Yesterday morning began at the Mikveh on the Upper West Side--the only Mikveh in New York City that allows non-Orthodox rabbis to conduct conversions--bringing into the Tent of Abraham and Sarah a 72 year old man and a two year old girl. By 10 am, I had emerged into the rain to retrieve my phone at the 72nd Street station (where City Councilman David Yassky was shaking hands in his race for the Comptroller of New York City promising to help clean the city of some of its corrupt politicians)in order to hear the news that someone had died of a stroke.
I began planning a funeral while riding downtown on the bus, staying above ground to remain connected, and crawled past the new Alice Tully Hall, Times Square, and eventually wound up in Washington Square Park, beautifully renovated and landscaped, leaving me to wonder briefly why exactly it's a problem when a treasured institution is made BETTER but still people complain. In the new Washington Square Park with its fountain functioning and centered with the Stanford White Arch, the trees and flora--particularly in the grey, rainy fog--seemed particularly vivid. I was heading to lunch with my old boss, Naomi Levine, who lives and works on Washington Square, and is an ever-present, inexhaustible and brilliant mentor. Naomi had gathered for lunch the four people who have run the Bronfman Center at NYU since it opened in 1996 and she ran the conversation, ranging from the Constitution and Health Care to birthright israel, synagogues and Jewish camping, the Madoff scandal, Google, Microsoft and artificial intelligence, to the challenging lack of Jewish literacy, which of course led to the classic debate between public schools and day schools and the incredible expense of simply being Jewish in America.
Being with Naomi always makes me miss Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg--another mentor and intellectual iconoclast whose ideas I mull over daily as a kind of filter on my view of the world. Riding back to Brooklyn on the train, I couldn't read but instead sat in wonder at how luck I've been during my life in New York. The people I've met as I've made my home here and how much influence they had in shaping my view of the city and the course of my career. Some have died and I've helped bury them; others, thank God, remain very much alive. And each of them are a kind of living Torah that I unroll and read from whenever I can.
I walked into CBE through the Garfield entrance and stopped for a brief moment in front of the memorial plaques in the dark, arched entry way. During most entrances this vestibule is a conduit of constant flow--parents and nannies pushing strollers with young children; deliverymen and plumbers coming to deliver and plumb; electricians to wire; and Jews and their families coming to the synagogue for any number of reasons, to pray, learn, console and be consoled; pay a bill; start an argument; see a friend.
I stood in the entry way for a brief second and tried to feel the burden of the vaulted ceiling bearing the weight of the dead who are memorialized there. I thought of one night sleeping there, and wondered if in the dark of night those souls would arise and tell stories long forgotten. There are names of congregants who were veterans in the U.S. Armed Forces, remembered in specially designed patriotic plaques; and then the others, if you will, remembered in wood and bronze. Jewish names to be sure, but, it seems, with each passing day, their essence fading into anonymity.
The midrash teaches that the Children of Israel were saved from Egypt because they remembered their Hebrew names, a teaching somewhat impossible to escape from at that very moment. The Talmud says a person's words are the monument to their life and I wondered what these names said, what letters these names wrote, what lives they led. My reverent musings were interrupted by a delivery and I headed back to my office for a meeting with clergy, two bnei mitzvah students, a bat mitzvah rehearsal, greeting the marchers in the Children of Abraham walk (where one bar mitzvah student, Jacob Sweet, was extraordinarily mature and poised in teaching the marchers who visited our Sanctuary about the symbolism of the Synagogue)and then ran off to a fundraiser for the Osborne Association, to learn about their good work.
Before leaving CBE, I got an update from my sister about B's condition, talking through and weighing options. I leaned low, down in the pews in the back of the Sanctuary during a quiet moment where I could be neither seen nor heard for one brief moment, and listened to my sister's familiar voice. In back of me, more memorial plaques, more names, waiting in line to be heard. And the rain continued to fall outside--I could hear that too.
Despite the mixed news, it was the best moment amidst a long and complex day.