Founding Father

Correction: The report of Rabbi Lerner’s retirement was greatly exaggerated.* T&V was celebrating his contributions to the Jewish People that will–I am grateful to say–continue into the future. Everything else I wrote in tribute to my mentor remains true.

* * * * * * *

The announcement of Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner’s retirement does not merely evoke nostalgia as I recall the months I spent with my mentor in my final year of rabbinical school. I absorb the news reluctantly –reflecting on the impact Rabbi Lerner made on my life and the lives of countless Jews by Choice — because I’m forced to admit his retirement marks the end of an era.

Before Rabbis Without Borders existed, Rabbi Lerner exemplified our mission of meeting people where they are, sharing Jewish wisdom with them and helping them find their place among the Jewish people. Rabbi Lerner is a natural teacher; he motivates his students to ask any question and explore every answer. He honors the individuality of each person he meets and engages each student personally. Decades after the end of my internship with Rabbi Lerner, he remains a role-model and mentor to me. Thanks to his guidance and good humor, I discovered my strengths and challenges as a teacher. Only now can I appreciate his influence: my passion for teaching Torah by connecting with each student and my desire to accompany my students on their Jewish journeys was ignited so many years ago at the Center for Conversion to Judaism.

On Sunday evening, Town & Village Synagogue honored Rabbi Lerner for his pioneering work as the founder and director of the Center for Conversion to Judaism, which will now be permanently housed at the NYC synagogue. I’m confident his legacy will continue; Rabbi Larry Sebert is a dedicated supporter of the Center and his synagogue is a long-time host of Rabbi Lerner’s classes. Still, I wonder what happens to an institution when its founding father retires, what becomes of a teacher with no students.

I take a moment to acknowledge the anxiety kindled by my thoughts. Almost immediately, I remember meeting Rabbi Lerner for lunch just a few years ago, discussing our work as rabbis and teachers and sharing news and photographs of our kids and his grandkids. This is the start of new era in his life. I’m filled with gratitude for the opportunity to continue to learn from him throughout my rabbinate.

Already several weeks into the camp season in the southeast and teaching ceramics at Ramah Darom, I’m unable to celebrate Rabbi Lerner’s accomplishments with him at the T&V Gala. Instead, I resolve to honor his life’s work with a renewed devotion to my students.

* Thanks to Rabbi Sebert for the correction.

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