Friday, October 30, 2009

A Serious Mensch: Don Adelman

The commentator Dennis Prager often talks about the need for "serious Jews," those who, regardless of their denomination or background, take Jewish learning seriously and bring Jewish values into their daily lives. Such a man was Don Adelman, who passes away suddenly last week. He was a serious mensch in every way. Here is some of what I said about him at his funeral last Sunday:

I loved Don Adelman – everyone who knew him did. He embodied what is best about the Jewish tradition, the values of learning and menschlichkite, the love of family and communuity; caring for the weakest among us. He embodied a love of Conservative Judaism in particular and of synagogue affiliation.

He was in my house just a couple of weeks ago – visiting my sukkah at our open house. At the end, after just about everyone else was gone, he was the only one left. First he talked with Mara in our kitchen for a half hour. Then, when I came inside, he schmoozed with me for another half hour. He loved to schmooze. He was a people person – and his love for all things Jewish emerged from every pore.

It has been noted by many – the fitting irony of Don’s passing while engaged in study – at the library, in preparation for teaching a Melton class – study and teaching energized him throughout his life – and his career essentially begin at a Melton program, when he was chosen by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s melton Research Center to go to Columbus, Ohio as part of the original team where he was assistant principal, youth director and teacher of many courses to all age groups, including adults.

Here in this sanctuary, Don was my right hand. Whenever I was away, he was the one I asked first to give a substitute d’var torah, and he never said no, He loved to do it, and people loved learning from him. Last June, when I was given the chance to take a few congregants down to NY for special seminars on the chancellor’s mitzvah initiative, I could think of no one more fitting than Don. I cherished those two long round trips in the car – and watching him light up returning to those hallowed halls of JTS. And he knew everybody. He didn’t just know everyone who was there – it seemed – but also all the people whose portraits were on the wall.

The best possible way to honor Don would be to learn. This past week's portion begins:

These are the generations of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noah walked with God.

In the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a), we read, "Whoever teaches children Torah, it is as if he had taught his children and his children’s children until the end of all generations.”

These are the generations of Donny. All his students, and their children, until the end of time.

Like Noah, Don was a tzaddik / but also tamim – humble. And while walking was difficult for Don at times, he had no trouble walking with God. His life was a true march of the living.

Don was a legend in the Conservative movement. When I sent out a notice on Friday to my rabbinic chat group, I began to receive e-mails back from people whose lives Don changed. At Camp Ramah he was legendary, from his stints as director in Canada, Glen Spey and then in Palmer Massachusetts, where he personally oversaw the resurrection of a camp that had closed down in 1970. He brought it back to life.

I can’t think of too many people who did more creatively for Jewish youth over the past half century, especially when it came to forging connections with Israel. What we saw here with Kulanu was just a small sampling. Here was a man who, while working for Ramah, brought many Israelis over to this country to work in the camps and develop relationships with the kids here. He led the AZYF for a time – and coordinated the great Israel Day parade in New York – that was our Don. Imagine the politics he had to deal with, but Donny knew how to deal with politics. Not through anger or manipulation, but with simple honesty and passion.

One of the youth programs he loved to talk about was his involvement in the recreation of the Exodus boat – that refugee ship that brought Jews from Europe to Palestine in 1947, only to be turned back by the British. He was so creative. There is no doubt that he personally was responsible for brining tens of thousands of Jewish youth to Israel during his life – including our Stamford group a few years ago. I was amazed that he could make that trip – but he never had trouble keeping up with the teens. Maybe the secret was that when he was in Israel, walking was never an issue, because he was always a few feet off the ground.

He also forged ties between Israel and US Jewry through his work with American-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Chief Executive of the Israel Cancer Research Fund. One of the people with whom he worked won a Nobel Prize just a couple of weeks ago. And even less formally, he had a profound impact on people with his passion for Israel. Here’s an e-mail I received last night:

After a beautiful Shabbat Noah, I opened my e-mail to read the sad news of the passing of Donny Adelman.

Though we have not met in close to 50 years he proved to become one of the most influential people in my life. We were classmates together in the late 1950’s at the JTS Joint Program. He had recently return from a unique year at the Machon L’madrikhei Hutz La’aretz. He began to work on me and ultimately prevailed upon me to register for what turned out to a transforming year in Eretz Yisrael, which brought me to an identity with the land and the people of Israel. After graduation, a stint in the US Chaplaincy, three civilian pulpits, my wife, four children and I made aliyah. We never looked back. After 32 years (and 11 sabra granchildren) we are thankful we had the zehut to be part of Eretz Yisrael. In part, thanks to Donny’s persuasiveness, which started it all… Yehi zikhro baruch

Another great and lasting accomplishment of Don’s was the Tikva program at Ramah, a program designed to integrate emotionally and mentally challenged teenagers into the Ramah community.

He was very proud of these accomplishments, as well he should be. But he didn’t just talk about them – he lived them.

We began with parashat Noah – we end with Lech Lecha, this week's portion, where God promises Abraham, Veheyay bracha, "You will be a blessing." In the words of one commentator, "While other nations will live but for their own welfare and glory, Abraham and his people shall know no greater task than to become a blessing to a great world."

All Don wanted was to be a blessing – to share his thirst for learning with us. It is the gift that he gave us until the very moment of his death – and it will be the gift that will keep on giving, for generations to come – dorotoav, all his generations, Don’s generations, for all time.

These are the generations of Daniel ben Zeev U'Peninah. A Serious Mensch.

1 comment:

Mark J, Fox said...

Don Adelman was the wonderful school fireplace of the old Yiddish song. His love warmed the students he taught and pulled them near to him.