Four Men Who Made a Difference in My Life
Father’s Day was not a day of celebration for me as a child.
I never knew my father. My parents divorced when I was an infant. I was raised in my grandparents’ home in Chicago, with occasional visits from my mother, who was often away singing opera in New York and Milan.
All the other kids at my synagogue had fathers. They always talked about “dad” and looked on with pride as their fathers took positions of leadership and moved about the bimah (synagogue podium or platform). I felt a certain sense of inclusion by proxy, but, of course, it was not the same as having your own father present.
As I prepared for my bar mitzvah, I attended the synagogue’s Tefillin Club, where 12-year-old boys of our traditional congregation learned how to put on tefillin (small black leather boxes containing verses from the Torah and worn in prayer) and master the elements of the adult worship service.
One of the four Jewish male mentors in my formative years was Harry Schlitten, a senior member of the congregation. At the Tefillin Club, he would come over to each of us individually and share a bit of his wisdom. I had no idea what he did for a living, but to this day I can still see the diamond-encrusted pin he wore proudly on his lapel, his symbol of being a 33rd-degree Mason. What that meant we didn’t know, except that it was a sign of exceeding accomplishment. He regularly told us so. He also seemed to know the details of my life and, with a caring hand on my shoulder, would tell me: “The most important thing is to be a mensch.”
The second of my mentors was my Boy Scout leader, Harold Robbins (not to be confused with the bestselling author). He and the other men he brought together to take charge of our synagogue’s Troop 635 knew they had the awesome task of teaching us responsibility. Preparing for the annual Scout Jamboree, held every June in Marquette Park, was one of those times when responsibility counted. If you shirked the tough jobs, Mr. Robbins would simply ignore you. If you accepted the responsibility to bring the equipment up from the synagogue basement storage room, you were doing the right thing. If you accepted the responsibility of leading the annual service at the Jamboree – usually my job – you again were doing right.
I well remember his line-marked face reflected in myriad campfires as he let each of us know individually that being a Boy Scout was a key step on the road to becoming a man, that fun should follow work, and that the “jobs” had to be done right.
We were the only Jewish troop among scores of others sponsored by churches and fraternal organizations. Mr. Robbins taught us that we had to be at least as good as the best of them – that our tents, our equipment, should always be in top condition and “look smart.” Jews needed to behave that way.
And then there was my Orthodox rabbi, Mordecai Schultz. Right after I became a bar mitzvah, he would often call and tell me I was needed to complete a minyan (Jewish prayer quorum). Would I come? My bar mitzvah counted. I was needed. Imagine that!
The fourth seminal male figure in my life was David Fox, my Hebrew school teacher. He would always arrive in his plumber’s truck about 15 minutes before class to toss around a football and share an experience intended to teach us a life lesson.
One summer, while I rested in my bunk at Camp Moshavah, some 250 miles away, the door parted, and David Fox’s face appeared. I was ecstatic to see him. I learned later that he had made the long trip to see a friend, but, as an 11-year-old, you never could have persuaded me of that. To me, he was like a father, representing all that was important and right.
I learned from David and the other men who had given me a sense of belonging that you don’t have to be someone’s father to be a positive influence and role model, especially for boys who don’t have a dad in their home.
As the director of a camp for most of my adult life, I have the good fortune to have been a mentor to many young people.
And as for Father’s Day, having two loving daughters has made it one of the brightest days on my calendar.
This week’s Torah portion, Korach, reminds us that the bitter partisanship and political infighting that typify the contemporary political scene are as old as the Bible itself.
We read how Korach — who clearly longed for Moses’s job — lambasted Moses for elevating himself above the rank and file. Pushing back hard, Moses impugned his challenger’s motives by suggesting that what Korach, a Levite, really wanted was more power! Moses surmised that Korach was angling to become one of the high priests — a position of greater privilege and authority (Numbers 16:10).
Dathan and Abiram, two of Korach’s political allies, also challenge Moses’s authority by refusing to meet with him. “We will not come!” They defy Moses and accuse him of exploiting “those [who are your] subordinates” (Numbers 16:12-14).
