1. News

Rabbi Frank Sundheim, a musician and scholar, dies at 81

Rabbi Frank Sundheim served 20 years at Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa
Rabbi Frank Sundheim served 20 years at Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa
Published May 24, 2013

TAMPA — In 1986, Rabbi Frank Sundheim stepped down from his full-time pastorate at Congregation Schaarai Zedek, where he had served for 20 years.

But Rabbi Sundheim hardly retired. He led a regional office for Reform Judaism, then returned to the ministry, serving as a part-time rabbi at several congregations in Hernando, Pinellas and Polk counties.

He played the violin and organ, sang cantorial solos; taught Judaism at confirmation classes and Mozart and opera to adult learners at the University of South Florida.

He took long walks from his Odessa home, preached the occasional sermon and mentored other rabbis.

"Once a rabbi, always a rabbi," said Adrianne Sundheim, his wife of nearly 60 years. "Just because you hit 65 doesn't mean you stop doing what you were doing when you were 26."

Rabbi Sundheim died late Wednesday under hospice care, a month after suffering a stroke. He was 81.

His strengths included a deep understanding of his religion, kindness and humility, friends and colleagues say.

"He used himself, his strengths and weaknesses, as teaching tools. However, he was extremely insightful regarding human nature," said Rabbi Gary Klein of Temple Ahavat Shalom of Palm Harbor, where Rabbi Sundheim filled in as an auxiliary rabbi and soloist from 2000 to 2006.

In confirmation classes, he urged young people to examine what it means to be Jewish; to clip news stories of Jewish interest; study current problems in Israel and the differences between his own more liberal Reform branch of Judaism and Conservative and Orthodox branches.

"I admit I get political and talk about the NRA and how their answers aren't my answers," he said in 1999, after a man sprayed the lobby of a Los Angeles Jewish community center with bullets, wounding five. "While you don't want to scare your children, you do live in the real world."

Frank N. Sundheim was born in 1932 in Philadelphia. He took music lessons on the way to playing the organ, piano and bass violin, but much of his talent was innate.

"He had perfect pitch," his wife said. "He could play anything he had ever heard, in any key you wanted."

He earned a master's degree and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in 1958, then served two years as an Army chaplain.

After seven years as a rabbi in Huntington, W.Va., he moved his family to the bay area. He served under Rabbi David Zielonka for four years before taking over as senior rabbi in 1970.

"My father handpicked him," said Dr. Carl Zielonka, son of the late rabbi.

He left in 1986 to become the regional director of what is now the Southeast Council of the Union for Reform Judaism in Miami. He was there when Deborah Parent, then president of a struggling Temple Beth David in Spring Hill, sought his counsel.

"He made it clear that he would be there if I needed guidance about our community," said Parent, 68. "It was nice to know he had that feeling, not even knowing us."

Rabbi Sundheim served as part-time rabbi for the temple in the late 1990s.

Before Rosh Hashana his first year there, he told parishioners that sinning comes from a Hebrew archery term hatah, which means "to miss the mark."

"If sinning is missing the mark, repentance is taking more careful aim at the mark," he told the Times.

In the late 1990s, he also taught courses for older adults in opera, Mozart and religious music. He called teaching "a little like starting a new career, without all the problems."

Not long into his tenure at Congregation Ahavat Shalom, the synagogue lost its cantorial soloist. Rabbi Sundheim, then in his 70s, stepped in and "did that very beautifully, for about seven years," said Rabbi Klein.

"He knew so much," said Klein. "He brought so much wisdom and goodness into the world."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (727) 892-2248.