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In gratitude, a tribute to Rabbi Gertel

Rabbi GertelOn the presentation of retirement gifts from Congregation Rodfei Zedek to Rabbi Elliot Gertel, a tribute by Sara Segal Loevy at the pre-Selichot dinner on September 8, 2012.

I love the end of the summer for its place in the Jewish calendar, signifying the approach of the High Holy Days -

  • the cleaning and shining of the shul to display its vitality and pride,
  • the gathering together of the entire congregation,
  • the sharing of holiday meals and the luxury of leisurely conversation with family and friends,
  • remembering who indeed has lived and who has died.

The end of summer is also the compression – the race to the end of the Torah readings of Dvarim (Deuteronomy), the compact lists of how we are to behave individually and collectively.  As Rabbi Gertel spoke of last week in shul, and he has spoken of so many times in the last 25 years, we are reminded for a final time of the importance, the responsibility, the power of returning lost items.  Of keeping safe the items lost by family, by friends, by strangers, even when it is not convenient to do so, until the items can be returned to their rightful owners.

When we think about this injunction, we usually consider tangible lost items:  a wallet left in a cab, a book lent but not returned, a beloved dog that has slipped its leash, the much-referenced oxen in biblical times.

What of the less tangible lost items, however? Are we not responsible for returning those as well?  What of restoring…

  • a communal voice to the silenced,
  • dignity to the lost soul,
  • a sense of direction and a future to an entire community? 

While I believe that Rabbi Gertel has reminded us to return the lost tangibles, he has also shown us, by example over the last 25 years, what it means to return the intangibles:  the voice, the dignity, the direction.

Let me give you three examples.  First, returning a voice to the silenced. When Rabbi Gertel came to Congregation Rodfei Zedek 25 years ago, women were not counted in the minyan.  Women were key members of the congregation in many consequential ways - we were depended upon to raise money, to bring our children to bar and bat mitzvah tutoring, to organize celebratory meals, to plan parties.  But in this most essential communal responsibility, we did not count, we were not members of the kehillah.  But Rabbi Gertel, sensing the will of the congregation and taking a different path than his predecessors, returned that lost voice to over half of his silenced congregants.  And in the doing, in returning women’s place in the kehillah, he more than doubled the strength, the skills, and the talents available to the future of the community.

The second example considers a different form of return, of restoration.  In the midst of Rodfei Zedek, as in the midst of every community, there are lost souls.  People who have lost their emotional compasses, people who have lost their intellectual capabilities or their reasoning skills – some have lost them before birth but had parents or siblings who helped them compensate.  Now they are alone, often subsisting without much dignity within the community.  For the last 25 years, I have watched Rabbi Gertel – sometimes helped by Thea Crook or a discrete congregant – help restore dignity to some of the lost souls among us.  He has promised the police to keep someone safe from his own anti-social behavior, and then located a kindly distant relative to help provide a secure living environment for this person.  I have seen Rabbi Gertel work with social service agencies to secure the small savings and safety of someone who was soothing her troubled soul with unstoppable on-line shopping and wandering the streets in her nightgown.  I watched him spend days ensuring that legal and social help were place, and then he identified a kindly congregant to help this person resettle with dignity.  I watched Rabbi Gertel call a few congregants to raise camp fees to send a young teen to Camp Ramah for the summer, buying her a secure summer and her financially overburdened mother eight weeks respite from each other, and at the end, returning to them both the opportunity to restore some peace and dignity to their little family.  Quietly, discretely, kindly:  Rabbi Gertel restoring lost equilibrium and thus dignity to troubled souls.

Finally, I watched him come 25 years ago to a congregation that had lost its way, that was struggling to find a new path.  A congregation all too aware of what it no longer was – of what had been lost in a rapidly changing world – but not sure of what it could be.  Rabbi Gertel

  • encouraged us to take action,
  • helped us find a new direction and mission,
  • create new space that offered us flexibility, comfort and opportunity,
  • consider new approaches to educating our children and ourselves.

He returned to us our faith in our own ability to plan and execute a course of action.  He returned to us our faith in our own ability to create a strong and self-sufficient kehillah.

For returning to us, individually and collectively, that which had been lost to us, we are grateful.

  • We offer you this spice box, with the hope that its sweet fragrance will carry Shabbat into your work week, with the hope that is sweet fragrance will remind you of all that you have returned to us.
  • We are also proud to present to you the framed sheet music of your 2011 composition, Thanksgiving Hymn, arranged by Jonathan Miller.
  • We offer to you, as well, the Campaign to Retire the Mortgage in your honor.  Over the next year, we will raise $300,000 to retire the mortgage on our twelve-year-old building that you encouraged us to build.  Retiring the mortgage is the gift you suggested when we asked how to recognize your years of service.  So, once again, as we embark on this special campaign, you return a gift to us.

        Sara Segal Loevy

The Pulpit Shelf

Fri, February 3 2023 12 Shevat 5783