What I Learned from Rabbi Jacobson

Sermon delivered April 10, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


In 1976, my mother and a friend produced a film about the history of our Temple, Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. The occasion was the Installation of Rabbi Samuel Karff as Senior Rabbi. As the date of the Installation and the film’s premiere approached, one line from Rabbi Karff’s interview was frequently repeated in the press. We heard that sentence so often, in fact, that my sister, my father and I made a game out of who could say it fastest, over and over again.

Asked about what he would change as Senior Rabbi, and what would remain the same in that historic congregation, Rabbi Karff said that we build for the future, “standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.”

Like Rabbi Karff in Houston, I am mindful of the legacy left to me by those who preceded me. From this pulpit, Rabbi Ephraim Frisch spoke out, strongly and fearlessly, for the rights of the needy. He did so even when his words were unpopular and particularly unwelcome, such as when he supported a strike against factories owned by Temple members. From this pulpit, Rabbi Samuel Stahl continues to “make the timeless timely,” to quote the title of his first book. He dispenses wisdom, as he has done right here for 33 years, carefully crafting words of Torah into lessons for our own day. What we have learned from Rabbi Stahl cannot be contained within the covers of a book.

My own rabbinate has been deeply impacted by Rabbi Stahl, in a way that could probably only be described many years from now. I would not be the Rabbi I am today had I not spent ten years with Rabbi Stahl before I became Senior Rabbi, were he not such a profound influence to this day.

You who are honored tonight have been adult members of Temple Beth-El for a half century or more. Even as you honor Rabbi Bergman Vann and me by permitting us to be your Rabbis, we understand that, for you, the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El will always be Rabbi Stahl. And we all understand that, in many ways, your Rabbi will always be Rabbi David Jacobson, of blessed memory.

But time marches on. The vast majority of our congregants were not here in 1976, when Rabbi Jacobson retired. Given the scores who join every year, and the natural rate of turnover, we have hundreds of members who know nothing of the great man who occupied this pulpit as Senior Rabbi from 1943 to 1976. That 33 year span constitutes barely over half of the 63 years that he served as Associate and Senior Rabbi and Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth-El.

Permit me, now, to spend a few minutes sharing specifically the impact that Rabbi Jacobson had upon me as your Rabbi.

Only once, when I officiated at the wedding of Stephanie and Igor Frenkel, Rabbi and Helen’s granddaughter and her beloved, I was blessed to hear Rabbi Jacobson’s voice. Of course, I knew Rabbi Jacobson and we spoke on numerous occasions. However, I first met Rabbi Jacobson in the 1980s, which was after his larynx was removed. His speech pattern, even as I knew it, was magnificent. However, I had never heard that mellifluous voice, until his daughter Dottie produced a recording from her wedding to Sam. Only then, did I fully realize how much Rabbi Jacobson had lost when his larynx was removed. Long before that, though, I had come to appreciate his perseverance – no, his faith – in the face of hardship.

You see, I arrived as your Assistant Rabbi in 1992. No sooner than I moved to town, Rabbi Jacobson had to undergo serious surgery. The doctors thought he had lung cancer, but Rabbi Jacobson was upbeat when I visited him before surgery. With his characteristic smile and that unforgettable twinkle in his eye, he pronounced himself unafraid, confident that he would be fine. Indeed, the news was good. The tumor was merely a mass of fiber. As soon as he recovered from surgery, all would be well.

Rabbi Jacobson, though, was already not a young man. As I visited him frequently during those weeks, and as the weeks turned into months, I was convinced that Rabbi Jacobson would die. He did not recover from surgery. One complication followed another. With the Rabbi unconscious, only Helen and his children, including Sam and his brother Al, believed that he would get well.

You will recall that Rabbi Jacobson not only recovered; he thrived. By early 1993, he was on the go. With Helen, he was visiting other patients in hospitals. He was coming to Temple. He was offering prayers and benedictions. He blessed his youngest grandchild, here on this bimah, when Seth was confirmed; and he offered a pre-nuptial blessing for Toni and me.

