Mourning the Death of a Friend

Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Special to the Jewish Week

Like many others, I’m sure, I awoke Sunday morning to the terrible news of the death of Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein and his wife Deborah, z”l, in a tragic house fire in Scarsdale. I am horrified by the random and senseless nature of their death, and the loss that it represents for the congregants of his synagogue and for the Jewish community.

But in addition to the communal tragedy, I am deeply saddened by the loss of a man whom I met long ago under very unusual circumstances, and whom I was proud to call a friend and a colleague.

In 1987, Jake Rubenstein and I were part of a group of sixty-six rabbis who participated in a UJA Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to Poland, Turkey, Egypt and Israel. We had never met before the trip, but over the course of our travels, we spent many hours talking, and sharing. Traveling through Poland will do that; the things that we were seeing and the feelings that we were feeling created a special sense of hevruta among us all, and deep connections were fostered far more quickly than they would have been under ordinary circumstances.

When we left Poland to spend Shabbat in Istanbul, shortly after the synagogue massacre there, the Friday night meal was particularly spirited, and the z’mirot were sung with gusto. As if it were yesterday, I remember Jake banging the table with his fist as we sang, as if by sheer force of will he could generate the sense of peace and well-being that we needed so desperately to reclaim after the dispiriting places we had been.

Jake was a proud Orthodox rabbi, but in an era where factionalism among American Jewish denominations was increasingly an issue, he wasn’t scared or reluctant to befriend colleagues from other denominations. I was as proud a Conservative rabbi as he was an Orthodox one, but he related to me seriously, and lovingly. I valued that enormously at the time, and though we saw each other only periodically through the years, I always treasured our relationship. He was a rare breed.

Rabbis spend a lot of time being professionally stoic about death. We are usually expected to help others deal with their grief, and the way we do that is by suppressing our own- often at a considerable long-term price. When we do allow ourselves to feel the pain of loss, either for a family member or a friend, it tends to hit us harder than many others, because the pain that we feel sits on the surface of so much other pain that lies more deeply buried.

I’m sure it would take years of therapy to unpack those layers, and I’m equally sure that most rabbis would be disinclined to go there, though they might admit that they need it. But I don’t need a therapist to tell me that Jake Rubenstein’s death hit me hard, as it did so many others. I liked him. I respected the Jew that he was, and that he tried to help others be. I know I’ll miss him. Rest in peace, friend…

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