By: AKIVA MALES
After phoning my parents in Cleveland recently, I found myself awash in a sea of memories.
They told me that they had earlier listened to a number of speakers share memories of the late Rabbi Doniel Schur on the occasion of his first yahrtzeit. I, in turn, began to sort through my own childhood memories of growing up in Rabbi Schur’s shul, the Heights Jewish Center.
As a child walking to shul on a cold Cleveland winter Shabbos, I found it quite reassuring to know there would always be a lollipop waiting for me while I warmed up. Each Shabbos, I would ascend the podium to shake Rabbi Schur’s hand and wish him “Good Shabbos,” whereupon he would hand me a lollipop. Generally, the rabbi would give each child just one lollipop, but one Shabbos I came up with a clever way to receive more.
As I shook his hand one Shabbos HaGadol (the Sabbath preceding Passover), I told him that while I noticed there was a hechsher (kosher certification) on his bag of lollipops, there was nothing to indicate they were kosher for Passover. I let him know I would be more than happy to help him dispose of his chometz (leaven). Toward that end, I said, I would be willing to take his lollipops off his hands. Rabbi Schur had a very healthy sense of humor, and he gladly gave me a handful of lollipops together with a warm smile and laugh.
Rabbi Schur was comfortable sharing his emotions with others. I have vivid memories of him dancing exuberantly on Simchas Torah, the softness of his beard and mustache on my young cheek when he would embrace me in a warm hug, as well as the sincere tears that he would shed in sharing his congregants’ pain.
The memories of one particular Yom Kippur at Heights Jewish Center will remain with me forever.
It is the early 1980’s. The shofar (ram’s horn) has just sounded, signaling the conclusion of the Yom Kippur services. Immediately, Rabbi Schur begins to clap and lead the congregation in a spirited dance around the bimah (stage) while we all join him in singing “L’Shana HaBa’ah B’Yerushalayim” (“Next Year in Jerusalem”).
Not everyone is dancing, and this does not escape the rabbi’s notice. Some older men are too weak to dance after a full day of praying and fasting, but they are not the focus of the rabbi’s tear filled gaze. It is a young man named Ben, who has been losing his fight with leukemia, toward whom the rabbi is now energetically dancing. Ben and Rabbi Schur hold hands while the entire congregation continues its emotional song. All eyes in the shul are on them, and not one of them is dry.
Unfortunately, that was Ben’s last Yom Kippur.
“Next Year in Jerusalem!” That tune is also faithfully sung by Jews the world over toward the end of their Pesach seder each year, and that brings me to the final childhood memory. When I was about 7, our family was all packed up and eager to drive our station wagon up to Montreal, Quebec. My brothers and I eagerly anticipated spending Pesach with my ailing maternal grandfather and the rest of our Canadian relatives.
Two days before the holiday, a major blizzard blanketed the region and forced us to cancel our travel plans. While I was devastated, my parents’ feelings were much more practical. They had not planned on spending the holiday in Cleveland, and they had no Pesach staples. To make matters worse, this unexpected blizzard forced many other Clevelanders to stay home, and the local stores no longer had sufficient Passover supplies.
Naturally, my father phoned Rabbi Schur to tell him of our family’s predicament. Immediately, the rabbi and his wife invited our family to join their family’s seder for the first night of Pesach (family friends graciously invited us over for the second).
Each year as Pesach approaches, memories of the Schur family’s hospitality as well as their warm and welcoming seder enter my mind. Despite the fact that Rabbi Schur is no longer with us, this year is no different.
On behalf of the many children whose lives he enhanced, I thank Rabbi Schur for enabling us to have such warm childhood memories of shul and for doing all that he could to ensure that coming to shul would be a sweet experience. We are all truly appreciative.
Rabbi Akiva Males grew up in University Heights. He is currently a Jewish day-school educator in Long Island, N.Y. This was written for the Cleveland Jewish News, April 2007.