Rabbi Harold Kushner: Greatness and Humility in One Package
My friend Eli Spielman said it best. “Greatness and humility in one package,” he said of Rabbi Harold Kushner as news spread that he had passed away.
You didn’t have to be Jewish to know the greatness of Harold Kushner. His book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which he wrote in 1981 as a reaction to his own personal tragedy – the diagnosis of his son Aaron at age three with progeria, which condemned Aaron to rapidly age and die when he was fourteen years old – and the crisis of faith he experienced, has been translated into twelve languages and has sold over 4,000,000 copies. Forty-two years after its first publication, it is still one of the most popular books in print. Undoubtedly, it made him the most well-known Rabbi in America, and perhaps the world.
A beautiful eulogy by Rabbi Jack Riemer described him perfectly, “That kind of success would have been enough to spoil many of us,” Rabbi Riemer wrote. “The wonder of Harold Kushner’s life is that neither great tragedy, nor great success spoiled him. He remained the same, kind, caring and loving human being that he had always been.”
I can personally attest to this because Rabbi Kushner was a part of our Ramah Darom family. Rabbi Kushner and his wife, Suzette, z”l, were grandparents of Camp Ramah Darom campers, who became staff members. We had the privilege to spend time with him at Ramah Darom’s annual Passover Retreat from 2010 through 2013, and at Camp Ramah Darom during the summer of 2011.
Those who were privileged to get to know the Kushners during Passover will have their own memories of Harold and Suzette. When you sat with them you felt like you were the most important person in the world and, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, you never forget how people make you feel. While most of us would never forget being, together with a great man and teacher, and learning with him, the most unforgettable thing was his caring, his kindness, and his extraordinary humility.
Lynn Chanin, who has taught Yoga at Ramah Darom’s Passover Retreat since 2011, experienced his humble, healing presence at a time she desperately needed it.
“Only nine months after I lost my baby boy, I was dropped off at Ramah Darom to teach yoga for Passover. I knew no one. Rabbi Kushner was the main reason I summoned every bit of courage I had to come to the Passover program.
The first evening, I ran into Rabbi Kushner walking to dinner. I poured my heart and soul and many tears out to him as we walked. At the dining hall, he graciously introduced me to Suzette, his precious wife. They both surrounded me with love, compassion and listening hearts as I shared my heartbreak.
The next Passover, in 2012, Rabbi whispered to me how different I was from last year. He said I was smiling and had energy. He said I was on a healing journey.
I will always cherish and adore him. He helped save me.”
For me, Rabbi Kushner’s passing evokes memories of the Summer of 2011. It was the summer that one of our campers, Andrew Silvershein, z”l, tragically drowned on Father’s Day, while on an outdoor challenge trip with our Gesher Aidah, our oldest campers.
I will never be able to adequately explain the emotional extremes of that summer; there were moments of deep despair mixed with elevating moments when you could not help but feel blessed to be a part of an exceptional community with whom to navigate the journey. I think this was especially true for the 71 surviving members of the Gesher Aidah who lived through and struggled with Andrew’s loss. This cruelly powerful experience brought them together; they called themselves 72 Strong and carried Andrew’s presence as their constant companion.
As the end of camp approached, we worried about how these seventy-one campers and their staff would react upon leaving the protective bubble of camp and each other’s company; returning to a world that would not and could not understand what they were experiencing. We wanted to do our best to prepare them. But how?
I called Rabbi Kushner and asked for his help. Without a moment’s hesitation he agreed to come to Ramah Darom to meet with them. I picked him up at the Atlanta airport and we drove to Camp Ramah Darom, in the Northeast Georgia mountains. His presence in the car was tremendously comforting. I was so emotionally fragile that during the two-hour drive I never even thought to speak with him about our mutual love for the Brooklyn Dodgers, which I will forever regret.
When we arrived at camp, he got settled and we walked to the Bet Knesset where he would meet with the Gesher Aidah and staff.
