Eulogy for Albert Vorspan

This Eulogy for Albert Vorspan was shared with permission from Rabbi David Stern:

I am standing here today because of a sacred pact between my father, Rabbi Jack Stern, of blessed memory, and his best friend, Al Vorspan: long ago, they solemnly pledged to each give the eulogy at the other’s funeral.

Of course, the mutual nature of this covenant made it both impossible and elegant – after all, the wronged party would never know if the other had reneged first, and whoever reneged second had the best possible excuse. Or, as Al once wrote of their arrangement, “Only one of us will have to deliver, but we both have to prepare.”

And so I am here, along with my sister Elsie and brother Jon, to uphold the Stern family’s end of the bargain, with absolutely no hope of fulfilling this task as my father would, nor as Al did so beautifully for Dad eight years ago. After all, Al and Dad did have the advantage of preparation. Every time Al would crack up my father (and himself) with a story, Al would eventually catch his breath and say: “Jack, you gotta use that one.”

We never found an actual Vorspan file among my father’s papers – Dad never wrote the punchlines down. What he did write, every time he and Al would have lunch in their later years, is a list, in advance, on a notecard, of everything he wanted to make sure they would cover: politics, Israel, rabbis, Reform Judaism, all Judaism, children, grandchildren, and of course, their regular dissection of the New York Times op-ed page as if it were a daf of Talmud.

Dad didn’t save the note cards or record the jokes or write down Al’s fierce wisdom. He did what we all do – carry Al around in our hearts, even as we do this day, even as we will from this day. Because for a spirit as indelible and indomitable as Al Vorspan’s, you really don’t need a manila folder.

He was a liberator – not of the poor finally from their poverty, nor of the hungry from their hunger, nor of African Americans finally from the shackles of American racism, though God knows he tried.

He was a liberator because he freed the Torah from the ark, the prophets from the quiet pages of bound Bibles, the light of justice from the dainty ner tamid. He simply refused to leave the beating heart of Judaism trapped inside stained-glass windows or musty halls.

He brought Jeremiah to the Capitol and Isaiah to the jail cell in St. Augustine and Micah to the conference table at the RAC and he did it with a pipe in his teeth and a smile on his face and those expressive hands and with his bald head shining like a beacon for social justice. He was brave and smart and eloquent and magnetic beyond measure – my mom used to say Al Vorspan made social justice sexy.

But it wasn’t always sexy, and it was rarely easy. Rabbis of my generation and younger have this fantasy that justice work was simpler in the good old days – that before Ronald Reagan came along, every Jew was a New Deal Democrat, and every congregation floated in a tranquil sea of homogeneous blue.

But as Al reminded us time and again, it was never easy. It wasn’t easy when the rabbi in Alabama asked Al not to march with Dr. King in 1955 because the Jewish community there feared the reprisals of the White Citizens’ Council; it wasn’t easy in every Reform congregation that Al and Rabbi Eugene Lipman traveled to in the 1950’s to introduce the notion of a Social Action Committee; it wasn’t easy at the 1961 Biennial, when after a fierce floor fight, the Union voted to establish the Religious Action Center, and Al Vorspan was for once speechless, and he retreated in relief to the parking lot where he broke down and cried.

The fact that he was ceaselessly charming did not make him any less courageous. The fact that he was not a rabbi did not make him any less a person of faith, and his faith was profound. For him a Judaism of justice was a Judaism of substance and sacred promise, a Judaism that mattered; its Torah a Torah that dared enter the marketplace and the workplace and the factory and the fields of Viet Nam; a faith that Judaism was a force for redemption, even when things seemed irredeemable. Even when his critiques of the America he loved or the Israel he loved were most harsh, or when he came close to despair after the American election of 2016, that sense of hope remained his calling card.

We have taken to calling him a giant. That is testimony to his defining influence for the past 65 years in shaping Reform Judaism into a justice movement – the Reform movement simply would not be what it is today without him.

