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On Rabbi Gertel's Honorary Degree from JTS

Rabbi Gertel and Rabbi KertzIn December 2007, Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel received a special honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary recognizing his contributions to Jewish life.

In November, over eighty members of our Congregation had gathered for a special dinner and program to honor Rabbi Gertel.  Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (and former rabbi of Rodfei Zedek), delivered special remarks.  Here is Rabbi Gertel's response.

Debra Zarkowsky and Rabbi GertelI am grateful to Rabbi Vernon Kurtz for his kind and eloquent and heartfelt words, and to Debra Zarkowsky and Tal Selinger from the Chicago office of JTS for proposing and implementing this gathering, and to Chuck Bernstein for chairing it so capably and devotedly.  Thanks to Thea Crook and Leatrice Berman and Alejandro Martinez and Jeff Vernon for the arrangements, including the recording of this meeting for family members who could not be here tonight, but wanted to hear the proceedings.  Thanks, also, to Cantor Julius Solomon for leading us in the anthems.  I also want to thank Sheldon Moss for all that he did for JTS and for Rodfei Zedek.  I’m honored to see Miriam Schiller, Principal of the Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School, here.

Thank you all for being here.  I am honored and grateful for your encouragement to me and for your support of the Seminary.  Rabbi Ralph Simon, of blessed memory, used to say that the test of whether a synagogue is worthy of support and whether it will support itself, is the Congregation’s willingness to support other causes.  Congregation Rodfei Zedek continues to demonstrate such worthiness and generosity, and this brings home to all of us how vital and crucial a strong Rodfei Zedek is to Chicago and to the Conservative Movement.

As Rabbi Kurtz can corroborate, the Seminary has, for many years, bestowed an honorary doctorate upon its students who have been at large for 25 years or more.  I suspect that this tradition developed because, after so many years, it was impossible to rein or reel us back in.  The plan might therefore have been to flatter us into remembering our teachers and re-examining our ideals and our commitments.

Yet the Seminary need not worry about whether most of us would remember our years there, if this is in fact the strategy behind these honorary degrees.  I was at JTS from 1972 to 1981, four years in the Joint Program between Columbia University and the Seminary College, and five years in the graduate Rabbinical School.  The tools for understanding the texts and history and language of Judaism, given to me in those years, proved invaluable.

In the college program, most of the JTS classes were in Hebrew.  It was a combination of an ulpan and a Copernican Revolution in one’s religious thinking, as we were introduced to the critical, historical study of Judaism.  At that time, some of the young faculty, men as well as women, were revolutionizing Jewish life.  I met the Talmudist Judith Hauptman in my first week there at an orientation session for freshmen students at Camp Ramah in Nyack.  She was most impressive, as was Joel Roth, who addressed us then and ultimately wrote the teshuvah that led to the ordination of women as rabbis.  Another memorable young scholar introduced us to Bible criticism and became a friend.  He had married Sandy Thal from my home town, whose uncle and aunt had lived next door to us, and the young couple gave me a ride home that first year for Thanksgiving.  I refer to Chaim Cohen, who has visited us many times and instructed us in Bible and in Torah reading.

I recall reading somewhere that, as late as the 1970s, the State of Alaska was young enough so that most of its citizens personally knew one of the movers and shakers who established the state, or at least one of their children, or at least someone who knew a pioneer well.  It occurred to me when I read this in the 1970s, and was still a student at JTS, that this was true of American Conservative Judaism as well.

Remember, I began at the Seminary in college, at age 18.  Many of the all-time greats of the Seminary were still teaching.  One of my first nights in New York, after leaving classes at the Seminary, I saw Dr. Louis Finkelstein walking. I introduced myself and then proceeded to ask him about Solomon Schechter, whom he knew, along with a few questions about writings of his that I had read in high school, in Springfield, Massachusetts.  He didn’t expect such a sudden and detailed grilling, but he responded graciously and in some detail.

It didn’t take long before I pursued the main reason for my wanting to be in Joint Program, Abraham Joshua Heschel.  He gave me an appointment and looked shocked when I gave him a reading assignment, an essay I had written about Richard Rubenstein, the “death of God” rabbi, who had been a student of Heschel’s, and whose work, along with Heschel’s, I had also read in high school.  Heschel graciously accepted the essay and a couple of weeks later invited me back to pick it up.  He gave it back to me in an envelope on which he scribbled my name in the center and his name in the upper left hand corner, and told me that he liked what I did with the theme of absurdity.  He wrote “Elliot” with one “l” and two “t’s,” but I was not offended.  To me, that made the envelope all the more valuable.  It is still in my “Heschel” file.  That encounter was all the more precious because Heschel passed away a few months later, in December 1972, while I was home for that first winter break.  I have to admit that I skipped a Sunday class for his last interview, aired, I believe, in January, and noted that he spoke a bit about the theme of absurdity.  He had written about it before, but I wondered whether he emphasized it because I had reminded him of it.

