31 March 2014
A helping hand to those in need.
A lover of books.
He dreamed of his people's redemption
And dedicated himself to this day and night.
These are the favorite of the lines from the acrostic poem my great-grandfather wrote about himself, had painted on to ceramic and attached to his gravestone, which still sits in a cemetery on the South Side of Milwaukee.
Chaim Siegel, an immigrant to Wisconsin from Kopel, Minsk, Belarus in 1899, was by family legend a "rabbinical student" who instead ended up working in business in Milwaukee's center city, not far from the Golda Meir School at 3rd and Walnut.
When I did a college tour in February with my daughter, we rolled through town and pulled up to the school to take a look. It's where my grandmother was educated to be an American; it was from there that Goldie Myerson picked her up for babysitting; and it remains a symbol of our family's roots in both Minsk and Milwaukee--roots that are now deeply planted in my own kids' lives, so that they will one day tell the stories of where they origins.
Chaim Siegel never became the rabbi he had hoped to be but nevertheless he founded two synagogues was president of the Mizrachi Zionists, a small but meaningful contribution to the building and eventual founding of the Jewish state. Perhaps more important than his erstwhile desire to fulfill his service as a rabbi, he was a Jew who always showed up.
When I decided to become a rabbi, the great-grandfather I never met was foremost on my mind. Honoring his memory, exercising the privilege of Jewish leadership that perhaps economic circumstance prevented him from fulfilling, pushed me forward to Israel, rabbinic school and service. My life's work, solidified while saying Kaddish for my own father back in 1983, was alloyed to his.
Alloys, as far as the characteristics of metal are concerned, are generally stronger and more durable than the simpler, pure metals from which they are made. And the rabbinic career I wrought for myself these last thirty years has been one such mixture of sorts--sacred text and political activism; popular culture and deep spiritual traditions; deeply American and proudly Zionist. I have always strived to give life to the many dimensions of what it is to be a Jew in our age. And have, consequently, taught others to do the same.
Our lives are mixed up with each other, aren't they?
Since announcing my departure from the pulpit rabbinate of CBE last week, some people have asked me questions about my motivations for making this shift in my career. Will you stop being Jewish? Are you no longer a rabbi? And, the most often asked, will you do my funeral?
My Jewish soul is alloyed to wiry body. They are inextricably bound. I will forever read and teach and talk and argue and laugh about the many-faceted aspects of the improbable and inspiring reality of the Jewish people. As I told my Shabbat morning Torah study class, I will always teach.
As for being a rabbi, I'll say that with great pride I plan on remaining a rabbi; and am both fascinated and inspired by the notion of what it will mean to me to carry my rabbinic service out to the greater citizenship of my hometown here in Brooklyn. Wherever I land professionally in a little over a year from now, I may very well not retain the title of rabbi, but it doesn't mean that the work won't fundamentally be about service, learning, and the ethical and moral dimensions to what it is to live in community.
Just as Simeon the Righteous taught the "world stands on three things: Learning, Service, and Deeds of Loving Kindness," I see the rabbinic dimension at play in whatever I'll do because I know that equally central to the next professional chapter of my career will be that great sage's wisdom as well.
The ancient prophets were quite clear that the Jew was to be ethically attuned to both the particular aspects of his Jewish soul as well as the universal calls to serve others. I always have and always will take that prophetic mandate seriously.
Rabbi Tarfon, another great sage, comes to mind as well. "The day is short, the work is great, the workers are idle, the reward is great, and the Master of the House is pressing!" I have always felt this way about work at CBE, with Brooklyn Jews and with the Bronfman Center before that; and I will take this teaching with me out into the greater world. Tarfon also reminds us that while "we are not obliged to complete the work, neither are we free to evade it."
Having had the incredible privilege to serve for fourteen years at CBE (1993-98 & 2006-15) I humbly accept that the work inside the synagogue community is never done. I am also enormously hopeful that the next Senior Rabbi will bring her own or his own set of skills and unique commitments that will carry the work of Torah, Service and Deeds of Lovingkindness onward still.
In the meantime, let's agree that the most important aspect of who we are as a people is made manifest in showing up: To make a Minyan or to teach the Alef-Bet; to feed the hungry or house the homeless; to welcome those not born Jewish into our People; to speak out against injustice and to illuminate the sublime pathways of the inner spirit of human striving for the Divine; to see ourselves as one people--in Israel, America and throughout the world; and to also see ourselves as One People--humanity, bound by our aspirations to live lives of goodness and peace.