Celebrating the Class of 1965: Deflations and Exaltations

Mar 2, 2015 by

Celebrating the Class of 1965: Deflations and Exaltations

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1965, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years. In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate.

It was a steamy summer day in Cincinnati, Ohio, the end of July, 1960. Arlene and I had been married for a month. Together we navigated the Appalachians and the Ohio Valley in our un-air conditioned 1954 Ford Fairlaine. Our arrival was a great day for Cincinnati.  Everyone was happy. For on that day, the American Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs announced that Crest toothpaste was effective in inhibiting tooth decay. P&G stock skyrocketed. And the Stiffmans had arrived. We dropped off a carload of possessions at a friend’s home, and then excitedly drove to our real destinations, University of Cincinnati for Arlene; 3101 Clifton Avenue for me. We had seen the pictures of the beautiful HUC campus in the catalog. As we drove up Clifton Avenue, we became more excited. Exaltation – visiting the mother font of Reform rabbinical training, and then we turned into the driveway.

It was a construction site. The Sisterhood dorm was being renovated, as was the classroom building. The Klau library was under construction, as was the new dorm. I parked on the dirt area in front of the classroom building, and we ventured inside. The first person we met, a junior faculty member named Norman Golb, directed us to the Provost’s office. There we met Mickey November, Dr. Sandmel’s administrative aide, who really ran the school. She showed us around, put us in touch with those we had to meet, and we were on our way back to our car. Exaltation!

We looked forward to getting to our motel next to Frisch’s Big Boy and resting. As we reached our car, we realized that our first visit to HUC-JIR had resulted in a flat tire. Deflation!

Exaltation and deflation!   Welcome to the next five years of my life. Ain’t it great to be retired! Each of us remembers those days.

Memories can be deceiving. Usually I’ll remember something and Arlene will tell me what really happened. Whenever I speak lovingly of those HUC days, she reminds me how our study group used to get together to study, but spent half of the time complaining. “Rivkin and Reines spend too much time on their personal theories and not enough time on their subjects. Language lab was a downer after we learned, ‘Sim na yadecha tachat yerachee.’ Too many papers! Too little time to study!” There were so many complaints.

But the major one was, “They’re not preparing us for congregational life. They are educating us with texts, history, philosophy, human relations, a little theology, a dash of music…but not practical rabbinics.” By and large, this was true. Yet, buried in all of that other important stuff, we sometimes got a glimpse of the future. In Mihaly-McCoy tradition, let me cite three instances.

The first was in a class that was not a class. The school did not offer a class in practical rabbinic. A group of us went to Dr. Glueck to ask for such a class and we’re told, “You’ll learn all of that afterwards!” Out of the goodness of his heart, Sylvan Schwartzman offered a unit on the practical rabbinate in his home. It was the first time I stood in front of a couple with a Rabbi’s Manual in my hand and struggled through leading a wedding service.

He was the only faculty member who had served a congregation. Among the many things he taught us, one stood out. He said to us, “Remember, you’re not one of them!” He related his experiences in Nashville, where many of his congregants spent every Saturday night at the Country Club, often drinking quite heavily. He was given a Country Club membership, but this was not his style. So he stopped going regularly. One of his lay leaders told him that he was missed at the Club. “After all,” the man said, “We like to have “The Rabbi” there!” He wasn’t Sylvan Schwartzman; he was “The Rabbi.”

That story stuck with me. I’ve served the same congregation for forty-eight of my fifty years as a Rabbi. We had made some good friends. But…. We used to go to a wedding and see tables of our friends and contemporaries sitting there having a good time. However we viewed them from the end of the head table, sitting next to the grandma who couldn’t hear. Once we were lucky enough to be seated with friends at a reception. One of our longtime friends remarked, “We must be considered very important because we’re seated with ‘The Rabbi.’ Remember… “You’re not one of them”.  Ain’t it great to be retired and to remember?

The second teaching moment took place in the classroom of that fearsome scholar, Dr. Jakob J. Petuchowski, of blessed memory. It was our first class following the High Holy Days. In walks this distinguished theologian in fancy cowboy boots with a ten-gallon hat covering his thick shock of dark black hair. He had spent another Yamim Noraim at his ten-day-a-year congregation in Texas. His people presented him with the hat and boots. He looked up at us, and in his Germanic-British accented English said, “Remember this gentlemen, there is nothing like the Jewish layman.” We were taken aback. This guy who made us strain our necks trying to avoid his gaze so he wouldn’t call on us to answer a question, was praising these unlearned Texans with whom he shared ten days a year?

