Along with generations of Reform Jews who knew him as “Smitty” – the director of the Youth Division of the then-Union of American Hebrew Congregations and of the UAHC’s now-defunct Kutz Camp – I mourn the loss of a force whose powerful, positive influence on our Reform Jewish youth movement helped set the course of Reform Judaism today by shaping back then the lives of the Jewish leaders of today. With parent-like concern, kindness, and intention, Smitty guided generations of individuals – young people -along their life’s paths.
I know, because I was one of them. We gathered around Smitty – impassioned, creative young people – to effectuate his vision because we believed in this vision and valued the way he took us seriously and valued us. Today I am the committed Jew, ardent Zionist, and tireless youth-focused rabbi because of the guidance, opportunities, and unlimited belief he placed in me (and others). And 30+ years ago, I met and eventually married another of his disciples, my beloved, Michelle November, then Director of the UAHC’s College Education Department.
Smitty, as much as anyone else, guided thousands of young people through those turbulent self-conscious, self-reflective high school, college years and beyond. He ensured we had the ability to learn about Judaism with top thinkers of the Reform Movement, to delve deeply into our own spirituality with cutting edge Levitical music makers (e.g. songleaders) and inspiring and energetic young rabbis and rabbinical students, and to develop programmatic skills for storytelling and teaching from the most fascinating NFTY adult leaders and teen peers from around the country and world.
Along with PJR (Paul J. Reichenbach, his partner in all this and another powerful role model), Smitty understood that by placing teens, college and graduate students in positive Jewish environments with people who exuded unconditional and unconditioned love and who live intentionally as Reform Jews, he could transform us – or better – he could bring forth the potential that inherently existed within each of us.
Smitty seemed tireless and tenacious. He (re-)lived Jewish history and so invited us to lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu… (“see ourselves as if we too…”) were there. He and his staff would secret us from our cabins at 2:30 am, in the darkest dark, to sneak around “armed sentries,” to slip unbeknownst into awaiting ships (e.g. rowboats) to escape the Nazi concentration camps and to find freedom entering pre-state Israel. He would rouse us out of bed at 4 am to build a Choma u’Migdal (wall and tower) like the early Zionists, ensuring that safety and security surrounded our project to build our Jewish state.
Smitty personally led the first daily shacharit minyan many Reform Jewish kids ever attended. There we learned to daven prayers we had not yet encountered. There we encountered ideas about the Source of All Life that challenged both our teenage cynicism about and our teenage thirst for holiness and the Holy One.
Smitty led us to grapple with issues ripped from the front pages of the newspapers: the real threat of nuclear war, the precarious fate of Soviet Jews, the hidden danger of cults, and the unconscionable political excesses of Israel’s ultra-orthodox rabbinate that harmed women, Sephardic immigrants, and Progressive Judaism. We learned to think deeply, bring Jewish values to bear on these issues, and make up our own minds. Heady stuff for a young person!
Adolescence is wrapped up for many in the need to individuate, when most teenagers and college students struggle with their relationship with their own parents. Even the most attentive, intentional parents struggle to find ways to balance unconditional love with well-intention expectations. Smitty, who among all his other attributes was NOT our parent, was able to offer a vision of ourselves that believed, even in our failures, that we could do … anything. So we propelled ourselves forward – not to make Smitty or PJR proud, mind you, but because they made us want to be proud of ourselves, to become the best “me” we could be.
On our walks along Bowen Road after his heart attack – he a man of certain age (I never really knew) and me a young rabbinical student and Head Resident Advisor – Smitty offered an incisive yet always constructive critique on our leadership and programmatic styles. With comforting confidence, he led me to look inward, to take an honest look at myself and my skills. He shined a light on areas to actively improve upon, even as he equally offered flowing praise for my strengths and growth of character over the years. He made me want to improve because it was always clear he believed in me. In us. Along the way, I found ways to make my own dad, whom I love dearly, proud. Apparently – Smitty guided me – that was important to me too.
This summer my dad died.
This week my mentor died.
Two of the people, upon whose love and learning I built my life, are gone. Intertwined in my heart, soul, and entire being, their legacies will live on as I live on, and as I try to teach my kids the lessons theytaught me. May both their memories be a blessing.