I will always remember that moment. I was transfixed by his wise, humble, kind and caring aura and keenly aware of how blessed we were to have him with us.
To this day I wonder how those 16-year-olds, and the young staff, received or internalized his message. I am not even sure if they were aware of the “fame” of this white-haired, elderly Rabbi. They were so young. They were polite, respectful, and fully engaged in questioning discussion with Rabbi Kushner. Yet, whether this helped ease their pain, or make the transition back to the real world any easier, I do not know. I know it helped me and I hope, now, when they think back to that day, they will find meaning in what he shared.
“I’m here because once upon a time I had to go through what you’ve gone through this summer,” he said. “And I had to try and make sense of the terrible unfairness of the world, and do it in a way that did not cost me my faith.
You’ve had an unforgettable summer. Not in the way you would have hoped for, but in the ways it turned out. You will remember for the rest of your lives what it was like to go through the experience of having somebody you knew, somebody you cared about, having suddenly taken from you.
But what else will you remember about the summer of 2011?
I hope you will remember the incredible grace and strength of the Silvershein family. With incredible sensitivity they realized you were grieving with them and they invited you to share in their grief. I hope you’ll remember how they responded to the tragedy.
I hope you’ll remember also what you learned, that you could cope with Andrew’s loss only because you were doing it together. You leaned on each other, you hugged each other, you supported each other, you talked to each other, you cried with each other.
But a week from tomorrow you’re going back to a world that didn’t go through this, a world that did not experience the sudden loss of a friend, that did not have this suddenly erupt into their lives.
You will find yourself, once you are removed from this collective grieving situation, this mutually supportive situation of Ramah Darom, you’ll find yourself asking “Why did that happen?”
The question is not ‘why does this happen?’ The question is ‘how are you going to live in a world where unfair things happen?’
I believe that things happen and the only power we have is to determine what meaning will we put on it. How will we be different because this summer we lost a friend to a terrible accident?
Some of you, and nobody will blame you for this, will go out and go home a week from tomorrow deciding that God is cruel, God is arbitrary, how can I worship a God that strikes down nice sixteen-year-old boys? Some of you will go home saying you know what I learned this summer? That no matter how terrible things are, if we just hold hands and support each other, we can survive anything. Some of you will go home saying it is possible for a person to live only sixteen years and teach a lesson that we will all be better off for learning, and it is also possible for a person to live seventy years and not change the world in any way.
You have no freedom to decide whether or not Andrew should have drowned; that was totally out of your hands. You have one-hundred percent freedom to decide what you will do about it, and how you will chose to be different because of the experience you went through at Ramah Darom.”
Imagine being in that room to hear his voice. Imagine, at a time of great emotional turmoil, having the opportunity to speak with a Rabbi whose personal story of loss, and struggle with faith and meaning, has comforted millions of people.
Rabbi Kushner turned the unfairness of life into a realization that love, caring and compassion are the manifestation of God’s presence on earth, and he found his purpose in devoting his life to humbly spreading that love, caring and compassion with the world and, on one special day in July, 2011, with Ramah Darom.
Rabbi Riemer wrote in his eulogy:
“Harold wrote these words:
‘The happiest people I know are the people who don’t even think about being happy. They just think about being good neighbors and good people. And then, when they were busy being good, happiness kind of sneaks in the back door and enriches their lives while they are not looking for it.’
Let these words be Harold’s lesson to us on this sad day. Let them remind us that after the pain comes the task.”
The proof of the wisdom of Rabbi Kushner’s teachings is in the life he lived. May each of us, when our time comes to experience the unfairness of life, as it most surely will, be lifted up by his example.
The Ramah Darom community has forever been touched by Rabbi Harold Kushner. As he inspired countless people of all faiths, so may he continue to inspire us to find meaning and purpose no matter what challenges we face.
May his memory be a blessing. Surely it has blessed Ramah Darom.
Baruch Dayan HaEmet.