And it is testimony to his unquenchable charisma – he could hold a room like nobody’s business, and he had a command of the English language and a gift for delivery that would literally quicken your pulse when you listened to him. It’s a good thing he didn’t become a rabbi, because he would have put the rest of us out of business.

But to call him a giant is also a disservice, because what made Al Vorspan Al Vorspan was his unique combination of prophetic zeal and deep humanity – the genuine care for whomever was in front of him – a roomful of us or one at a time.

He understood the fear of that rabbi in Alabama; he respected our movement leaders when they challenged him. He believed in the power of community, and established the Commission on Social Action and congregational Social Action Committees across the country because he knew that the Torah of justice belonged on both sides of the aisle, where the people are. He combined rebuke with love, a challenge to conscience with a hand around your shoulder.

He stood in front of lots of packed houses, but I am guessing that for most of us here, the enduring image is of Al standing close, leaning in, laughing hard, listening well. There was no hypocritical distance between his care for the world and the care he showed for his own family, or for this Reform movement family. He was at home on the ramparts, and at home in the warmth of a quiet Shabbat in the Berkshires. If he was a giant, he was a giant who remembered your name.

We have taken to calling him a prophet. That is testimony to his remarkable courage and ethical compass. But as Aron Hirt-Manheimer wrote in his beautiful remembrance this week, no prophet was ever as funny as Al Vorspan – although if Jeremiah and Amos did tell stories like Al’s, we can understand why their jokes didn’t end up in the Bible. And of course, nobody took greater joy in a Vorspan story than Vorspan.

If you want to laugh until you cry, read Al’s blog post (July 25, 2016), called “Sex and The Retirement Home,” his response to an article earlier that month in the New York Times about how the Hebrew Home in Riverdale had started to encourage sexual activity among residents. I have made a career choice not to recount any of it here.

Al was a beloved mentor, teacher and friend to generations of Reform rabbis, stirring the fires of social justice activism in countless CCAR members and the communities we serve. He made us better every day, and it’s my honor to extend sympathies to all of Al’s family on behalf of our family of rabbis.

He was a teacher for generations; a friend for the ages; a beloved brother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather; and above all else and every day, Shirley’s steadfast companion. If Al was magic, Al and Shirley were more so; she had his number and she had his heart. May the artist and the activist be together again in whatever Hillsdale the heavens have to offer.

Some 1500 years ago, the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 3a) told us of Rabbi Yosei, who went to pray in the ruins of Jerusalem. Elijah the prophet came and gently rebuked the sage for praying in the ruins, a practice the rabbis considered to be both physically and spiritually dangerous. Elijah teaches Yosei that though the ruins may have felt safe and familiar, he should have prayed in the open, out on the road, out in the world.

Al Vorspan was our Elijah, summoning us beyond the ruins of parochialism, of paralysis, of self-righteousness, of despair – calling us to bring our prayers and deeds onto the road and into a world desperately in need of healing.

Two years ago, at the age of 93, Al Vorspan wrote a dialogue he called “The Debate in My Head,” a conversation between what he called his Inner Realist and his Inner Idealist, both characters labeled “Me” on the page. Eventually, the Inner Realist says: “It’s time to disengage, old man. Turn it off. Exit gracefully. The game is over for you. Cash in your chips, turn off MSNBC, read that book by Amos Oz, write a memoir for your grandkids.”

But the Inner Idealist comes back with the account of Al’s Navy experience in the Pacific during World War II, when his ship was hit by a Japanese bomber outside of Okinawa, and how amidst the wounded and the dead, Al’s fear gave way to a sense of courage and duty. Then the Inner Idealist effectively wins the debate with these words:

“Who are you to decide the game is over? The truth is, the biggest game is just beginning. And it will need all hands on deck. Young, old, blue state, red state. People need to wake up, storm their congressman’s office, demand the America they once took for granted: humane, democratic, fair, welcoming. We need to wake up and demand an America which does not place the environment and the planet at risk; an America which does not comfort the comfortable at the expense of the weak and the poor; an America that is once again a light to the world!”

