A Sudden Trip Home From Jerusalem

During the last week of June, my wife Robin and I participated in the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, held this year in Jerusalem.

When I was younger (so much younger than today…), I used to look forward to conventions as a precious opportunity to check in with my friends from Rabbinical School, who were spread out all over the country. Before, between and after the formal programs, we would gather with our wives (there were no rabbinical husbands then) to enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company, and reminisce about student life, which was invariably much better in hindsight than in real time.

One of the administrative realities that I’ve come to understand during my presidency of the RA is the degree to which the internet has changed how people travel, when they travel and where they stay. Once upon a time in America, if you wanted to run a convention for your organization, you booked a group of rooms in an appropriately large and well-suited hotel, got yourself a travel agent who would handle the flight and land arrangements of those attending, planned the program, and you had yourself a convention.

It’s not so simple anymore.

Between Orbitz, Expedia, Hipmunk, Travelocity, Kayak, and many more such sites, most people make their own flight arrangements, and book their own hotels, looking for the best deal– as well they should. The net result is that it’s become very difficult to run a convention in one site, one hotel, because guaranteeing that all the reserved rooms will be used constitutes a serious financial risk to the planner. If people book elsewhere and leave you with unbooked rooms, the organization owns the bills.

No less significant is the inevitable loss of the aforementioned quality community time– “hanging around time,” if you will, that friends and colleagues love so much when they are in the same place. What exactly community means in the age of the global village is a rich and important topic… but not for now.

That said, even with our convention being expensive because of the distance and timing (this is, of course, prime tourist season in Israel), we were delighted to have some two hundred colleagues participating with us in an exciting and stimulating program. We were received graciously by President Shimon Peres in his home, where it was my great honor to introduce him; welcomed warmly (and genuinely– a true gesture of partnership in matters spiritual and religious) by Minister of Religions Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, along with the Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein; the fascinating and erudite Knesset member Dr. Ruth Calderon addressed our group, and acknowledged the kinship between our work and hers in reaching those who remain outside of the sphere of influence of Jewish tradition and scholarship… and, of course, there were more than a few opportunities for lighter moments, and fun. The convention was a great success, thanks to those who put so much effort and planning into it, and it was an enormously gratifying week to be the President of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Those of you who read my columns regularly will have noticed that I didn’t write a piece for last week’s paper–hence the title of this column. My brother-in-law, Stuart Friedman, my wife’s sister’s husband, died while we were in Israel, and we had to cut our trip short by a week. A word about my brother-in-law…

Stuart was a vibrant and exceptionally bright man who was ambushed and, ultimately, completely overwhelmed by metastatic pancreatic cancer. He and his beautiful wife Enid have always been very close and important to Robin and me. As families often do, we take turns preparing the big holidays. They always host Thanksgiving, our one “traveling holiday”, while we always host the Passover seder. Though different in his Jewish observance from us, Stuart loved the traditions of our seder, and would invariably stay to the very end, no matter how late. He relished the special foods, and the company, but made sure always to bring his own wine, to insure that he would be drinking something worth his while… He was a wine snob of the first order.

This year, sometime during the first hour of the Seder, Stuart pulled me aside and asked me if I had an antacid, because his stomach was bothering him. Ultimately, he was uncomfortable enough that he was forced to leave the seder before we even ate. Something had to be wrong, I thought…

Within a day or two, what began as indigestion and was thought to be gallstones morphed into inoperable pancreatic cancer. The course of his disease was swift and devastating. He began showing symptoms on Pesach; he died on Shabbat, June 29. We barely had a chance to acclimate ourselves to the reality of his prognosis before he was gone.

That’s why I didn’t write last week. Instead of writing a column for the Jewish Week, I was writing Stuart’s eulogy, and spending time with my family during the shivah. All of us who knew Stuart and loved him knew that he could be a curmudgeon when he put his mind to it, and he wasn’t always the easiest person to love. But his values, his heart, and his intentions were always in the right place and we could go to him for anything we needed. He was our curmudgeon and we loved him. He was family, and we’ll miss him terribly.

Y’he zichro baruch… may his memory be for a blessing!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.