Remembering Rabbi Conrad
November 9, 2009 22 Cheshvan, 5770
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
“The greatest task of our time is to take the souls of men out of the pit. The world has experienced that God is involved. Let us forever remember that the sense for the sacred is as vital to us as the light of the sun. There can be no nature without spirit, no world without the Torah, no brotherhood without a father, no humanity without attachment to God. God will return to us when we shall be willing to let Him in — into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our courts and investigating committees, into our homes and theaters . . . Only in His presence shall we learn that the glory of man is not in his will to power, but in his power of compassion . . . There is a divine dream which the prophets and rabbis have cherished and which fills our prayers, and permeates the acts of true piety. It is the dream of a world, rid of evil by the grace of God as well as by the efforts of man, by his dedication to the task of establishing the kingship of God in the world. God is waiting for us to redeem the world. We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfaction while God is waiting constantly and keenly for our effort and devotion. The Almighty has not created the universe that we may have opportunities to satisfy our greed, envy and ambition. We have not survived that we may waste our years in vulgar vanities. The martyrdom of our millions demands that we consecrate ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s dream of salvation. Israel did not accept the Torah of their own free will. When Israel approached Sinai, God lifted up the mountain and held it over their heads, saying: ‘Either you accept the Torah or be crushed beneath the mountain.’ The mountain of history is over our heads again. Shall we renew the covenant with God?”
The Midrashic literature paints a picture of the people of Israel preparing to move on in their journeys: first, to move on out of Egypt; then on from Sinai; then on into the Promised Land, but now without Moses, their leader, their teacher. Each moment on their journeys, they are commanded to listen (“Sh'ma Yisrael — Hear, O Israel”). At each opportunity they look back, they look around, and they look ahead. They learn from Moshe Rabbeinu u-Moreinu, from Moses their teacher, their Rabbi. They learn by his word, to which they listen, and they learn by his deed, to which they respond.
One remarkable lesson and image that has always struck me is noted in the Book of Exodus: “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him”, as he led the people out of slavery and degradation into freedom. Soon thereafter, this Aron, this Ark/Coffin with Joseph's bones, would be joined by a second Aron, the second Aron that carried the Luchot HaBrit, the tablets of God's Covenant. Onlookers gazed in amazement and wondered: what are the two Arks for? Why are they seen together? And the reply of the sages is filled with significance and power for us here today; it hovers over and protects both of the Aronei HaKodesh, the Holy Arks, which are here in this Sanctuary. They said: “He who lies in the one Ark fulfilled the precepts inscribed in the other”. And more than this, “not only did he fulfill, he led others to fulfill, as well”.
Moses, our Rabbi and Teacher, carried the bones of Joseph, the son of Israel — the one who was called a Tzaddik, a righteous and upright man in our tradition. In this history and role as well, Ernst Conrad, our Rabbi and Teacher, carried the spirit and the bones of the millions of martyrs of the people Israel. Our Founder, our Tzaddik: HaRav Yitzchak ben Chava v'Yosef.
In the Holy Ark behind me on this Bimah, are the scrolls of God's word, God's inspiration, God's covenant. Lessons which Ernst labored so diligently to share with the minds and souls of hundreds upon hundreds of students and colleagues. A true Bible scholar in the academic sense, and a true Ohev Torah (Lover of Torah) and all of Jewish learning in the spiritual sense. But it was not enough merely for him to study and teach the word of Scripture, or to be constantly referring to the Torah in its Holy Ark . . . Ernst strove to bring Jewish and universal values to life and to all humanity.
So just as Joseph in Egypt requested of his followers that his bones be carried up from there with them on their journeys, so do we look out today at the Aron of Rabbi Ernst J. Conrad, knowing that he was indeed -
a leader among us;
a teacher among us;
a friend among us;
a voice among us;
a heart and conscience among us;
and we will carry his spirit with us always on our journeys, as well.
It was important for me, as his Rabbinic successor at Kol Ami, to have his story told and to encourage him to continue teaching and preaching and blessing us. I sought his advice and his counsel. I wished we could have studied together more.
He took great pride in the accomplishments and growth of this Congregation, from eight families in 1966, to a vibrant, unique and respected role in the Jewish community of Michigan.
He loved being with young people. He told me that one of his proudest titles was as Rabbinic Dean of MSTY (Michigan State Temple Youth), and as a Life member of the Reform Youth Movement. It is no coincidence that KATY, our Temple High School Youth Group, has produced more Regional and even National NFTY Officers than congregations more than five times our size. Rabbis, Cantors, Jewish Community workers, Federation and Family Service leaders, labor union representatives, Chalutzim (pioneers) and 'Olim (immigrants) in Israel, teachers of Jewish values and of American history, attorneys dedicated to the common good, volunteers, caring souls — generation after generation have been inspired and challenged and influenced by Moreinu, Rabbeinu (our Teacher and Rabbi) Ernst J. Conrad.
His favorite prophet was Jeremiah, who taught:
“Thus said the Lord:
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom. Let not the strong man glory in his strength. Let not the rich man glory in his riches. But only in this should one glory:
In his sincere devotion to Me.
For I, the Lord, act with kindness, justice and equity in the world.
Only in these do I delight, declares the Lord.”
It was the cruelty and prejudice of the Nazis that brought him to us. But it was also his enlightened spirit, his resolve to remember and to cope with tragedy, that moved us. His utter commitment to a love for his fellow man and woman, to respect the diversity of all and the equality of all. We could rely on his Chesed, his lovingkindness and his constant, consistent set of principles. We were delighted by his wit, and what one Rabbinic colleague who spoke with me called his “wicked” sense of humor.
We wished we could have honored him (and Nathalie) more — for his life, for his work. But as Moses was described by God in the Torah as having the attribute of humility, so was Ernst. He would only incidentally mention to us at Temple if some award or honor or title was being bestowed upon him in the larger community. His life, his deeds, his words — they occupy the place of honor for us. We are Kol Ami — those who have listened to his voice.
This country welcomed him, and he reciprocated with love and support and a passion for democracy and liberty. Nathalie and her family quickly and completely became his family. They shared so much, they gave so much. Through love of music and literature, they shared a commitment to the ideals of a progressive Reform Judaism and a liberal political agenda. Theirs has been a life-long involvement in acts of Tzedakah, more than charity; rather, true sincere, righteous behavior.
The guidance and love they gave to their children was boundless: to Joe and Elsa (and her David), and now to grandson Benjamin, who turned 4 yesterday.
When Ernst Conrad announced at age 13, at Bar Mitzvah age, in Germany, that he would be a Rabbi, he could not have known where the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark with the Tablets of God's Covenant would take him. But there is a Sh'leimut, a fulfillment and peacefulness of that dream, visible in appreciation by all of us who gather here today — as we gaze at the Aron that will carry him to his eternal rest.
I wish to close by pronouncing an interpretation of the very same blessing that Ernst gave to so many of our Bar and Bar Mitzvah students for more than 40 years. They are now a sacred formula through which we express our honor and respect for his life and dedication:
May the One Who blessed our ancestors of old,
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel,
Bless our beloved Rabbi Ernst J. Conrad
who has led our community in prayer and in study of Torah.
We are grateful for his life, for his words of truth,
and his dedication to peace.
The memory of the righteous is a blessing.