In case you’re wondering, I do realize now that these encounters were sheer chutzpah on my part, and that just because I had read these wonderful sages with devotion and enthusiasm, this did not mean that I had the right to corner them.  But thank God that I didn’t know any better then, and that they made themselves so accessible.  Seymour Siegel, Fritz Rothschild, Wolfe Kelman, and the venerable Simon Greenberg, among others, reached out to students; and I had the privilege of becoming close to them.  Robert Gordis summoned me to his office to tell me that he was publishing a review of mine in Judaism magazine, and offered advice, particularly that every Seminary student, undergraduate or graduate, should know that Hebrew grammar is the key to Judaism.  Max Kadushin invited me to join him for lunch one day in the Seminary cafeteria and warned me, a philosophy major, that I should never try to portray Judaism as a philosophy, because the power of Judaism lies in its folk concepts and “organic thinking.”

All this happened within my first two years as an undergraduate.  Part of it had to do with my chutzpah in pursuing them; I had a list.  In a few cases, it was due to my close relationship with Rabbi Samuel Dresner.  But most of it had to do with their desire to share ideas and to guide students. I did not realize for many years that my biggest chutzpah was to ask Dr. Saul Lieberman, perhaps the greatest Talmudist of all time and the rabbi of the Seminary Synagogue, if I could invite a cantor to lead services after I delivered my senior sermon.  No one had ever asked that before.  Much to everyone’s shock, the austere Dr. Lieberman agreed, and Cantor Charles Bloch of Temple Ansche Chesed graciously agreed to lead Musaf.

Also memorable, in addition to the magnificent faculty, were secretaries, custodians, kitchen staff (some of whom helped us with our Spanish), Mrs. Forberger, who ran the cafeteria, Annie, the Mail Room Lady, and, especially, the men and women who worked with the archives and rare manuscripts and library cataloguing, who were colorful characters and brilliant individuals, particularly Dr. Alexander Tobias and Mrs. Eugenie Gerstel, who had a last name similar to my own.  I was fortunate that my best friend, Bob Slosberg, worked in the library.  Through him, and through his wife-to-be Deborah Kellem, who worked in the cafeteria and then in the graduate school office, I got to know some of the fascinating behind-the-scenes people.

Since I have referred to friends and classmates, I must point out that they were no less fascinating, and so diverse in outlook and religious observance.  Those who were in Joint Program with me, and especially those who were in Rabbinical School also, remain among my closest friends.  I should add that some of the most remarkable people in the Jewish world came around to the library and to the cafeteria.  Two come to mind immediately.  I met Shulamith Ish‑Kishor, whose Jewish history books for children we read in Hebrew School, in the cafeteria.  Several times I spoke to Rabbi Isidor Meyer, who headed the American Jewish Historical Society in the library stacks.  It’s amazing how connections come out of curiosity cum chutzpah.

Our college class witnessed the historic changing of the guard, the inauguration of Gershon D. Cohen as chancellor when Dr. Finkelstein retired.  This proved beneficial for me because later, in Rabbinical School, Dr. Cohen gave me jobs that not only enabled me to get to know him well, and to witness his compassion and erudition, but that paid my tuition.  (It was, by the way, the Seminary’s policy at the time to greatly subsidize the tuition of rabbinical students, and that is why many of us have felt obliged to support the Seminary generously through the years.)  Dr. Cohen invited me to do research for his speeches and to edit a book on the history of the Jews of Miami that the Seminary had hoped to publish.  I also got to know Dr. Ismar Schorsch, who became the chancellor after I was already in New Haven.  As an undergraduate, I enjoyed Dr. Schorsch’s required survey of modern Jewish history, and elected, in Rabbinical School, to take his course in German Jewish historians and theologians.  The problem was that it was the Seminary’s earliest course in the day, and I was even more of a night owl then than I am now.  Dr. Schorsch was a German Jew, very conscious of clocks.  Need I say more?  Suffice it to say that both of us had to learn to compromise that year, but that course was definitely worth while.

Solomon Schechter wrote that one could read sacred texts anywhere, but that one should come to the Seminary to meet great teachers.  I believed him when I read him, and am grateful to the Seminary for providing such great teachers, whom I could stalk and with whom I could talk and who sought us students out as well.  I am grateful to the Seminary for the friends I made, both then, and here in Chicago, and in New Haven, too. It was, after all, the Seminary that led me to the blessing which is Rodfei Zedek.  Professor Seymour Siegel, who held the Rabbi Ralph Simon Chair after Heschel, told me once of Rabbi Simon’s amazing achievements of this urban congregation; and when the centennial history of Rodfei Zedek came to the “new books” at the Seminary Library, I asked to review it for Conservative Judaism magazine.  Hyde Park was, by the way, very much at JTS.  Out of all the synagogue bulletins in the country, the library regularly exhibited those of KAM Isaiah Israel and Rodfei Zedek.  So the Seminary prepared me, at least subliminally, for the privilege of being here.

Thank you for coming.  Thank you for supporting the Seminary.  And above all, thank you for your commitment to Congregation Rodfei Zedek.

— Jewish Theological Seminary Dinner, in honor of Honorary D.D. degree, at Congregation Rodfei Zedek, Chicago, on November 26, 2007

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