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DEPARTING WILL BE BITTERSWEET FOR REVERED AMHERST RABBI TEMPLE BETH AM'S SPIRITUAL LEADER FOR 13 YEARS TO BECOME HEAD OF SUBURBAN CHICAGO CONGREGATION

The High Holy Days, the most solemn period in the Jewish year, became even more introspective for Rabbi Steven S. Mason of Temple Beth Am this year.

Rabbi Mason, who has helped the Reform Amherst congregation double its size in the last 13 years, was leaning toward taking on a new challenge.

He finalized that decision last week, informing Beth Am members that he plans to become the rabbi of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Ill., pending approval by the full congregation there next week.

So, plenty of thoughts and emotions ran through Rabbi Mason's mind as he looked out over his congregation during the High Holy Days. Always an emotional and provocative time for the rabbi, the holidays became even more emotional for him this year.

Rabbi Mason, 45, had tended to these people during births, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings and deaths. He spotted teen-agers whose naming and Bar Mitzvah services he had overseen. He saw plenty of families who had turned to him when loved ones died.

"I thought about it a lot during the High Holy Days," he said Wednesday in his temple office. "I looked out at people I've known for 13 years, through the turning points of their lives."

And when the last blast of the shofar was sounded, Rabbi Mason recalled feeling overwhelmed.

"It's not easy to think about leaving a place that you love," he said. "I've had to examine what it is inside of me that prompts me to take on a whole new set of challenges."

He discovered that it was the same desires that led him to hop a plane for New York City every Monday for the last two years, to earn his doctorate in ministry, with a concentration in pastoral care and pastoral counseling.

"It's the opportunity to continue to challenge myself, to grow more and learn more," Rabbi Mason said. So, probably in June, Rabbi Mason, his wife, Patty, and their three children will leave for the Glencoe synagogue, which has 1,500 families in the northern suburb of Chicago.

The Temple Beth Am they leave will be a vastly different place from the pulpit he inherited in June 1983.

In an era of declining population, Beth Am has grown from about 320 to 780 families. The religious school now has about 500 students. The physical plant has been expanded by one-third, the rest of the building modernized.

Inside his congregation, Rabbi Mason is revered for his warmth and his sense of humor -- and kidded for his seemingly omnipresent guitar.

Rabbi Mason also has left his mark on Western New York as an activist rabbi in leadership roles with the National Conference, the Board of Rabbis, Buffalo Area Metropolitan Ministries and the Community Relations Committee of the local Jewish Federation.

His has been an active voice on a wide range of issues: religion in the schools, religious symbols on public property, anti-Semitic acts, dialogue with local Palestinians and the call for civility during the Spring of Life protests. And he's helped set up interfaith and AIDS memorial services and the Roll Call Against Racism.

Those aren't the things he'll remember best about Buffalo.

"I know what endures will be the relationships I have established with people," he said. "My work life, my personal life and my family life have been so rewarding here at Temple Beth Am.

"In many ways, deciding to do this is like moving away from home," the Worcester, Mass., native added. "And that's not easy."

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