Classic Vorspan: admitting that it’s a struggle, and then soaring in hope and inspiration to win the day. At 93 and 95 and every day, he was a prophet who laughed, a giant who remembered you, an Elijah who summoned us to our better selves.

We will miss him greatly, but the Vorspan file is secure and enduring: when our own standards start to slip, we will remember his integrity; when we begin to retreat from the heat of the day, we will gain courage from his compass; when we start to take ourselves too seriously, we will remember how he made justice and joy sing together. He has left us a legacy of shining conscience and deep love.

Sail on, sweet sailor, brave spirit. May your example ever light our way.

Albert Vorspan, zecher tzaddik livracha – may the memory of the righteous abide for blessing. Amen.

This Eulogy for Albert Vorspan was shared with permission from Rabbi David Stern. Rabbi Stern is the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas.


Immigration Social Justice

Witness to Cruelty: Bringing Compassion to McAllen

The mother from Nicaragua stood before our multi-faith group of forty religious leaders this morning in the simple and dignified space of the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, cradling her sleeping infant in her arms. “We are here because my country is no longer safe for my child.” By this writing, she is already on a bus to San Francisco, her ticket purchased by relatives there, her safe passage arranged by Sister Norma and the remarkable staff and volunteers of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

She, like the other families we met in the Respite Center, is among the lucky ones – who can still cradle their babies, who can still play with their children on the colorful mats in the corner, who were able to take their first shower in weeks, to wash off the mud and cold of passage.

It was some combination of chance, powerful love, and spiritual commitment that landed mother and child on that westbound bus. The love and commitment of volunteers and faith communities who share time, supplies, food and medical services; and the luck of a given moment on a given day. I asked one of the staff at the Respite Center how that mother and that child could still be together in the face of the Administration’s cruel and draconian requirement that children be taken from their parents at the border, and she shrugged: maybe a compassionate border guard, maybe because the child was just a baby, maybe our prayers worked.

We have witnessed traumatic cruelty in our nation in these recent weeks, and if witnessing it has been traumatic, we can only begin to imagine the pain of those who suffered it directly: the parents and children whose wails tear at our hearts. The name of this policy, “Zero Tolerance,” is Orwellian at best. The practice of ripping children from their parents at the border is not Zero Tolerance. It is Zero Compassion. It is Zero Wisdom, because it deprives security professionals of discretion. It is Zero Coherence because it expends security resources indiscriminately, instead of focusing them on the populations who might put us at risk. It has been a violation of core Jewish values, and an affront to the American values of which Dreamers dream.

The President’s recent Executive Order, while a seeming reversal in the face of public outcry, will not address core injustices. It makes no provision for reuniting the 2300 already separated children with their families. It offers no change in the fundamental flaws, and smokescreen, of so-called Zero Tolerance. A narrow Executive Order cannot restore heart to what is heartless.

Our visit today was supposed to conclude with a visit to the Border Detention Center – I had hoped to report to you first-hand about the cages of separation and the conditions there. For reasons not totally clear – some combination of serious flash floods and government bureaucratic confusion – we were not permitted to visit.

So the work of calling for transparency must continue – not only by the forty leaders on our bus, but by everyone of us who cares about the conscience, heart and destiny of America.

In this week’s parshah, the ruler of Edom earns a reputation for callousness and injustice by uttering two simple words to Moses and the Israelites seeking to pass through his territory: lo ta’avor. Those words have become an emblem in our tradition for blind and simplistic enmity. When our nation speaks an unconditional lo ta’avor to refugees seeking safety from violence and pursuing a life of dignity and freedom, when our president uses the word “infest” to describe their presence in a land of freedom, the echoes are more than troubling.

But today in McAllen, we outshouted those echoes with the laughter of children, with songs of hope from Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants, whites and people of color, locking arms and joining forces to bring a sense of solidarity to a border town, a sense of compassion, and justice to our nation. We leave McAllen pledging vigilance for the safety of all children and families, and for the protection of the values precious to us all.

