The summer after my Bar Mitzvah, my family packed a month’s worth of clothing and flew to Israel. My father had received a rabbinic fellowship at the Hartman Institute, enabling us to spend three summers together in an apartment right off of Hillel Street, the heart of downtown Jerusalem.
Those years would prove to be the foundations of my Zionism, the cornerstone of the love for Israel that I have today, and the beginning of the journey that would lead me to Israeli citizenship.
Rabbi David Hartman, who passed away this morning, was very involved with the first class of fellows, and he and my father argued bitterly over the state of Orthodox Judaism. From my summer room, I could hear my father failing to keep his frustration at a quiet level, his anger painting a frightening picture in my thirteen year old mind.
To me, Rabbi Hartman was a big man, loud and red in the face; a nightmare of a teacher if I could have ever described one. My family would soon learn that this was not the case.
It took some time, but eventually, the two rabbis were able to understand each other. A special rebbe-talmid (teacher-student) relationship developed, and though I was not directly involved in their conversations, I found both my life and my process of thinking affected by the lessons my father received from Rabbi Hartman.
When I finished eleventh grade, my father was granted another fellowship to Israel through the Mandel Institute, which sent my family to Israel for two years. The choice between my long-awaited senior year with my friends in the US or an early start to a life in Israel was difficult, and I spent the entire summer deliberating over my options.
Eventually, the memories of those three summers and the promise of studying at the Hartman high school in Jerusalem won out.
Despite my being a last-minute applicant, the Hartman family did not hesitate to accept me.
“You’re family,” Rabbi Donniel Hartman (the late rabbi’s son) told my father, a sentiment that was extended to me by both the faculty and student body of the Hartman High School. In fact, throughout my years alone in Israel, the friends that I made over my year at Hartman remain my closest friends and the faculty has maintained an open door policy.
Towards the end of that senior year, Rabbi Hartman met with the graduating class for a few study sessions. During one session, after a back and forth on a controversial issue that left many students confused, Rabbi Hartman taught me one of the most important lessons of my life. He explained that:
You don’t always have to agree with what the other side says, but you always have to try to understand them and why they are saying what they are saying.
Progress is not impeded by opinions. It is the exact opposite that is true – opinions breed progress. But when you only hear your voice, you never learn anything. No matter what the issue might be, no matter how deep-rooted your faith, there is always something to learn from the dialogue, even if it is only a better understanding of the person seated in front of you.
To anyone who knew Rabbi Hartman, this should come as no surprise. Though one of the more outspoken rabbis of his time, Reb Duvid, as we affectionately referred to him at home, had a sweeter side to him. My father is known to quote a different teaching of his, one that has become a mantra in our home:
Being is in relationship.
We are placed in this world to connect with one another, to build something great together. To listen, learn, and challenge each other. Life without relationships is boring and meaningless. As the famous Talmudic character Honi HaMeagel (the “circle drawer”) once famously declared:
“Give me companionship, or give me death.”
Indeed Rabbi Hartman, you showed love and companionship to my family and developed a relationship that, unbeknownst to you, has affected the next generation. Your teachings have shaped the way I live my life, and the love that you, your family, and the extended family at the Institute has shown to my family has ensured that we will live lives of meaning as members of the world.
Thank you, Rebbe. May your memory be a blessing.