“Do you have baggage?”
When people find out that my father is a pulpit rabbi, the first question is often something along these lines. The assumption is that if you grew up in a rabbinic home, your childhood must have been rough, and certainly you must carry around lots of resentment.
This summer, God willing, my parents, Yaacov and Abby Lerner, will make aliya after 45 years as the rabbi and rebbetzin of the Young Israel of Great Neck. My father came to his shul of 18 families as a 25-year-old single man and will leave behind a large shul of over 400 members.
As my parents have begun to go through their house to prepare for their big move, every item they come across carries a story and invokes nostalgia. A lifetime of memories will have to be packed up into suitcases and boxes to be flown and shipped halfway across the world.
There is indeed much baggage.
* * *
How can I unpack what I have learned from my parents’ home? How can I organize what we lived and breathed into neat little piles? It is hard to make order of things that have become so innate to who I am.
The first time that my now husband spent Shabbat at my house, he whispered to me, “Your whole family thinks they are the rabbi.” I have reflected often on this line and how it is that my parents inculcated us with that sense of “mission.” They never used that term. They just threw themselves wholeheartedly into every aspect of their roles, and it was clear to us that they believed deeply in what they were doing.
And therefore, we believed in it too. We grew up feeling passionate about and invested in learning and teaching Torah, welcoming guests to our home, and enjoying our Shabbat and chag experiences.
We loved going to shul. It was an extension of our home. We ran around like we owned the place and felt immense personal pride every time there was a new building project or renovation.
But the shul was never really about the building. It was always about the people. It was about investing in relationships. It was about being there through good times and bad. It was about every funeral, wedding, bar and bat mitzvah, grandson’s brit milah, shiva call, hospital visit, shalom zachar, sheva brachot, fundraising dinner and simchat bat that my parents made an effort to go to.
They taught us that most of life is about showing up. Showing that you care. Taking the time to make the extra phone call or to stop and say hello. For 45 years, my parents have never stopped showing up. They have never stopped saying hello.
And they truly care. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, they pray for each and every member. My mother would look around from the balcony. I would see her notice someone, and I would know exactly what she was thinking: “She needs a shidduch; they want to conceive; her father is quite ill; their child is struggling; their marriage is on the rocks…”; and how could she do more to make sure that they were all blessed with a “shana tova” and to let them know they were not alone.
The rabbinate was never just a job.
But it was also a job. And to that job, my parents brought total commitment and dedication. That is what defines who they are and what they are about. They went about their business day in and day out for 45 years, never looking for excitement and never driven by ego.
With much humility and whatever the task, they strove to take it seriously and to give it their all. As a young girl, I remember coming to shul early every Friday afternoon before Shabbat so that my father could set all the lights and timers in the shul building. Only when I was older did I realize what that meant and that my father never complained.
For him, this was part of what it meant for him to lead a shul, and he did it faithfully and carefully the same way that he prepared his sermons, fundraised as necessary, participated in Purim shtick if he thought it would be appreciated and entertaining, and counseled his congregants one-on-one. There was nothing that my parents saw as beneath them — not if it was connected to the shul.
With a diverse membership, much sensitivity was employed to listen — really listen! — nonjudgmentally to everybody and to understand and accept them for who they are. My parents had such respect for their congregants. They knew them in ways that not everyone was privy to — the way this one cared for her elderly mother, and that one invited lonely members to her home, and this one gave so much tzedaka, and that one maintained his faith even at a time of extreme financial stress. I feel so blessed that they raised us with the ability to see people’s strengths and to love them as they are.
But for all of my parents’ sensitivity, it never compromised their integrity. Taking strong stands on complicated and delicate issues, my parents always did what they genuinely believed was right. Even when it was unpopular, even when they knew they could lose members, even when the job itself was on the line.
While far from easy, this sense of conviction ultimately earned them respect. Everyone knew they did what they thought to be authentic and could not be convinced otherwise, no matter what the price. They taught us to have a backbone, to not take every comment of every person to heart, to stand up for your values and to believe in yourself. They raised us to trust in who we are and not to live in fear of the ramifications of what we thought were good decisions.
As my parents go through the physical contents of their home, I think of how a home is so much more than just that.
There is so much baggage that I have from growing up in my house. I have tried to take with me their sense of mission, their dedication and their commitment. I have done my best to store away their approach to relationships, their care and the way they invest. And their sensitivity, trust and integrity make up the bulk of who my sisters and I are.
I have packed it all up.
I hope I carry around this baggage for life.