The history of American politics is littered with recapitulations on this same theme. From the beginning of the republic, the competence and rectitude of governmental leaders have been impugned by their opponents. The party of James Madison accused President John Adams of being “partial to the opulent.” The Federalists rejoined by referring to their opponents as a “horrible sink of treason” and an “odious conclave of tumult” (Bruce S. Thornton, Democracy’s Dangers & Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama [Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2014), p. 90.
Even the leadership skill of Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most venerable presidents, has been called into question. While in office, Lincoln’s opponents accused him of being, among other things, an imperialist, a materialist, and an overall administrative incompetent (See John McKee Barr, Loathing Lincoln; An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present [Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2014]). Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the URJ and HUC, once criticized Lincoln for “his thousand and one demonstrations of imbecility” (Gary Phillip Zola, We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, [Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 2014], p. 208).
Since partisanship and political posturing are as common as muck, how can we decide whom we should follow or support? After all, this is an important question: our portion demonstrates that those who sided with Korach, Dathan, and Abiram not only ended up on the wrong side of history, but also ended up on the wrong side of the earth’s surface!
Our portion offers us an answer to this question toward the end of the sedra when we learn that Aaron (the Levite) is proven to be the indisputable leader of leaders. Aaron’s stature as a leader becomes apparent to the entire community when his staff “brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds” overnight. Moses placed Aaron’s fructified staff in front of the other chieftans’ staffs as a visual reminder of Aaron’s singular worthiness (Numbers 17:23-25).
What does the almond-blossomed staff teach about undisputed leadership?
According to the 11th century sage, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchak (Rashi), the almond is always the first tree to blossom (Rashi on Numbers 17:23). Its beautiful flowers and pleasant aroma are harbingers of springtime’s dawning — an insignia symbolizing the concepts of revitalization, renewal, and hope for the future.
In other words, the scepter of true leadership is forever abloom with fragrant flowers of hopefulness and expectation that should keep us focused on the vision of a land that flows with milk and honey — for all.
Rabbi Gary P. Zola, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. He also serves as the Edward M. Ackerman Family Distinguished Professor of the American Jewish Experience and Reform Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, OH.
Kabbalat Shabbat: This Friday, June 8 at 6:00 with a pizza dinner including salad and dessert and musical entertainment here at the temple.
Saturday Service this week is canceled.
Breakfast Schmooze: Wednesday, June 13 from 7 to 9:00 am at Broadway Bagels
Kabbalat Shabbat: Friday June 15 at 6:00
Saturday Service: June 16 at 9:30
Father’s Day: Sunday, June 17
1 Jerome Falcon Bar Mitzvah
2 Jerome Falcon Bar Mitzvah
8 Kabbalat Shabbat
13 Breakfast Schmooze
15 Kabbalat Shabbat
16 Saturday Service
17 Father’s Day
21 Sisterhood General Meeting
22 Kabbalat Shabbat
23 Saturday Service
29 Kabbalat Shabbat
30 Saturday Service
Hopefully, this will find every- one drying out from all our rain and maybe enjoying some sunshine.
Sisterhood has a few things planned for the summer. There will be a general meeting on June 21 at 6:00 pm at The Standard restaurant located at Drayton Lofts. This is an important meeting as we have a financial decision to be made regarding our annuity and need to have a quorum for a vote. If you plan to attend, please contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, home phone at 828-894-0413, or by cell 828-817-3893 by June 19. Come out for a social evening with other sisterhood members.
We are also having our annual Fun Run on August 26, which is the first day of Sunday School. Please note that registration for Sunday School will take place prior to the run at the site at 9:30 rather than at the Temple. You will find a flyer included in this Temple Topics. We hope to see you there again this year to support Sisterhood.
Also, we are participating in Honey from the Heart again this year. A flyer and order form are included in this Temple Topics. We hope you will again want to send some sweet wishes to family and friends by ordering honey.
Mark November 8 on your calendar, as that is the date for our bake sale. We hope to have another good year of support from everyone in the congregation to make it even more successful than last year. More infor- mation will be coming in future Temple Topics.
Have a good summer Cheryl August