Rabbi David Stern serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas and is President of The Central Conference of American Rabbis.


Eulogy for Rabbi Aaron David Panken, z”l

I had been meaning to ask Aaron a Talmud question this week. I liked asking Aaron Talmud questions, usually when I was preparing to say something about the Talmud in front of a bunch of rabbis, and I wanted to make sure my reading was within reason.

Here is the question I was going to ask him this week in preparation for Los Angeles ordination. In Talmud Tractate Tamid 28a, the text says of the priest chosen to remove the ashes from the altar, v’lo ner b’yado – “there was no lamp in his hand.” Explanations for the ruling vary: one opinion maintains that the priest did not need to hold a lamp because he could walk by the light of the flames on the altar; another suggests that it was all about keeping the priest’s hands free and unencumbered for the service to be performed. I wanted to ask Aaron if I could say that it’s a value for rabbis to show up empty-handed – not so full of ourselves or crammed so full of qualifications that we forget to remain open to the service before us.

And now I can’t ask him. And now we can’t ask him. Our questions could be about anything: ancient texts or what we might learn from the Parkland students he visited; a challenge the College faces or a movement-wide issue that would summon his razor-sharp sense of strategic vision; or just an invitation to explain the latest technological gadget that left most of us stymied but that he actually knew how to use, and probably how to take apart and put together again.

I can’t ask him my question now. But I can cite him as my answer – because Aaron Panken showed up empty-handed every day. Not as an ungracious guest would – in fact, the flowers from his last visit to our home a week ago are still on the kitchen table. But empty-handed as in open-handed and open-hearted to the people and the world around him. He was curious about anything and everything, from some nerdy electronics convention to a bit of Aramaic grammar to opera, which he actually got Lisa to go to for one whole season once.

He was curious about you and me, which is why his asking after us or our families never came off as conditioned rabbinic reflex, but as the genuine caring it was. It’s what made him a great camp counselor from the beginning, and a great friend every day.

His world could be only the person in front of him, or it could be, well, the world. Aaron and Lisa and their family have traveled the globe with the best of wander lust, this powerful appetite to see more and know more and experience more – from Panama to Europe to Australia and New Zealand to name just a few, and on every conveyance imaginable, and learning every step of the way. Even on the most mundane, shlepadik days, he was always imagining the next adventure.

He was empty-handed because he somehow managed to be a person of strong principle but minimal preconception – he was remarkably willing to take new questions seriously, rather than fall into clenched patterns of resistance. He was fun to disagree with, because he was smart and stubborn, but practical and never closed off. He approached hard decisions with creativity and courage. He would stick to principle, but never get stuck on himself.

He was empty-handed because he was at home not only in the scholar’s study, but in the sky and on the sea and in the raucous embrace of his family and before a Manhattan sunset and a Berkshire dawn and in the fullness of God’s world.

Aaron was a rabbi through and through, but he was an electrical engineer by training, and you knew it without ever seeing his CV.  I remember when I once made the mistake of asking him how all his increased travel was going, all the packing and unpacking. At which point he ushered me into his bathroom on Stonewall Lane to proudly display the handheld steamer which he used to steam the wrinkles out of his suits as soon as he got home so they would be ready for the next day, followed of course by a full scientific disquisition on the machine, the fabric, and their wondrous interaction. Aaron Panken got excited about steam.

He was warm and delightful and fun, and an engineer – so as a strategist, he was sober and unsentimental; and as a scholar, he valued precision over polemic. Just recently, a few of us were ribbing Aaron on this very bima about the fact that his less-than-scintillating book, The Rhetoric of Innovation, had surged almost into the triple digits in sales since its publication thirteen years ago. But I am willing to bet that his is one of the few studies of Talmudic literature that actually uses bar graphs, ten different bar graphs, to be precise, to make its argument about change in Jewish law. Only a Johns Hopkins engineering major could be that kind of rabbi.

