My father shared sparse pieces of advice; so when he did, I listened. In all my years growing up, few men, certainly religious figures, made the grade of true hero in father’s eyes. You see, my dad, by his own estimation, wasn’t really the very religious type. Until his dying day, I don’t think he understood why his three sons became rabbis. None-the-less, my father did have a few heroes and Mr. Jack Becker was one.
Jacob Joseph Becker, or Mr. Becker as I knew him, was on old man by the time I could sit with him to learn Talmud. During my visits from yeshiva in Israel or graduate school, I sometimes joined Rabbi Yitzchok Adler, the local Orthodox rabbi, and Mr. Becker as they learned. Jack was quiet and methodical. But his prowess at Talmud was not what made him stand out.
Mr. Becker came to the U.S. while Europe was going through its first twentieth century turmoil. Raised in Kolonya Ya’akovlev, Poland and having learned a little in the yeshiva in Kobrin, he eventually built a small kosher store in the sleepy southern town of Jacksonville Florida o the 1930’s – yes, Jews lived in Jacksonville, even back then. With a modest background but an unquenchable thirst, at the age of almost 40, the same age Rabbi Akiva started out, Jack took a sabbatical with his dear wife Sue to study at Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He came in order to study with the illustrious faculty the Conservative seminary had in those difficult days at the end of World War II and the Holocaust. Mr. Becker once recounted how the famed Talmudist, Prof. Saul Lieberman, took a liking to the middle-aged student. Lieberman enjoyed having someone older and experienced among the young students. In his later years, Jack also made a second home in Israel (he had purchased a plot in 1949!) and continued to learn at the Orthodox yeshiva of Har Etzion. I still recall when Dr. Meyer Brayer z”l of Yeshivat Har Etzion discovered my Jacksonville roots and was exuberant to inquire if I knew the famous Mr. Jack Becker. But being an autodidact and lifelong student is not what impressed my father. Something more crucial to life in a small town did.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s Jack took upon himself communal leadership in every possible area. He served as president of the large Conservative synagogue, was active in Israeli bonds, helped found the local Jewish day school, raised funds for UJA, sought actively to help the educational projects and even endowed Project Doron of the World Council of Conservative Synagogues. But communal leadership per se and even helping fund projects was only the tip of the iceberg of what my father admired about Jack Becker.
My father once told me that every time there was Jewish educational event, Jack Becker was there. It didn’t matter if the event was at the Reform Temple, the Orthodox synagogue, or either of the Conservative synagogues which existed during Jack’s lifetime. Jack loved learning but even more he loved the entire Jewish people. From Haredi institutions to Reform and everything in between, Jack Becker wanted them to grow, to attract students, and ultimately to succeed. “‘Ole Jack Becker”, who passed away 17 years ago, the same year as my father, impressed my dad with his infectious love for the entire Jewish community.
One might think such openness is not the stuff of heroes. Is such tolerance really a big deal? On the other hand, one could argue that an Orthodox rabbi, such as myself, who has strayed far from my father’s other views on religion might not be supportive of Jack Becker’s pluralistic approach to Judaism. The truth is that many Orthodox rabbis I know see any crack in the wall of tradition as a threat to the entire edifice. Recently, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel and present Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar came to protest non-Orthodox prayers at the Southern Excavations area of the Western Wall, an area, by the way, designated for non-Orthodox prayer. A few months ago, Rabbi David Lau, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, criticized, Naftali Bennet, the Orthodox minister of Education, for visiting a Conservative school in the U.S. And, tomorrow, a group of respected Orthodox rabbis from both Israel and the Diaspora will hold a conference discussing what they see as the eminent threat of Conservative and Reform Judaism to the State of Israel.
Yet, I not only don’t see the threat, I see allies. I don’t have to agree with the approach of my Conservative and Reform friends to respect them as fellow seekers of religious truth. I don’t have to participate in their rituals to understand their longing to pray in their own way and their feeling of ownership in Jewish tradition. I don’t have to “legitimate” them (whatever that means) to love and respect them.
I believe the Orthodox rabbis who utilize their power in Israel to marginalize and denigrate other forms of Jewish expression are making a grave mistake. They seem to participate in a sort of triumphalism and maybe even a bit of schadenfreude at the powerlessness of non-Orthodox groups in Israel. From a pragmatic vantage point, this is a lose-lose approach. I once heard the magisterial Baron Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (aka England) speak on the topic of rabbinic influence. He proclaimed that a rabbi can choose power or he can choose influence but not both. In Israeli, he declared, the rabbis have chosen power while he, in England had none. Yet, the Chief Rabbi felt that he had tremendous influence while the rabbis in Israel only drove people away.
Taken a step further, however, I think the defensive approach is simply misguided. Yesterday, I attended a conference for parents of daughters who will be spending next year in the Diaspora building communities as part of their Israeli National Service. Rabbi Doron Perez of the World Mizrachi Movement shared a moving comment by Rav Kook. In the Mishna in Avot Hillel says, “be as the students of Aharon – love peace, pursue peace, love [all] creatures, and bring them to Torah.” (Avot 1:12) Rav Kook explains the last two clauses are causally linked: through the love of all creatures, you will surely bring them to God’s Torah. Love of all of his creatures, even those with whom we disagree, is the key to bringing God close.
Mr. Becker, a refugee from a Europe that didn’t want us, built a life in the U.S. and in Israel helping others build Jewish meaning. His legacy of loving and helping other Jews is indeed heroic. My understanding of Jewish law will not allow me to embrace others in quite the expansive manner in which he did; however, my father chose a good model. Now more than ever we need people like Mr. Jack Becker in the world. May his memory be for a blessing.