Monday, May 3, 2010

Zeicher tzaddiqim livracha

So, I just got back from the annual Faculty Retreat at Camp Harlam -- a great "perk" of being a faculty member at one of our outstanding URJ summer camp programs. A chance to escape, even if only for 24 hours, from the craziness of everyday life, and escape to the Poconos, to meet colleagues and friends old and new, and to put the next touches on what we will seek to do this summer. I was all excited to share enthusiasticly about this mini-vacation, until...

I came home and went online to catch up, and was confronted with the news of the deaths of not one, but 2 true g'dolim -- 2 men, each in very different ways, whose influence on me, and on literally a generation of Reform Jewish youth, was enormous. On Friday, God took Theodore Roosevelt Phelps Jr., better known as "Teddy," the truly larger than life cook at the URJ Kutz Camp for 21 years. And just this morning, our movement and our world lost Rabbi David Forman.

David -- please forgive the formality, but he was ALWAYS David to me, from the first day I met him -- was the most caring, compassionate, and ethical man I ever met. His love of Israel led him to make aliyah in the '70s -- his unshakable belief in doing the right thing and fighting for those who had no one else to fight for them allowed him to do so as a Reform Rabbi when there were virtually no other Reform Rabbis living in Israel, in the face of the truth that it was inconceivable that he would be recognized as a Rabbi or allowed to make a living as one once he got there. And then, with the help of his connections in NFTY -- not yet at that time the North American Federation of Temple Youth --, he actually found a job AS a Rabbi, working with NFTY's programs in Israel, and also with the myriad Reform Jewish college students and young adults who came to study in, visit, or live in Israel.

His social activism led him into a brief stint in politics, narrowly missing election to the Knesset as a leading member of Shulamit Aloni's moderate party seeking change in Israeli society. It also led him to found Rabbis for Human Rights, the religious (not Orthodox) group holding the Israeli government's feet to the fire in their treatment of Palestinians and all people. That faith and commitment to doing what was right in his eyes was not shaken -- not when he was wounded during the Lebanon invasion, not when terrorists nearly succeeded in blowing up his daughter's school.

I had the privilege of working with and learning from this dynamo during both my years of study in Israel. When Loren and I were honeymooning in Israel, she couldn't quite understand why I was dragging her to see the NFTY office while we were in Jerusalem -- until, that is, she met David there (which was my REAL purpose in taking her there in the first place).

I also had the privilege of introducing our congregation to Rabbi Forman a few years ago, and many of you quickly learned for yourselves why this man was a beloved teacher, mentor, and friend -- not only to me, but to so many others. His wife Judy, their four daughters, their husbands, and his grandchildren have suffered a painful loss. At a time when more people like him are so desperately needed, so has our world. As I said to my children as they comforted me as I read of his passing, I can only pray that they are so fortunate in their lives as to have a teacher and friend so caring and so honest as I did in David.

Teddy, on the other hand, even from his position in HIS kitchen (and anyone who was at Kutz in the 70s and 80s who didn't know that the kitchen WAS Teddy's soon learned the truth -- the hard way!) was a far different, but no less significant influence on our generation. Sure, anyone who had his chicken wings at an Oneg Shabbat, anyone who was ever fortunate enough to taste his challah (so good, that he would bake copious extra loaves every weekend and sell them for us all to take with us as we left for home, usually to pay for his next kitchen upgrade!) knows how talented the man was.

But even more than the kemach this giant of a man provided for our stomachs, he, as much as any Rabbi or teacher at Kutz ever did, taught all of us who were willing to learn the incredible life Torah of hard work and self discipline. It wasn't until several years after I had become a staff member on weekend events that I first saw Teddy OUTSIDE his kitchen -- because working 18-20 hour days was his norm. And God help the teen who didn't heed the rules, or thought they didn't apply to him -- Teddy would put that youngster in his place, in a way, and during a period, when few educators or other adults could expect to have that impact!

It was only in my later years at Kutz that I finally had the opportunity to get to know the man behind the mystique, and found the loving soul of a man who was deeply spiritual in his own way. That soul, kept hidden from far too many over the years, has now returned to its Maker. And Teddy, the man, even more than the icon, will be missed!

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