That sobriety was an important quality in his leadership. He never jumped on a bandwagon, or went in for inexact rhetorical flourishes. And that is what made his emerging public moral voice, especially over recent months, so powerful. He had just begun to speak out against the perils of this political culture, just begun to show us how to bring the authentic and complex voice of our tradition to bear on the toxicities of our own day. One of the many reasons that we feel so cheated today is that he had only begun to lead us.

He had a keen intellect, a boundless heart, an anchoring integrity, a great sense of play and a wicked sense of humor. In my sermon at this year’s CCAR Convention, I focused on the metaphor of the rabbi as an earthen altar, partaking of the holy and the human. Infatuated with my own imagery, in the hallway after the service, I could see the Panken twinkle of mischief in his eye, and then the shoulder shake that precedes the Panken belly laugh. That’s when he asked me the pragmatic engineer’s four-word question that ruined my metaphor of the earthen altar forever: “What if it rains?”

But the most remarkable byproduct of the Hopkins engineer turned HUC graduate is that Aaron Panken was that rarest of breeds: a rabbi who could fix stuff. My parents, aleyhem hashalom, always adored Aaron. From the time that he was my father’s intern here at WRT, to the marriage to our beloved Lisa that brought Aaron fully into the Scarsdale fold, Aaron was not only an honorary Stern child, but frankly, the favorite Stern child.

When my parents retired to the Berkshires, Aaron and Lisa would always visit when they would come up for the weekend, or for less time than that, if my parents even faintly suggested that they would love to see them. And pretty much without fail, when the charming young couple showed up at the door, they were greeted with a warm embrace and a punch list. “Aaron, while you’re here, could you look at the printer?” “I’m not sure why the TV isn’t working.” “Does that air conditioner vent look funny to you?” And the huge Panken heart and the admirable Panken patience and the considerable Panken skillset would make it all work.

For all of his constant achievements and well-earned stature and overcrowded calendar, Aaron never stopped being a rabbi to our family. He brought great comfort to us when my mother was dying, and afterwards those visits to the Berkshires became even more precious when my dad was in the house alone. Visits from Aaron sustained him, as they had when my mother was in the hospital, as they did when my father was in the hospital, as they did every time Aaron Panken made Jack Stern laugh or made him think or made him proud. Aaron Panken was a rabbi who could put things together – like printer cables, like broken hearts. He may have started out empty-handed, but he held all of us. He was a mensch beyond measure.

I know the tragic circumstances of Aaron’s death might make us reticent to speak of his passions, but that would not be fair to him. He loved sailing, and he loved flying. He had a thing for the sky, he had a thing for the compass of the stars, he had a thing for the water and the wind. The Messingers’ Berkshire home on the lake and the cottage my family rents are literally a five-minute drive from each other, and about twenty minutes by sailboat or kayak.  I cannot recall a single time that Aaron drove. I really believe he was most at home in the sky and on the water – they were his poetry, the places where his intellect and his sense of wonder could dance. He has fallen from a Sabbath sky, and our hearts are broken. But how he loved a Sabbath sky.

To Aaron’s parents, to Melinda and her family, to Lisa and Eli and Samantha, our hearts go out to you, and if a bunch of broken hearts together can make something whole, we’re here to try.  Aaron Panken lived in a remarkably wide world, and you were always at its center. We loved him, and we love you.

And on behalf of the family of rabbis we call the CCAR, I will simply quote our colleague Michael White, who wrote of his dear friend Aaron: “He was the best of us.” Two thousand Reform rabbis agree upon very little, but that one is a winner. Smart, kind, caring, compassionate, learned in Torah, committed to the Jewish people to the fiber of his being, serious in his vision and joyous in his days. He was the best of us.

V’lo ner b’yado – like a priest without a lamp, even as we stumble in this valley of shadow, we walk by other lights. May Aaron’s example guide our way. May his soul shine like the splendor of the heavens. May we know God’s comfort. These are dark days — but if Aaron taught us anything, he taught us how to sail by a night sky.  “Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Aaron David Panken, zecher tzaddik livracha – may the memory of the righteous always abide for blessing. Amen.

