by Rabbi James Prosnit
Yom Kippur 5775
On Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Sher reminded many of you and me as well, that these are the 25th High Holy Days that I have been here at B’nai Israel. Or in other words it has been 26 years since he has been the active senior rabbi. Somehow Arnie always manages to stay young and it is wonderful to have him on the bimah again this afternoon. Over the past two decades and a half he has been invaluable to me for counsel, encouragement and perspective. When colleagues complain about their emeritus, (and they do) I know how much I have been blessed.
25 years — time does move quickly. I had hair and no glasses. With what hair I have left – I have grown gray at the Temple.
The boys that Wendy and I brought with us in 1990 are now men. One teaches in an inner city High School in the South Bronx, two are rabbis and married; and as you may have heard one of them became a father a few weeks ago. That means of course that I became a grandfather for the first time. Many of you have already entered the blessed stage of life and have told me that the feeling is beyond description, but that of course hasn’t prevented any of you from trying to describe it!
I cannot say that Ezra Jules will be extraordinary except in the most obvious personal way. He is ours – and for the time being this child will be my link to a time in which I will no longer be alive. In past years when I heard the words of the prayer book, ”Who shall live and who shall die, how many shall pass on, how many shall come to be I thought of my parents and their parents. Now I have reversed the view and am thinking of my children and theirs.
This after all is the time of day when we reflect on our mortality, think about how we will be remembered and of course pause to remember the lives that came before us.
Twenty five years ago the names on the list of those who died in the previous year were in the main anonymous to me. When I officiated back then at a funeral, the person was typically someone aged and infirmed. I depended on the family members to give me a sense of their vitality, their avocations, their personalities. I would tell people at those powerful pre-funeral meetings, my role is to get you talking and to be your editor; to draw together stories and memories so I can weave a fitting tribute based on your recollections.
As the years have gone on, that has changed. While I rely on family for background information, I have a pretty good image of most of those at whose funerals I officiate. I have my own memories and sense of their accomplishments and spirit. It remains one of the most sacred aspects of what a rabbi does, to be able to say special things about righteous people. But I have to admit it’s getting harder and sadder. This year in the list that we will read shortly you’ll notice more names than I ever remember. Our congregation lost a tremendous number of very special folks – some of whose families go back generations at B’nai Israel, some who were congregational leaders and some who were just salt of the earth congregants who were active or inactive –but who were committed to the synagogue.
I played golf and talked science and theology with Jimmy Baum, I admired the intellect of Al Rankell and Jack Zeldis. I learned about the glory days of Bridgeport from Ray Rubens, Bernie Gerber, Sherman Greenwald, Sid Postol, and one of our past presidents Joe Goloff. I marveled at Bobby and Arnold Kaplan’s 73 year love affair. There were some stalwarts of our sisterhood who I remember like Marge Olschan, Irene Correnti, and Ursula Kay. I saw how even in their later years Shirley Winnick and Lee Attenberg never stopped making suggestions as to how we could be a more responsive congregation and how the recent and tragic death of Jill Tarlov made it clear that lives aren’t just measured in quantity but in quality. In her shortened years she was able to make a difference in many, many lives.
I argued constantly with Barbara Levine, but came to appreciate her questioning and her commentary and know that she made me a better rabbi than I might have otherwise been. I saw the love that Mike Rosenberg, our president’s dad, had for his family, but also for the Jewish people everywhere. I respected his steadfast support of so many diverse institutions of Jewish life. From the Europe of his birth to Israel; from Brooklyn to Bridgeport his commitment and philanthropy enhanced the Judaism for many.
And I have fond memories of Carol Engleman, Martin Goldfield, Russ Solorow, Herman Bailer, Claire Breiner, Jack Newman, Mel Silverman, Barbara Haflich and Sylvia Washton.
I didn’t know Florence Nabel until shortly before she died. I have a hunch that very few of you knew her either. She was shy and introverted and as lovely as they come. She never married and lived with her disabled brother until his death a couple of years ago. I met her at that time and made it a point to stay in touch. She came to the Temple only on occasion.
When I received word that Florence had died I was quite concerned that there would be hardly anyone at her graveside funeral. To this day the saddest funeral I have ever officiated at took place many years ago when I was a young rabbi in Canada. The only two people present were me and the man’s executor. I resolved at that point never to allow that to happen again, so I asked some our Temple leaders to come even thought they didn’t know her.
At the funeral what we found – an unexpectedly large number of people who over the years had been touched by Florence’s life; A neighbor, the man who cut her grass, her plumber, her hairdresser, a distant cousin. She was a wonderful baker and made a living making lemon meringue pies and other goodies for some of the local restaurants. Some of the restaurant owners and managers attended too. Each one wanted to be present and share a reflection because this unassuming, sweet woman touched their lives in a very genuine way – as she had touched mine. Sometimes we just never know how we’ll make our mark or what our impact or legacy will be.
Those who have been here at this time of day in years gone by know that from time to time I use these moment that sets the stage for the memorial service that follows to talk about some of the famous personalities who have died in the year that has ended – the celebrities, the authors, politicians, comedians – and we know that there were quite a few that I could have mentioned. But this year as you can see I’ve preferred to keep my thoughts in house.
Because these moments are after all mostly about us! The people of our congregation and the extended circles that emanate out from each and every one of us. These moments of memorial enable us to focus on the sacred aspects of their lives, and also provide us another opportunity during this long extended day to take stock over how we ourselves are living, to recalibrate and remember to make the most of the time we have. There is wisdom in our tradition that bids us throughout the day to take charge of our lives even as at this Memorial Service we come to terms with the ultimate reality that our lives are not forever.
By accepting the teaching that to none of us it is given to complete the work we may find it easier to reconcile to the reality of loss when it comes. By accepting that we have to continue what others have left unfinished and others will continue what we leave undone and we are only a fragment in God’s universe we can see our lives in proper proportion. In so doing we may find it possible to see grief and loss in a larger context. What is not possible for us individually might well be possible collectively. As we received the precious gift from someone and get to hang on to it for a little while, we know eventually we too must relinquish our hold.
May that day for each of us – be in the far distance – but may the work we do and the memories we create in the meantime come to be a blessing for those who carry us forward –even as at these moments we carry forth the works and deeds of our own loved ones.
A poem by Merritt Molloy that’s in our new prayer book I know has touched many of you –and may sum up our feelings at this moment:
When I die if you need to weep
Cry for your brother or sister
walking the street beside you
And when you need me, put your arms around anyone
And give them what you need to give me.
I want to leave you something
Something better than words or sounds.
Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved
And if you cannot give me away
At least let me live in your eyes and not your mind.
You can love me most by letting hands touch hands
By letting bodies touch bodies
And letting go of children that need to be free.
Love doesn’t die, people do
So when all that’s left of me is love
Give it away