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My Rabbi Died This Week

June 2014

I have been fortunate – blessed, actually – to have had many rabbis in my life. I don’t just mean someone who is a rabbi, but someone who has been rabi u-mori, my rabbi and my teacher. That’s actually the highest compliment I can give someone, and I count at least a half-dozen people whom I think about that way, including Shira. Each of them has changed my life, helped me to grow and helped me to understand – not just once, but time and time again.

But my rabbi – Rabbi Norman Kahan, the rabbi of my home congregation – holds a special place in my life and in my heart. As Shira and I drove to Long Island for his funeral service, held in the very sanctuary where I met him, I realized that he affected my life more than any person on earth who is not a relative of mine. That is not an exaggeration; in fact, if possible, it is an understatement.

I acknowledge at the outset that my relationship with Rabbi Kahan was different than most people’s, including his own children. Often, his work as a rabbi took him away from them; something I didn’t understand until years later, when his daughter Judi and I were in school together. So his funeral was a time for his family to share their memories and work through their grief, and this is my way of remembering him as I knew him. Truthfully, I am writing it for myself; feel free to read it if you would like to hear about an extraordinary man, but whether you read it or not, I need to say it.

Rabbi Kahan came to Temple Sinai in Roslyn, New York, when I was starting 10th grade. As I’ve explained before, my motivation for continuing my Jewish education after my Bar Mitzvah was simple: there was a red-haired girl in my class, and if I went to Hebrew High School I could sit next to her for two glorious hours every week. No kidding. (Imagine how different things would have been if she had been enrolled in CCD!)

So we got this new rabbi just as we entered the Confirmation year. He seemed nice – kinda short for a rabbi, not very imposing, but very pleasant. Until he started to lay out the requirements for Confirmation, including attendance at ten (TEN!) Shabbat services. Suddenly, we were not impressed at all. When I saw he was going to stick to his guns on the service requirement, I decided to get the damn things (did I mention that I was 15 years old?) over with as quickly as possible, and be done with his nonsense.

So I went. I sat in the back – the very last row, right on the center aisle. I wanted him to see me sitting there, making my silent protest: I’m here, dammit, but I don’t like it. I never opened a prayerbook. I used the time to think about my week, about my life, about anything other than the service going on around me. And I made sure not ever, ever to show a smile.

During those 10 weeks, two things happened. First, I started to realize that I liked having that time to think. No TV, no parents talking or nagging. Just time to myself, for myself. Of course, sometimes that red-haired girl was at the service, too, and then all bets were off, but when it was just me, alone in that seat in the back row, it was… nice.

And much as I tried not to, sitting there week after week I started to listen to the new rabbi’s sermons. He was good – really good. Not just in his delivery, but in his “edge.” If you listened casually he sounded very kind, very welcoming. But if you really listened you heard a call to justice: to doing what was right, even if it was not comfortable or not popular. I hated to admit it, but he had guts.

When my 10-week service-attending sentence was over, I did the strangest thing: I kept going. Oh, I still sat in the last row, but now I did it because it was my seat. And I picked up the prayerbook and found at least a couple of the prayers that I could relate to. But most important, I listened to Rabbi Kahan. I didn’t always agree with him, but he was worth listening to.

At the end of the year, out of my 75-person Confirmation class (girls didn’t celebrate Bat Mitzvah much back then, so they all went to Confirmation), two people were selected to represent the class by reading Torah. Much as I enjoyed preparing with the red-haired girl, it was actually less important to me than being asked to participate in the service.

The following September, Rabbi Kahan taught me my first rabbinic lesson, even though the thought of becoming a rabbi had never entered my mind. It was Rosh Hashanah, and as always they expanded the sanctuary to include the entire social hall. There must have been a thousand people in the room, and by the time I got there someone took my seat. I found another seat and stared at a sea of unfamiliar faces – were these people temple members? Why hadn’t I seen them in a year of coming to Shabbat services? And worst of all, why was Rabbi Kahan treating them like his best friends? He spoke to them as if they had been there every week; not a word of reprimand, not a hint of guilt laid on them for missing a year of Jewish life!

After the service, I stormed into his office and shouted, “You hypocrite!” (did I mention that I was 16 years old?). “You talked to those people like you knew them, and you know damn well you wouldn’t recognize most of them if you ran into them!”

