.”
ERS: You were in that room?
RABBI: I was in that room.
ERS: How does that stack up?
RABBI: I have had the privilege of meeting popes, dalai lamas, presidents, and people who sweep the streets -- proud of each one of those meetings. But of all the chance encounters that I have had, the one with John Lennon, in his bedroom, probably electrifies my students more than anything else.
RABBI: It was a “Love-In,” a “Bed-In for Peace.” John Lennon was in Montreal, Canada. I was born in Montreal. I was a young college student with long hair, a flannel shirt, facial hair. And I thought, “Wow, if I could get up into John Lennon's bedroom, that ‘Bed-In for Peace,’ that would be just incredible.”
ERS: What was your purpose in paying a visit to John and Yoko?
RABBI: The reason was I wanted him to sign a petition for human rights, for people who were expressing themselves religiously in the Soviet Union -- Soviet Jews, Baptists, etc. My feeling simply was, that if John just sang about this here, but didn't mean it, I wanted to find out.
So I took the elevator up to the 17th floor, walked through a sea of humanity, managed to get in the front, saw his manager and said, “I need to see John, because he has to sign my petition.” I told him I have to see John, because John has to decide whether or not he supports this.
I completely bamboozled the manager, and he said to hold on a moment, and I just stood there calmly waiting, while everybody around me was going crazy, trying to get a glimpse of John and Yoko. Al Kap came out. He just had a fight with John. Tommy Smothers came out. I showed Tommy the petition, and Tommy signed it. And then I was ushered into that bedroom. It was only when I walked into the bedroom did I realize that this is John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in bed. There was a Hari Krishna group I knew in the corner, cameras photographing and filming everything, and an 8-track box cassette recorder in the middle of the room. And that cassette recorder had that “ba doom … ba doom … ba doom” theme. Of course, I did not know until later, that they were recording “Give Peace a Chance.”
ERS: Can you take us back to the scene?
RABBI: I approached the bed. I told John about the petition. John read it, said, “Absolutely,” then took my pen, signed it, gave it back to me, and I thought, “Oh my God, I just got John Lennon to support my cause.” I turned around and there was this squeaky little voice -- Yoko Ono -- who said, “Can I sign it as well?” I passed it over, John gave it to Yoko, and she signed it. And then I was just elated. I turned around, and John said, “Wait a minute,” and he reached to the side of his bed -- a little end table -- picked up a potted plant, gave it to me, put it in my hands, looked me right in the eye and said, “Give it love.”
ERS: How did things turn out?
RABBI: I cannot recall leaving that room. I assume I took the staircase, or the elevator, or I just vaporized myself through the wall and floated down to the to the bottom of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. I have no recollection of leaving. But I travelled all the way home with the plant in my hands, hoping someone, anyone, would ask me, “Where did you get that plant from?” so I could say.
I got home, and my father asked, “What is that?” And I said, “John Lennon gave me this plant.” And then my father famously said, “Who is John Lennon?” My father looked at the plant, looked at me, and said, “You can give it love, and give it water, but that plant is still gonna die.”
ERS: Why do people attend Refresh Your Soul?
RABBI: I think that everybody who comes to the Refresh Your Soul Conference always leaves arguably elevated, spiritually and emotionally. This conference speaks to both head and heart, and in particular to the individual whose hands are occupied with caring for the elderly, and those near the elder years of their lives. Individuals come in -- OTs, people who work as counselors, social workers, nurses, all kinds of practitioners -- and I am honored that they see in things that I say some value to practitioners.
The theme for this particular conference is living well with purpose, and hence my major talk will be the purpose of life is a life of purpose. I think those things will blend together, and I trust that people will receive my words.
ERS: Where can people find you in Cincinnati tomorrow?
RABBI: I consider myself doubly fortunate, not only to be a speaker at the Refresh Your Soul Conference by Episcopal Retirement Services, but also to be the Rabbi-in-Residence at the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral downtown. It's a beautiful place that is so welcoming, and so integral to the vibrancy of downtown Cincinnati.
ERS: You like it down there?
RABBI: I love it downtown.
Tickets are now sold-out to see the Rabbi in person on March 18, 2019 at Refresh Your Soul 2019 — Living Well with Purpose. Visit refreshyoursoulconference.com for information or to be added to our waitlist.