He went on, “At HUC we tell you all of the time how important the rabbi is, that you are the repository of wisdom and ethical tradition. You are the one who must lead”. He went on, “Gentlemen, the lay people live in the real world. They can help us keep our heads on straight. They don’t have to support a synagogue or form a Federation or educate themselves and their children. They live in a small town and don’t have to pay to bring a rabbi in every year for the holidays. But they do it. There’s nothing like the Jewish layman.”

What a lesson! How many of us locked horns with lay leaders, ordinary people in our congregations? When we wanted to win the argument, we were tempted to tell them, “I’m right because Judaism says you should do it this way.” At times like that, when I felt strongly about an issue and wanted to pull my rank, I would think back to “Petuchowski in boots,” to stabilize my thoughts and tamp down my ego.

Most of us, retired old souls, can now look back upon our years of active duty. Most of us agree that there is nothing like the Jewish layman or laywoman. They volunteer their time. They give of their means. Some annoyed us to distraction and some inspired us to perfection. In light of the Pew report and demographic surveys, we should especially cherish our partners. As we remember the many leaders with whom we shared, we think, “Ain’t it great to be retired!”

Number three. To prove my innate sense of non-discrimination, I refer to a faculty member of our New York campus, to our revered late President and to our beloved Jacob Rader Marcus. Each reminded us that we can overcome our failures.

Twice I heard Borowitz talk about tough times in his life. He had been fired as a teacher at Rockdale Temple when he was a student – then came back to speak there as Director of the Joint Commission on Jewish Education. A decade later he spoke at my congregation, where as a young Assistant he had been pushed out by the Senior Rabbi Julius Gordon. He said to my flock, “And now I’m teaching those who will be your rabbis!”  What a brilliant career he still is experiencing.

Marcus wrote “The Rise and the Destiny of the German Jew,” in the early 1930s predicting the fall of Hitler and a great future for German Jewry. Facts proved otherwise. He then decided to concentrate on the past and founded the academic discipline of American Jewish History, a major scholarly discipline today. Neither Borowitz nor Marcus gave up because of a failure. They used them as stepping stones to a better future.

Each of us has experienced times of failure, seasons of disappointment in our rabbinate. How many times did I fail to reach out to a member, screw up a Torah reading, skip a name on a Kaddish list, or miss seeing someone in the hospital? How many times did I fail a colleague or myself?  We each have memories of failures – but they do not define us. Like our teachers Borowitz and Marcus, we move on from dwelling on our failures to remembering our successes.  Now we are free to look back upon our careers, to remember all, the deflations but mostly the exaltations. Ain’t it great to be retired?

“You are not one of them.” “There is nothing like the Jewish layman.” “I overcame failure.”  I guess I learned more about being a rabbi than I realized.

The flat tire was repaired and we moved on to the motel next to Frisch’s Big Boy and to our life ahead. I celebrate my memories.

We celebrate our memories. We give thanks for the support of our families who still uphold us. We cherish the memories of the friends and the study partners, the colleagues and teachers who taught and teach us at the College-Institute and beyond.

We of the class of 1965 hope that it might be said of us, “Vayecchi,” that we lived and made a difference in the world, cherishing our sacred calling while partnering with amcha, learning from our deflations and basking in our exaltations.

4 Comments

  1. Larry Milder

    Jeff, beautifully said. I would add that your humor and humility have gone a long way in teaching the rest of us.

  2. Harry and Lucille Midows

    Hi Stiffy,
    What beautiful memories of your early years at the Seminary!
    Lucille and I will always hold you in our highest regard.
    Der Choosen und die Kalle.
    .

  3. Doris and Eliot Alport

    Jeff,Eliot and I send you (and Arlene) our congratulations of celebrating 50 years! We are lucky to have you as part of Shaare Emeth Congregation and to call you our friends. We are also are fortunate to have memories of trips with you and visiting with you in San Diego. You have been with us to share to good times and the sad and for that we are forever grateful. Beautifully written by a beautiful person. Regards to you, Arlene and the kids.

  4. Jessica Rosenstrauch

    Rabbi Stiffman- You most definitely are not “one of us”! Having the distinct pleasure of knowing you for the last 33 years, you are a wonderful teacher, scholar, mentor, comforter, example and friend. Thank you for being such a mensch!!

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