Dear GUCI Staff:
Rarely does it happen that someone, in a few words, spoken privately, creates a moment that the listener remembers for a lifetime. Perhaps you remember an encouragement you received from a mentor or role model; a sentence or two that remains in the mind and the heart.
These encounters may happen in the strangest of places, always best when unexpected. Those of you who have been reading these ramblings for a long while may remember my relating just such an encounter between myself and my beloved, 95 year-old professor of American Jewish History, Dr. Jacob Marcus. We exchanged memorable words to each other as we stood urinating next to each other in the downstairs Men’s room of the Plum Street Temple (this story is soon to reprinted in a future edition of the scholarly journal, “Historic Jewish Excretions”), a few moments before Sandford Kopnick became a “Rabbi in Israel” (the Israel job must have been filled as Sandford instead became a Rabbi in Chicago). My point is simply, that one never knows when someone might hear something that will knock her/his socks off.
Last month, I had occasion to return to my home synagogue, B’nai Jehoshua-Beth Elohim, to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Only five of its sons and daughters had entered the rabbinate, and were all invited back to participate in this historic Shabbat Service. Also in attendance were, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (my ultimate boss), Rabbi Mark Shapiro, the spiritual leader of the congregation for the last 31 years, and Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, one of the former rabbis of the old B’nai Jehoshua (the temple of my youth).
Rabbi Arnold Wolf is an impish, genius of a man; a rabbi’s rabbi who had a profound impact on my life as I was growing up. I came under his spell after he had left my congregation (he served there as rabbi during the time I celebrated my 6th through 10th birthdays). It was later, throughout the summers of my camper and staff years at Union Institute camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, that I really got to know Rabbi Wolf. You see, Arnie Wolf was no ordinary rabbi, he was a rebel. He was a radical. He challenged my every belief. He made me think and question. He was my teacher and the expander of my horizons. And, so many times he made me laugh. I hadn’t seen Rabbi Wolf in 20 years. We met again that night when I returned to “BJBE” where I could still hear the voices of my father and grandfathers, my aunts and uncles and cousins; the tumult of my confirmation class and youth group.
Prior to the arrival of the 600 or so congregants who would gather for the Shabbat service, the special guests were invited to a small Shabbat dinner. Before the meal I re-introduced myself to Rabbi Wolf. When he heard my name he looked at me as if he couldn’t believe his eyes (I guess I’d grown up a bit). His first words knocked off my right sock. As if he had kept track of me all of these years, he said, “You created the perfect career for yourself.” His eyes were bright. He was proud of me, one of his long, lost, camp kids. I smiled, but didn’t exactly understand what he meant and was about to ask, when he hit me with the second punch of this verbal one-two combination. This one left me completely sockless.
Rabbi Wolf told me that even though his congregation was in Chicago, and that most of his kids attended Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, several of his temple children had come down to Zionsville. He went on to say that each of those GUCI campers had returned telling tales of love and enthusiasm, for friends and Judaism. He poked his finger at my tie (I was nicely dressed), leaned a little forward and proclaimed, “Ronnie, you’re really doing it!”
I said, “Rabbi, you taught me well in the early days of Union camping.” But he wouldn’t hear of it. His next words are the ones I will always hold dear.He said, “It was easy back then in the early 60’s. Everyone was into it. But you are really making it happen for our kids now- and it’s not happening in many places.”
He was almost immediately swept away by other guest who wanted to talk, reminisce, and laugh with this beloved rabbi. I couldn’t get his compliment out of my head. That Rabbi Wolf would even remember me, let alone appreciate my work, our work. I must admit that, personally, the rest of the evening paled in the shadow of that moment. I had made my rabbi proud; and he had made my decade.