My old friend (and one-time youth grouper) Rabbi Aaron Panken was recently chosen to be the new president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s flagship seminary. It is an excellent choice. Aaron is a scholar, blessed with great intelligence, vision, an engaging personality, and decades of service to the Reform movement. We should expect much greatness from him.
I was pleased to see that I was not the only one who noticed something interesting. Uriel Heilman, writing in JTA, http://www.jta.org/2013/08/01/life-religion/panken-a-commerical-pilot-who-will-head-reforms-rabbinical-school-eyes-horizon noticed that Rabbi Panken, like Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has a connection with Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. That was where Rabbi Panken served as the rabbinic intern, and he has family connections in that synagogue as well. Rabbi Jacobs also once served as its rabbinic intern, and then, some years later, became senior rabbi of the congregation before departing to lead the Reform movement.
But what of the Scarsdale connection? Rabbi Panken, quoted in JTA, thinks that it is “pretty much a coincidence” that both he and Rabbi Jacobs are, professionally, a product of the same synagogue.
Coincidence? I think not.
It’s not “who’s your daddy?” (or, in liberal movements, “who’s your mommy?”)
It’s: “who’s your teacher?”
Both Rabbi Panken and Rabbi Jacobs were influenced by the late Rabbi Jack Stern, who was the senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple for almost forty years. Rabbi Stern was a rabbi’s rabbi, as well as the father of Rabbi David Stern, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Dallas, and Elsie Stern, who is one of American Jewry’s most erudite scholars. (Their brother, Jonathan Stern, is a prominent attorney in Washington, DC, and hardly chopped liver. But we are just speaking about the rabbinate here).
The elder Rabbi Stern was himself the son-in-law and associate rabbi of the late Rabbi Jacob Philip Rudin of Temple Beth El in Great Neck, New York. Rabbi Rudin was the best friend of the late Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn of Temple Israel in Boston. Rabbi Gittelsohn was immortalized by the celebrated (and in its time, controversial, because he was a Jewish chaplain) sermon at the dedication of the military cemetery at Iwo Jima. His assistants and associates, including Rabbi Charles Kroloff, who was chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Rabbi Harvey Fields, rabbi emeritus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, went on to become major leaders in American Judaism.
And then, you have one of Rabbi Gittelsohn’s contemporaries and neighbors -- the late Rabbi Joseph Klein of Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts. It is beyond impressive how many Reform Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Eric Yoffie , past president of the URJ, and Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the URJ, grew up in that congregation. And then, add to the mix Rabbi Klein’s associate -- the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who was the indefatigable leader of the Reform movement and a world-class Jewish statesman.
You want to trace it back another generation, back to the 1940s and 1950s? Then go to Cleveland. How did the shores of Lake Erie produce so many rabbis? Easy. It was because of such Cleveland rabbis as the great Zionist leaders, the late Rabbi Barnett Brickner and the late Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.
I apologize, in advance, to my many friends and colleagues (you know who you are) whose names I did not mention in this piece. I only have so many words. But don’t think for a minute (again, I am speaking to you) that I have forgotten you. Quite the contrary.
I am talking about the immortality of influence, as well as the sheer power of mentoring and relationships.
I once heard a few Orthodox kids bragging to each other about who their fathers’ teachers were. If you know that world, then you know the drill: Soloveitchik, Hutner, etc.
But one kid piped up: “You think you're so hot? Get this: my father taught Rabbi X [a particularly well-known Orthodox rabbi and scholar]."
The reaction: “Wow.”
Getting back to all these rabbis and teachers. I don't know if they knew what they were doing at the time. Maybe they were just being who they normally were, and their students just picked it up. Maybe it was all an accident of charisma.
No, there are no accidents. We make this stuff happen. And we should. The Jewish world depends upon it.
So, whom are you teaching? How are you making your own town a powerhouse of Jewish influence? It can happen, and it does happen, in small towns; Safed in the sixteenth century was only about a thousand households, and it changed the entire way that Jews imagined the world.
As we enter the month of Elul, it’s a great time to remember your own teachers and influencers, and to thank them, even in the great beyond, for helping you become the person you inevitably are.
Because it really is about: "Who's your teacher?"
And, let us remember: "Who's your student?" as well.