Back when he was the spiritual leader of Shaarei Zion Synagogue (today it’s Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion) in Upper Park Heights, Rabbi Joshua Shapiro – who passed away earlier this week—and I spoke by phone a few times. We never actually met, as far as I can recall, but I interviewed him on the phone for a few matters that now escape me.
Rabbi Shapiro was always very cordial to me, but one time I must’ve caught him on a bad day or maybe the issue I was calling about touched a nerve. The rabbi got rather snippy with me and eventually simply hung up the phone.
I was a bit surprised, but reporters get used to people getting brusque with them. After all, we’re often parachuting into their lives and calling about highly sensitive or personal matters that people would sometimes prefer not discussing in a public forum.
Anyway, the phone rang the next day and it was Rabbi Shapiro. “Mr. Feiler, I was a bit rude with you yesterday and I felt bad about it,” he said. “I apologize. I hope you’ll forgive me.” I was absolutely stunned since, frankly, that kind of thing doesn’t happen a lot. I told him not to worry about it and that I understood completely and appreciated the call.
But I’ve never forgotten that exchange because, let’s face it, how many of us have the inner strength, humility and capacity to recognize when we’ve screwed up, much less call the person we’ve wronged and apologize? That’s a rare quality. (As Elton John once sang, sorry seems to be the hardest word.)
Unfortunately, I never got to know Rabbi Shapiro well, but I’ve never forgotten his unique ability to simply say mea culpa. May his memory always be a blessing for his family and friends, and as we enter the High Holiday season may his example always stay with us and serve as a lesson of how to deal with each other.
The recent news that Ian Jacob Baron, the 22-year-old Montgomery County man accused of recently desecrating B’nai Shalom Synagogue in Olney, was raised by adoptive Jewish parents shocked me … and yet didn’t shock me.
You may recall that not so long ago, in October of 2008, we had a somewhat similar case here in “Charm City.”
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Beth Tfiloh Synagogue were also hit by anti-Semitic vandalism and graffiti, during the High Holiday season no less. Their lawn signs for the Associated campaign were defaced. And it turned out that the perpetrators were young men of reportedly Jewish backgrounds, according to the police.
Of course, the two cases are quite different. Baron described himself to police as a neo-Nazi who is active in the white supremacist movement.
I’m not excusing them but the two young adults and 17-year-old in the BHC/Beth Tfiloh case were basically typical American teenagers doing something very stupid and wrong (and unlawful) but not necessarily intentionally ideological, according to my sources.
Still, you have to wonder, what is inspiring a few – and I stress a few – Jewish kids to feel such antipathy and anger toward the Jewish community that they would go to such lengths of sheer hatred?
Where does this well of unleashed, uncontrolled fury come from?
When I wrote the BHC/Beth Tfiloh article in 2008, I posed that question to Beth Tfiloh’s Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. “It does not surprise me,” he said of the perpetrators’ Jewishness. “Acts of teenage rebellion take on many forms.”
Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, told WBAL-TV at the time that the suspects might be “self-hating Jews. … Hopefully, that’s not the case in this instance, but it could be.”
And BHC’s Rabbi Andy Busch would only say to me, “I wouldn’t pretend to guess the motivations.”
Look, I still can remember being young and angry. But not to the point where I’d get a can of paint and spray swastikas on a synagogue or throw coins on a shul’s stoop to signify Jewish greed.
What’s going on here? Where does this hatred come from within our own ranks? What can we do about it?
I drove into work this morning listening to John Lennon’s gorgeous, ethereal “Across The Universe,” and thought of Josh Isaac.
“Pools of sorrow, waves of joy/are drifting through my open mind/Possessing and caressing me …”
Josh, who passed away yesterday only a short time after his 38th birthday, refused to go quietly into the night or wallow in pools of sorrow. A former Mount Washington resident who returned to his hometown of Seattle several years ago, Josh was determined to document his tragic journey with cancer up until the end, if for no other reason than to serve as a testament to life and perseverance for his three young children and wife, Kim.
Many of us were constantly moved and touched by his daily blogs (often written from medical facilities), as well as his documentary, “My Left Hand,” which made its East Coast premiere in Westminster late last June.
“Images of broken light which/dance before me like a million eyes/That call me on and on/across the universe …”
To my regret, I didn’t personally know Josh very well. My wife and I had the Isaacs over for dinner one summer Saturday night in the mid-‘90s, and I met him another time when he freelanced for the Jewish Times. He was friendly, likeable, handsome, creative, bright and funny. He had a light attached to him, a radiant quality that you sometimes detect in certain people. You didn’t forget him.
I didn’t really communicate with Josh again until seven weeks ago when I wrote an article about “My Left Hand” being shown here. At the time, he was recovering at a rehabilitation facility near Seattle from a bout with pneumonia.
In response to my question about why he decided to make such a personal documentary and statement about his health struggles, Josh was characteristically upbeat and inspirational. He said he wanted people to always remember that “life is worth celebrating, and [when] you go through this it only increases your love for family and friends and time on this planet. So I hope I help people by showing the challenges of my life to see the beauty in theirs.”
If only those of us who are not as wise and brave as Josh could and would always remember that.
But Josh, I think you accomplished your mission. And thank you.
May your memory always be a blessing and a source of great strength for your family and friends.
”Sounds of laughter shades of life/are ringing through my open ears/exciting and inviting me/Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns/It calls me on and on across the universe ... ”