When I began as the rabbi of Ramat Shalom in the summer of 2002, I was summoned by Larry Kalevitch z”l (of blessed memory). Larry was an extremely well respected professor at Nova Law School. He was a wise lawyer who inspired his students and gave them the skills needed to become talented attorneys. Larry had a huge heart but a very tough exterior. He was wonderfully opinionated and had the ability to be quite intimidating. When he summoned me, his new, young rabbi, Larry knew that the end of his life was near. He had been battling aggressive cancer and wanted to get to know me as I would be officiating at his funeral. As I walked into his home, I smelled cigarette smoke – lots of it. “You mind if I smoke,” asked Larry as he greeted me holding a lit cigarette. Actually, I did, but, out of courtesy, I told him I did not mind at all. “Good,” Larry responded, “because I wasn’t planning to stop.” And so began my special, albeit too short, relationship with Professor Kalevitch.
I soon learned that I was summoned not just so Larry could get to know me. He had a challenge for me: “My plan is to be cremated,” he explained “and your job today is to try to talk me out of it if you can.” I told him that if he truly wanted to be cremated, I would support his decision and still officiate at his funeral. This was not an acceptable answer. It was clear that Larry wanted me to present a case against cremation. As he sat back, took a drag from his cigarette and waited for my response, I suddenly felt like a first year law student who was put on the spot by the professor. I composed myself and began to explain why traditional Judaism opposes cremation. My explanation was interrupted many times by Larry who took every opportunity to challenge what I was saying. After a great deal of discussion, Larry, still smoking his cigarette, stopped to think for a bit. “Okay,” he said, “you convinced me. Call off the cremation. We will go with traditional burial.” I was stunned and a little proud of myself.
For the rest of Larry’s life, I was blessed to be his rabbi. We would visit often and each time we did, we would have a challenging, in depth conversation that, in the end, left me feeling better than I did when our visit started. While there are many things that he taught me, there is one very important lesson that I learned from him – a lesson that I have thought about regularly over the past 13 years of my rabbinate. Larry was the first congregant that I had to bury. I had been an assistant rabbi prior to coming to Ramat Shalom but never had to officiate at the funeral of a member. While I had officiated at funerals of people I did not know, Larry’s funeral was a first for me. While we had only known each other for a few months, Larry and all his quirkiness quickly gained a special place in my heart. I looked forward to our visits. And, when he passed away – I felt the loss. It hurt. But, the loss I felt was nothing compared to the loss felt by his family and friends. And, with his passing, it was now my job to take what I learned about Larry and his life and use it to help all of these mourners remember Larry, celebrate his life and weep over their loss. As I prepared for his funeral, I realized the enormity of the task that Larry had given me.
I vividly remember looking out at the crowd of people who gathered for the funeral and, for a split second, I felt unworthy. I was standing before Larry’s family, his closest of friends, distinguished lawyers and academics – people who had known Larry for years and years. What gave me the right to officiate at this funeral? As I began to doubt myself, I remembered the moment I changed Larry’s mind about his burial arrangements, the moment he said: “Okay, you convinced me.” As I did so, I realized that Larry, after summoning me and putting me to the test, had chosen me to be the rabbi at his funeral. In doing so, he taught me what an incredible responsibility and honor it is to help those left behind remember and mourn a loved one. The conversations we had before he passed taught me how lucky I was to have gotten to know Larry and engage with him. The loss that I felt when he passed taught me that we had a connection that made a difference in my life. And, once I got over the self-doubt, the privilege of standing up at his funeral as his rabbi taught me just how sacred it is to officiate at the funeral of someone who was a part of my life, someone who trusted me.
Unfortunately, Larry was just the first of many members of our community that I have had to bury. While not comparable to the loss of their immediate family and friends, whenever a member passes away, I feel a loss. At each of the funerals of these members, as I step before the mourners who gather to remember their loved one, I think about the loss of my first member – I think about Larry. And each time I do so, I am reminded of the incredible responsibility that he gave to me, that every congregant who leaves us gives to me – to officiate at their funeral, comfort their loved ones and bless their memory. It is a huge task, a task that I often feel unworthy of, a task that I never want to do, a task that breaks my heart. But it is a task that I have been entrusted with and so it is a task that I take very seriously. To officiate at a member’s funeral is not a task any rabbi wants to do – but to do so is a tremendous honor.
As I continue to focus on the people and moments that have defined my past 13 years here at Ramat Shalom, I must pause to remember the congregants who have passed away since I arrived in 2002. I was blessed to know each of them, be a part of their lives and serve as their rabbi. Their memories continue to bless my life. As we celebrate 13 years on March 29th, I will be remembering them.