Pleasant Surprises

Note: This article appeared in the June 2021 issue of The Scroll.

The best surprises are the pleasant ones. Too many of the surprises I have had over the last year, heck even over the last month, have not been pleasant. I have lost friends to COVID and other maladies, had unexpected problems at work, and so on, and so on. I do not have to go into details here, you all know the story. What I experienced is, I am sure, not all that different from what you have experienced at one time or another in your lives. 

There are even times when it seems like unpleasant surprises come at me in seeming rapid fire. Issues at work, in the community, at the congregation, etc. can come up quickly in succession, and sometimes it feels like all I am doing is reacting to one bullet after another. During times like that, I bear in mind one of my favorite country songs, by Rodney Atkins: “If you’re going through h*ll, keep on going… You might get out before the Devil even knows you’re there.”

But here’s the interesting thing. When your journey through Dante’s Inferno ends, sometimes it ends in a spectacular fashion. That’s what happened to me this morning and the story, which I have already retold to joyous and raucous laughter several times, has left me with some interesting things to think about.

Let me set the stage for you. This week has been brutal on many fronts, both professional and personal. Professionally, I am filling in for one of my department heads who moved on to another position. Dealing with the day-to-day issues in my largest and most active department has been trying, while I am still responsible for leading three others at the same time. There have also been a series of avoidable and embarrassing mishaps by members of my staff that have added to the agita, stress, and tension.

Then there was the body blow. Red Avner, a man I was proud to call a dear and close friend for 32 years, passed away last Monday. We all knew and loved Red, and his passing has left a huge void for me, both personally and professionally. Red was the guy who was able to advise me with his immense experience, to listen to me when I was down, and to pick me up with a joke and a wicked gleam in his eye. Saying the memorial prayer at his funeral was about as difficult a task as I have had to deal with.

To top it all off, a key member of my organizational hierarchy informed me, on the day before Red’s funeral, that he is leaving. He has been a friend, a mentor, an advisor, and a patient teacher. Don’t tell him I said this, but I will miss him terribly.

So yes, it has been a spectacularly bad week. All I could do was keep on keeping on, and wait for it to end.

And then came this morning. We buried Red yesterday so I did not awake in the best frame of mind. Red was on my mind and I had to meet with “Father Jack”. 

I have never met Father Jack before so I had no idea what to expect when I walked in. At issue was a fire escape in a building we lease from his congregation that needed replacing, not a cheap item by anybody’s measure. Given the way my week was going, I did not have high hopes that the meeting would go easily.

I got to the rectory and he greeted me at the door. Father Jack is a man of medium height, clad in a solid black cassock (I think that’s the term) and his chest was adorned with a huge, gold, cross. That’s quite a sight for a nice Jewish boy who went to Yeshiva in Williamsburg, NY, let me tell you. Then he blew me away. He opened the door, smiled at me, reached out his hand, and said, “Baruch Haba.” His pronunciation and intonation were perfect, and I was surprised. It wasn’t his niceness that surprised me: it was his letter-perfect, Yiddish-intoned greeting. Needless to say, Jack and I (he insisted that I drop the “Father”) got along famously. It turns out he speaks at least some Yiddish, and the phrases he used were so perfectly pronounced and spoken that I believe his Yiddish is fluent. Common phrases like Halacha, Semicha, Yontif, and so much more flowed from his lips like beautifully aged wine. The business portion of the meeting lasted about 30 seconds, (“Of course we’ll take care of the fire escape”) and the rest was a festival of anecdotes, laughs, and jokes. I walked in to take care of an issue for the Board of Ed and I walked out with three things accomplished: First, he agreed to remediate the issue, second, I helped further the Board’s relationship with the Pastor, and third, I think I made a new friend.

From there, the day went quite well right up until I left work, came up to Montebello, and sat down to write this article.

The past 14 months have been trying for us all. We have experienced more than our share of hardships, tragedies, and traumas. Thank G-d, the sky seems brighter as I write this. Cases of COVID are way down and the restrictions have been lifted in NY. People are starting to return and the congregation is taking steps to return to normalcy. Our Friday night services are back (6:30 pm during the summer) and my Shabbos morning learning group starts again tomorrow at 7:55 am. I can’t wait.

We have been through the night and we are emerging. We are coming back and we will come back all the way. We have weathered the storm and, while we are not yet at absolutely smooth sailing, we will get there. It’s time to rejoin the world and let the world surprise us, once again, with things that will put smiles on our faces.

My reminder from this morning is that all nights end eventually and there is a dawn. Let’s experience and enjoy that dawn. I look forward to seeing you in our beautiful sanctuary and greeting you personally. In the meantime, may all your surprises be pleasant ones. 

Chana and I would like to extend our sincerest condolences not only to Red Avner’s family but to our entire congregation. Red touched us all in the best way, and the best way to remember him is to emulate his lesson of love for the shule and all its inhabitants. May his memory be a blessing for us all.

Posted in: The Cantor's Cloud

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