For me, and for us all, the lesson was: Never give up. God does not give up on us, so we must not give up on ourselves. Rabbi Jacobson might have lost his larynx, but he never lost his voice, crying out for justice. Rabbi Jacobson might have been weakened by illness and surgery, but continued to serve his congregation, his community, his God.

As a young Rabbi, I was profoundly amazed by what each and every one of tonight’s honorees experienced for many years: Rabbi and/or Helen would call you, every year, on your birthday and your anniversary. Your Rabbi knew you, at the deepest level. He cared about each and every member of Temple Beth-El. And his love of people did not end with our congregation’s membership.

I recall a particularly sad situation involving an older couple in our congregation, not long after I came to town. The husband was in the hospital with a very serious condition. His wife came to visit him. Then, when she went home, she suffered a heart attack and died suddenly, while walking from her car to the back door of their home. I raced to the hospital. Rabbi and Helen were already there. Rabbi Jacobson was holding the man’s hand, patting him on the back, saying little, just being there.

So what did this young whippersnapper learn? No matter how brilliant a Rabbi’s words; no matter how significant a Rabbi’s impact on community institutions; the measure of a Rabbi is in how she or he ministers to congregants in time of need, how the Rabbi knows you and relates to you and cares about you personally. Rabbi Jacobson was always there. To paraphrase the proverb: His presence was “more precious than rubies; no earthly treasure could match it.”

Among the countless gifts Rabbi Jacobson bequeathed to me, and to us all, was the role he played in desegregating San Antonio. I tell the story every chance I get. Just last week, I had that opportunity with a man who was a child in the congregation at the time of the Civil Rights Movement but didn’t know the story. How much more is that true of people who did not know Rabbi Jacobson. But you here, tonight, know about how Rabbi Jacobson, Archbishop Lucey and Bishop Jones joined with Rev. Black and others to assure that our city greet desegregation peacefully. Their sit-ins might have involved only two or three people at a time, all of them members of the clergy; but they were no less successful than the larger, violent, infamous parallels elsewhere.

When I was about to become Senior Rabbi, an elder statesman of our congregation spoke to me about Rabbi Jacobson’s role in desegregation. He told me that Rabbi Jacobson should not have been involved in Civil Rights, that Rabbi Jacobson’s activism was divisive in the congregation. Not everyone agreed. The advice to me was to stay away from controversial issues. At all costs, I should avoid irritating any members of the congregation by taking any potentially controversial stances on any issue.

I was deeply impressed by the gentleman’s honesty. I had never previously heard anything negative about Rabbi Jacobson’s role in desegregation. By the dawn of the 21st Century, not many people would admit that they had wanted the Rabbi to be quiet about Jim Crow.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised that Rabbi Jacobson’s work had been a source of dissent. After all, desegregation was divisive in Jewish communities across the south. Why not San Antonio? But I knew Rabbi Jacobson. He was never one to shy away from doing or saying the right thing. In fact, he was a rodef tzedek, a person who pursues justice eagerly. He was quick to speak out, clearly, when people were being wronged. At the same time, Rabbi Jacobson would not ascribe ill motives to those who disagreed. When somebody opposed what he had said or done, our Rabbi reached out, with an open hand and listening ears. In his words, he was a fiery prophet. In his actions, though, he was a pastor, gently keeping his flock together, with love.

If I am honest with myself, as I seek to be with you, I must admit that I have not completed the task of learning the lessons of Rabbi Jacobson, or of Rabbi Stahl. Perhaps I will never be able to persevere as he did, or get to know each congregant in the way that he did, or speak up for a cause with both the clarity and the gentleness that he did. I must remind myself of that story we tell at our Selichot Service each year: Rabbi Zusya isn’t required to be as righteous as Moses, but only as good as he, Zusya can be.

These lessons, of course, are not only for Rabbis. We can all, and we must, move forward in the face of hardship. We can all, and we must, care for the people around us. We can all, and we must, seek righteousness without alienating others.

Let us seek to learn, and to live, these lessons. We do move into the future, but “we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.” We are enriched by the life of Rabbi David Jacobson, whose memory is a blessing.

Amen.