On Saturday morning, September 13, 1969, Rabbi Kahan smiled at me and said, “Don, I had two choices today. I could yell at them and tell them how bad they are, and prove to them that they were right in not coming here more than once a year. Or I could teach them something, and leave them wondering if maybe they should come more often. I chose the latter.”

To this day, in my very best moments, I only come close to the holiness of that response.

Jump forward three years. After my freshman year of college I came home and announced that I wanted to be a rabbi. I couldn’t wait to tell Rabbi Kahan, but his response was not at all what I expected. He was, in a word, “underwhelmed.” He didn’t brush me off, but he offered no support, no encouragement. I didn’t understand, but I persevered. For two solid years, as I studied Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, I shared what I was doing and my excitement about doing it. Still, I got nothing more than a “that’s nice” from him.

Before my senior year I scheduled a meeting with him. We sat down in his office, and I laid it out: I wanted to be a rabbi. I was applying to the Hebrew Union College and I wanted to list him as a reference. But he seemed so unenthusiastic about my plans up to that point that I wanted to know if he thought it was a bad idea, and whether he would even agree to give me a recommendation.

That day, in August 1974, Rabbi Kahan said, “Don, being a rabbi is very, very hard. It takes commitment and devotion. I know you love me, but you can’t become a rabbi to make me happy. You can only do it because it is your passion. I have kept my feelings to myself for the past two years so you could figure out what you want. Now that you are applying to rabbinic school I can tell you that I am overjoyed, and have been since the first day you told me.”

What a mensch.

 

Short story: the first year of rabbinic school is spent studying in Jerusalem, before returning to one of the three HUC campuses in the states. I had applied to study at the New York campus, and had arranged to teach religious school back at Temple Sinai. But in February of our Israel year, we were told that too many people wanted to study in New York and Los Angeles, and not enough in Cincinnati (anyone puzzled about why this is?), and so some of us would be “reassigned” to the Cinci campus. I received word that I was one of the “chosen people.”

I’m not proud. I called Rabbi Kahan, letting him know that I wouldn’t be able to teach at Temple Sinai since I would be in Cincinnati for the next four years. In spite of the fact that he himself was a Cinci graduate he said, “Don, go back to your work and don’t worry about this. I’ll see you when you get home.”

The next day, the Dean called me into his office. “I don’t know what you did or who you know, but I was just informed that you are going to New York. How did this happen?” he demanded.

I said, with the best look of innocence I could muster, that I had no idea. Then I thanked him for the good news. He was a Cinci graduate, too, so my calling it “good news” was not my finest moment.

The reason I share this story is because it allows me to say the following: If it were not for Rabbi Kahan, I would not be a rabbi. I would not have gone to the New York School. I would not have met Shira. I would not be the father to Noah, Ari, Eytan and Ronni Jane. And I would not be your rabbi. It’s that simple.

Another twenty stories come easily to mind, as Rabbi Kahan has been my advisor and guide through all my years as a rabbi. But I will share just one more, because this one represents his understanding of what it means to be a rabbi, for better and for worse.

After a year in my first congregation, I came home and, as usual, dropped into my rabbi’s office. We talked, he asked me how things were going – the usual subjects. Then he surprised me by asking if anyone in the congregation was angry with me.

I thought for a while, then said, “No, I don’t think so.”

Then Rabbi Kahan – my rabbi – smiled, put his arm around my shoulder, gave me a hug and said, “Don, you haven’t done anything yet.”

He had a way of kicking me in the pants that didn’t even feel like I had been kicked. But less than a year later, when I had taken an unpopular stand and pushed – hard – for the congregation to act in a way that reflected my understanding of Jewish values, I went back to him and thanked him for the kick.

Rabbi Kahan never tried to get people angry. But he understood that if a rabbi sets popularity as his or her ultimate goal, they will never succeed as a rabbi. As he always taught, “A rabbi has two jobs: to comfort the disturbed, and to disturb the comfortable.”

Rabbi Kahan did both jobs well. I am proud – honored – to be his student.

These were my thoughts today, rabi u-mori, as I sat through your funeral in the Temple Sinai sanctuary where we met 46 years ago.

I sat in the back row.

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