With the RA in Las Vegas: Beyond the Punchlines

On Sunday through Thursday of this week, hundreds of my colleagues in the Rabbinical Assembly and I gathered at our international convention, held this year in Las Vegas. The Rabbinical Assembly is the professional organization of Conservative rabbis around the world. In addition to my work as the rabbi of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, I currently serve as the RA’s Vice-President, and am slated to assume the Presidency in another year.

As one might assume, most of my colleagues are clustered around major areas of Jewish settlement here in the States, and the single largest cluster is in the northeast. Because of that, we have, historically, gathered in convention as often as possible in the New York area. It tends to produce the largest attendance, and the logistics are easier in terms of kashrut and the like. But we also recognize the need to affirm and celebrate the work of our colleagues around the country and indeed the world, and now, at least every other year, we leave the comfortable confines of the Northeast, as we just did in Las Vegas, and we also convene every few years in Israel as well.

In the week leading up to this current convention, I think I must have heard every possible joke about a group of rabbis gathering in Las Vegas for a convention…. odds are good you’ll have a great time, etc.

I must admit, the natural setting of our hotel (off the strip, by the way), was magnificent, and spending a few days in eighty degree weather with a gorgeous pool and wonderful shows to see when there was free time was delightful. But truth to tell- especially as an officer of the RA- conventions are about much more than the surroundings. They are about professional enrichment, Torah study, self-reflection, talking about the state of our movement and organization, and focusing in on those issues which are central to our work and our lives.

From that perspective the convention was a great success. And, by the way, no one complained about having the chance to grab an hour or two with old friends and just relax. We rabbis don’t get a chance to do that too often, and it’s a good and important thing to do.

We talked about the central institutions and organizations of our movement, and how they might be strengthened for the sake of the movement as a whole. We talked about Israel, the myriad challenges that it faces at this time of unprecedented instability in the Middle East, and our ongoing struggle to gain a spiritual foothold there despite politically rooted discrimination. We talked- a lot- about new social media technologies, and how Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and all the other online technologies are changing the fundamental idea of what constitutes community- including religious communities- in the twenty-first century. And we talked about ourselves, and our need to continually find balance and serenity in one of the highest-stress jobs that there is.

There was a lot to talk about.

But the one enduring image that I will take away with me from this recent convention has nothing to do with any of these topics. It was a visual image that transfixed me one morning as I sat in a minyan with my colleagues.

Probably more than most other professions, the rabbinate features many children going into their parent’s profession. There are many, many sons and daughters of rabbis who are second generation in the rabbinate, and my own family is no different.

My oldest son is being ordained this year, and he is married to a woman who was ordained two years ago! My older daughter is married to a man who is being ordained this year. It’s kind of a joke in my family that when all this comes to pass, we will actually have our own little region of the Rabbinical Assembly. Depending on where you sit, that’s either an amusing thought, or not…

So at that morning minyan, one of my son’s friends- a recently ordained rabbi- was sitting with his father, a rabbi for many years in southern Virginia. Just a year or two ago, the father suffered a major stroke, and though he has come back a long way from where he was, he remains seriously disabled, and needing assistance for many routine functions, Including putting on t’fillin- the leather phylacteries that are traditionally worn at morning services.

I watched- transfixed- as the son, before putting on his own t’fillin, lovingly wrapped a tallit around his father, and then wrapped first his arm, then his head, in t’fillin. I couldn’t help thinking to myself that that moment, in and of itself, was worth all the Torah study sessions of that convention and any other I might attend in the future.

The commandment to honor one’s father and mother is, of course, one of the "top ten," if you will. I have long thought that people misunderstand why it’s there. As best as I can tell- and I have four children, so don’t think I’m unaware of the challenges of raising teenagers- it has little if anything to do with young children or teenagers who are inclined to mouth off against their parents. It certainly applies there, but I don’t think that’s why the commandment itself is ranked so high in importance.

What I have come to understand is that the real challenge of honoring one’s parents only comes when they age, and need you like you once needed them. The older they get, the more needy they get, and the more complicated your own life gets as you have children of your own. Talk to me then about what it means to honor your parents. That’s why it’s a commandment, and not a suggestion. Properly honoring one’s parents as they age is, arguably, the hardest challenge an adult child can be presented with.

As I watched that young rabbi, I had to smile. My son’s friend was fulfilling the mitzvah so magnificently, and with such love, that it inspired all of us who were at that service. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that when he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, he felt like he was praying with his feet. This young man was praying with his hands.

God- as it were- had to be smiling.

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