It has been my destiny to always serve congregations in cities and towns that start with the letter “B”: Budapest, Hungary; Brooklyn, New York; Belmont, Massachusetts; and Berkeley, California.
In Budapest, under Communism I learned perseverance, and that it is our duty to always pursue justice even if there are personal risks. I came to realize that learning is a gift no one can take away from you and that we must always follow our dreams. And I learned by its absence, the great importance of freedom.
In Brooklyn I learned that even in a free society not all are treated equally and that it is incumbent upon us to stand up for the oppressed. It was in Brooklyn that I began the journey of becoming an American Rabbi while still remaining true to myself and to my European heritage. I also learned that freedom of religion brings its own challenges; when asked: “What is your religion?” one can choose “none” as the answer.
While I was not free in Budapest, I was still able to enjoy freedom of spirit. Neither the Nazis nor the Communists could take away my spirit, my love of learning and teaching, my faith in God and in the future of the Jewish people. In Brooklyn, I was able to teach, guide and inspire both young and old as we faced together the challenges of assimilation in America that still threaten the continuation of our religion.
In Belmont I found my own Rabbi, Earl Grollman, the Rabbi Emeritus of the congregation. He became my close friend and confidant. Earl lovingly taught me about crisis management, death and dying, and bereavement counseling. How often, as I comforted my congregants and friends, Earl’s words have echoed in my mind: “Never say to a person who comes to you to share his or her burdens: ‘I know how you feel’, because you don’t.”
In Berkeley I was given the greatest gift: complete rabbinical freedom that allowed me to be myself. The congregation supported me in my decision to complete my PhD dissertation and gave me the time to do it. Nowhere else have I witnessed such hard working lay leaders and staff. Nowhere else have I seen such deep commitment to social action. Nowhere else have I seen such dedication to study, to community, to our people and to our faith.
We rabbis are teachers whose ultimate task is to teach by example. These are the questions that each of us should ask ourselves: Do I only say the words or do I live by them? Is my life truly guided by Torah?
In the Book of Isaiah, we read God’s words: Anokhi, anokhi hu m’nachemchem…. I, I am the one who comforts you. What can we learn from the repetition? Scholars have interpreted it to indicate that we each possess a public “I” and a private “I.” If we are sincere, these two personas are in unison. It is our task to be able to bring our “two selves” into alignment with one another and with God’s hopes for us. We must ask ourselves if what we say, in other words our public image, is in concert with what we do, our private self? How often I talk about loving God, Torah and Israel and of living a life of mitzvot. Anokhi, anokhi… Is my life imbued with reverence for the Blessed Holy One? Do I perform the mitzvot or do I merely tell others to do so? Are Rabbi Ferenc and the man Ferenc Raj one and the same? In all my 4 “Bs” I have striven to be a role model and as I look forward, I hope God will give me the strength, wisdom and determination to continue on this path.
I am grateful to God who gave me the opportunity to teach in two continents and bring the Torah to our people. I am grateful to God for my wonderful family, for my teachers, colleagues and students from whom I learned so many invaluable lessons. I am grateful to God for all life’s experiences – both the bitter and the sweet – that have allowed me to “go from strength to strength.”
Rabbi Ferenc Raj, PhD is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate.