Beyond the Bimah: There is My Rabbi (Jewish Journal)

This past Wednesday I attended a funeral of a congregant. The service was done by a different synagogue. I went into a room to visit his family and I was embraced by the deceased’s sister; she grabbed me, hugged me and kissed me and said, “there is my rabbi.” These simple words moved me all week. Rabbis, like any other professional, have career aspirations but deep down inside what we all seek is to be someone or some people’s rabbi.

I have had three of those rabbis in my life. Now colleagues, I still only think of them as rabbi and continue to defer to them for my rabbinic quandaries and personal dilemmas. The first of those was Rabbi Sam Fraint, my home rabbi, who passed away this week. Rabbi Fraint was not someone who most of the country would know. He did not like the national spotlight. He never fancied himself a writer for a major Jewish newspaper. To my knowledge the one thing he did do was serve the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards for a brief stint until he thought the fight was not worth it. But for his time, he was a Gadol(a larger than life Jewish figure). Twice, I internalized this idea. First, while studying in Israel, he invited me to Rosh Hashanah lunch and at the table was Rabbi Daniel Gordis, one of my favorite Jewish writers, eating lunch with us on the holiest day of the year. The second time was in a meeting with Rabbi Neil Gillman z’l, who while trying to size me up as a student quickly realized I was one of Rabbi Fraint’s congregants. They both knew what it meant to be one of Rabbi Fraint’s students and their recognition of Rabbi Fraint spoke volumes to his influence and ideals. Rabbi Fraint was revered by colleagues for the community he built yet questioned with every move he made or maybe better put, the moves he did not make.

Upon my decision to become a rabbi, a choice 14 others made from his synagogue, I sat with my rabbi on a porch over looking the softball field at Camp Ramah. It was fitting to have this conversation with my rabbi in the place he rightfully urged me to go every summer. My rabbi, unlike most of his contemporaries understood that the Conservative Movement at its essence was unparalleled and only needed Ramah and Solomon Schechter to prove his point. “Rabbi Fraint I want to go to Rabbinical School” I said. His immediate response, “Don’t do it.” He was both kidding and deeply serious. He knew far too well what the rabbinate does to a rabbi’s Judaism, the bureaucratic hardships placed on the Jewish soul, and the life it represents for a rabbi’s children.

My rabbi was sick most of my rabbinical school experience and it was heartbreaking. I was lucky to visit him on occasion. His warmth would revive my spirit. He convinced me to seek out one of my other rabbis, Rabbi Joel Roth, which eventually changed my life a different way. He played a role at my wedding, although he was not feeling well. And maybe the most meaningful moment was when he drove to Minnesota for my Installation at a synagogue that unbeknownst to them would be getting one of Rabbi Fraint’s students.

Much of my career I have taken pieces of his brilliance, as I informed my congregation this past Shabbat. Every week I look at a bimah overflowing with children who treat synagogue like their second home who then head into robust kiddish luncheon to eat Shabbat lunch together; two things he did better than anyone else. Many confuse Rabbi Fraint’s fairly hardline position on his synagogue maintaining non-egalitarian status. Rabbi Fraint’s stronghold was not on egalitarianism it was on Shabbat observance. Rabbi Fraint has done what almost no other Conservative rabbi in the country has been able to do; entice modern, traditional and pluralistic Jews to sacrifice everything else American values have taught us in order to move walking distance to synagogue and make Shabbat Jewish priority number one. Services were long, the community was at times cliquey and expectations were set very high. But Shabbat was special because he was a magnificent rabbi. No quirky gimmicks, no flashy High Holiday guests, and certainly no special music; just Shabbat with your family and he truly believed everything else would work itself out.

Recently, as emeritus, Rabbi Fraint sent a letter to his community. He was upset. I was heartbroken for him and yet believed he had himself missed the big picture. I wrote to my rabbi telling him that I believed he was incorrect. He did not respond. But he told my mother that he loved what I wrote him. In my letter I wrote, “You, were and are, one of the most amazing rabbis I have ever known.” Those words ring true in his passing even more so. While progressive Judaism has been experimenting for the better part of the last 40 years, Rabbi Fraint proved something during that time. That the most universal concept that maintains the Jewish spirit and that brings Jews closer to family, community and God was more tradition not less. And if our goal was merely to break down who we are and what has kept us fighting, persevering and close for thousands of years than we will lose. Sometimes it is about finding a place that makes Judaism breathe in its natural habitat that is the source of light and energy from which Jews will crave.

My dear rabbi, I will remember you as a devout Yankees fan, someone who loved the open road and who had the best snacks and Coca-Cola at camp visits. I will remember you as my teacher and know that the other 14 of us have no choice but to teach from your voice and knowledge. I may not be the rabbi who has won every award or has been granted an easy road (following in your footsteps did not help others understand the perspective you instilled in me). But I won something much greater; I am a Moriah kid. And I am forever indebted to you for that.