In Memorium: Rabbi Isaac Neuman
I can still remember walking into his rabbinic study at Sinai Temple in Champaign, Illinois back in 1987. Soon I would sit behind that desk as the congregation’s new rabbi and Rabbi Neuman, the new Rabbi Emeritus would have his spot which was in the Temple library. Some people predicted that we would never get along. We were too different and from such different backgrounds. Yet I can say that none of those predictions came true. We were different and were from different worlds. From my vantage point I grew to respect and have deep admiration for Rabbi Isaac Neuman. He was a rabbi to me in the best sense of the term. He was my teacher and inspiration. For these reasons and more I mourn his passing.
Isaac opened a door for me and I walked down a pathway into many other worlds. No other rabbi has had a greater influence on my theology and learning as did Isaac. He introduced me to the study of Hasidism. He taught me how to read Elie Wiesel and other theologians. What Isaac did for me was to teach me firsthand about the Holocaust and then to understand those writers who like Wiesel began to combine Jewish sources with real life theological issues that emerged out of the Holocaust. I am greatly indebted to him for opening my eyes. One example was to teach me how to develop and implement a Yom HaShoah service. Every year since I left Champaign in 1995 to this day I have presented in the congregations I have served an annual Yom HaShoah service and program. From Isaac I learned to treat it like a miniature Yom Kippur with the best readings, poetry as well as music.
Isaac also taught me to appreciate Jewish music. He really took music seriously. In my days at Sinai Temple we brought out many of the greatest contemporary composers of contemporary Reform liturgical music. Working with a professional choir along with his advice provided me with the knowledge that would become invaluable to me as a rabbi in the future congregations I would serve and still do today.
What I loved about knowing him was that as long as he was in the library reading magazines like Commentary and others I could sit down with him and we would talk. We talked about his youth, his children and about the scholars of old as if he knew them intimately. Maybe he did. What he achieved in his life to have his sons, his beloved Eva and his rabbinic ordination and devoted congregants over the decades was a true achievement given the history he had from Poland to the concentration camps and then to America. I stood in awe of this man. I remember saying goodbye to him when I was headed out to California and how I cried then when I embraced him.
The years went by and I was thrilled to have him out as a scholar in residence at my congregation in Sacramento. In addition each year before the High Holy Days we spoke and he gave me some of the greatest texts from the Talmud and Hasidism for my sermons. When my family and I would visit my parents in South Florida, we always made sure to visit Isaac and Eva in Miami Beach. He loved to speak about politics and Israel and often times bemoan new gimmicks he saw in the Reform Movement as shallow.
I feel bad, I must confess, that I did not keep up with him as I should have over the last five years or so. I regret that and ask from god forgiveness. I just hope he knows in Olam HaBa that I am carrying on his work and that I loved him.
It is true that sometimes he was short of patience and could be sharp tongued when something irritated him. Yet he was so kind to my family and especially affectionate to my daughter Leah. I shall never forget when he announced to me that he was going to East Berlin to be their rabbi at the reform congregation. He told me, “I’m putting my head in the lion’s mouth.” What a man to have the courage to do that given his experiences in life! Then he came home with Eva and the next thing I know I am standing with Gary Porton co-officiating with me under a huppah at the wedding of Eva and Isaac. Eva, my heart and condolences go out to you. You are a beautiful spirit and Isaac was blessed to have you as his wife. In addition I want to extend my heartfelt condolences to Mark and David. One could not ask for two devoted sons like them.
I will say kaddish for him at my congregation and I hope that everyone who reads this blog who did not know Isaac will realize that he was a special man with incredible gifts. While he opened up worlds of spirituality and learning for me, I used to also believe he lived in different worlds as well. Reform Judaism, Hasidism, the Holocaust were all worlds he inhabited and knew somehow how to balance them all while serving honorably his congregations as a pulpit rabbi. He gave the best of what Judaism offered and taught it to Sinai Temple. His storytelling and his passion for preserving Jewish memory filled us all with a glow. His teaching from the words of Nahman of Bratslav will always stay with me. “The whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is not to be afraid.” Nahman wrote those words but Isaac Neuman taught me them and how they could protect and strengthen me in the challenges I have faced in my life. I am a better person and rabbi for having known my beloved and cherished teacher Rabbi Isaac Neuman. Zichrono L’vrachah-May he be remembered for blessing.