This Eulogy for Rabbi Aaron David Panken was shared with permission from Rabbi David Stern. 

CCAR will be providing resources and support as we process our grief in the weeks to come. Please click here to learn more.

This is one of several eulogies that were offered. We anticipate others will be available soon.



High Holy Days News

Growing Deep

How to find and offer wisdom in a polarized world?

We live in an uncompromising age, a time of hard edges and bristling polemic.  Our current culture too often confuses strength with bombast, conviction with absolutism, passion with intolerance.   Deliberation and compromise are portrayed as weakness, and unyielding rigidity as power.  Beit Hillel is AWOL.  Rage is all the rage.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Gluck wrote:  “And the mind/wants to shine, plainly, as/machines shine, and not/grow deep, as for example, roots.”  In Gluck’s terms, we live in a machine age:  too readily and too lazily, our minds prefer shine to roots.

And then along come the High Holidays, and urge us to be the klei kodesh of a completely counter-cultural message to our people and to ourselves:  slow down and stop shining.  Look within before you shout without.  Stop.  Reflect.  Struggle.  Consider your responsibilities to others.   Create the space for questions that do not have easy answers.   Permit uncertainties that shake you off center.  Allow for regret and change.  Open your heart to new possibilities.  Grow deep.

Consider the sound of the shofar:  ragged, varied, piercing precisely because it’s not pretty.  It is the sound of roots, not shine.

The Mishnah teaches (RH 3:7) that if the shofar is sounded in a pit or a cistern, if one hears the sound of the shofar, one has fulfilled the mitzvah of listening to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  But if one hears only the sound of the echo, then one has not fulfilled the mitzvah.  The Gemara (BT RH 27b) goes on to comment that if the listener is in the pit when the shofar is sounded, then surely the listener hears the sound itself, and has fulfilled the obligation.  But if the listener is standing only on the edge of the pit, then the listener has only heard the echo, and has not fulfilled the obligation.

An interpretation about the opportunity and purpose of these days:  if you stay only on the surface of things, if you do not grow deep, then in fact you have not fulfilled the obligation of these Days of Awe.

None of this is easy.  The sermons weigh on us, the logistics burden us, we apply all sorts of pressure to ourselves, and we get stuck thinking in terms of shine rather than roots.  Unwittingly, we allow the space of self to crowd out the presence of the sacred:  what will they think of me?  Will I be good at this?  How will they react?  We want to get it right and do it well, but it can be hard to distinguish the commitment to calling from the seductions of ego.

Like many of you, I have certain touchstones at this time of year:  passages, poems, teachers on the page who help me stay centered.  For me, the best of these anchoring teachings comes from my grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Philip Rudin z”l.  Because he wrote these words for a series of homiletics lectures at HUC-JIR (in 1959), they refer specifically to preaching.  But they are surely about more than that.  They are about what it means to be a rabbi, and what it means to be human.  They are about speaking and living with integrity and heart, at any season but especially this one.  They are about going and growing deep, despite all the temptations to shine.  They are a gift to me each year, and this year I hope, to you:

If you do not love those to whom you preach, you will not preach successfully.  If, secretly, you do not respect those who listen to you, then you will not touch them deeply.  Preaching must be purged of condescension, of a sense of superiority.  If it isn’t, then you will not talk so that people will care about what you are saying.  By the same token, if you have no deep concern, you may be engaged in a homiletical exercise, but not in preaching a sermon.  If you do not care passionately, you will not convince your hearers that they should.  If you preach from outside your subject, you will leave your hearers outside.  If you preach from within, you will take your hearers into that same inner place. 

May these days be eye-opening, soul-opening.  May the call from the heart of the tradition enter our own.  May we hear it and offer it with courage and strength, and the depth of God’s blessing.  Shana Tova!

Rabbi David Stern serves Temple Emanu-El, Dallas, and is President-Elect of The Central Conference of American Rabbis