Monday, November 27, 2006

Rabbi Joseph Singer, a’h: A Tribute To Humility, An Ode To Greatness By: Toby Moskovits

Rabbi Joseph Singer, a’h:
A Tribute To Humility, An Ode To Greatness
By: Toby Moskovits
Published: Thursday, November 02, 2006

Dearest Zaidy,

How do I describe the holiness and the majesty that was you? Some called you Yossele, others Rabbi Joseph Singer, but to me you were just Zaidy.

From a young age I understood that you were not simply my grandfather; you were grandfather to the world—Jews and non-Jews alike. You were the rav of a shul on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that was on its face as humble as you were. Chipped paint and dusty woodwork did nothing to diminish the warmth that you infused within those walls. Yours was a Yiddishkeit steeped in the mesorah of generations of your rabbinical ancestors combined with a willingness to accept all who cared enough to try. Under your guidance, the Stanton Street Synagogue was a beacon of light for all of those who passed through its doors. You drew people in with a cup of coffee and a piece of potatonick, and kept them close with the concern you showed for the burdens they carried. Whatever their need—material or spiritual—you conjured it up, providing all whom you encountered with whatever they were lacking. Whether an apartment, food, clothes, immigration papers, or a school for their children, you made sure their lives were better for having met you. And when what they were lacking was a caring word or an understanding heart, you stood in and played the role of father, mother, and friend.

As a little girl, I used to accompany you in your work caring for the lonely and the sick, serving meals at the Educational Alliance, and preparing food for the men and women who stopped by for kiddush and for coffee—on Shabbos and throughout the week. Stories were told of your days as a diamond cutter, but in my mind you did not earn a living in the traditional sense. You were a person who wanted nothing of this world, dedicating your life to ensuring that the world be a more hospitable place for the downtrodden and the despondent.

You were not a community leader or elder in the traditional sense. You strove not for position or power, nor did you seek a grand pulpit. To watch you was to witness selfless dedication to all man, to witness a great soul whose only desire was to fulfill the word of G-d and to do good for all people.

In the growing silence of recent years, as your ability to speak diminished, all we could do was look into your clear blue eyes and touch the depth of your righteousness by witnessing and experiencing the serenity of a person at peace with the world.

And now, when I close my eyes and picture you, Zaidy, once more I hear your voice, in crisp, clear tones, and the meaning and message of your life is ever so clear. Each moment, each breath, was focused on making the world a kinder, gentler place for those whose lives you touched. No care was too mundane, no concern was brushed away.

And who but the Al-mighty knows all of what you accomplished in this world? Your heart was always open for the pain and sorrow of all people, wanting to ease their suffering with money, food and shelter, a kind word, and acceptance. And how, with the burdens of so many people on your shoulders, did you maintain the visage of serenity, the spirit of equanimity, that was etched on your soul and which enveloped your very being? As an adult I finally began to understand that this was the vortex that drew people to you—the rich, the poor, the writers and artists, Jews and non-Jews alike, the local drug dealers and police captains.

All of your life your actions spoke louder than words, and when you had no more words to share with us, holiness was still etched on your face, embedded in the depth of your eyes and your soul, and continued to tell your story. For decades the lessons you taught were through actions, and when you were too weak to fulfill your holy mission in the streets of the Lower East Side—to share stories and guidance—your silence taught us the greatest lesson of all.

In my mind’s eye, I see you in your seat in recent months at the head of the table, weak but determined, leaning over the siddur and Tehillim that was never far from you. And I am sure that the angels hovering close heard, with every painstaking word of prayer you whispered, the sweetest song fall from your lips, like the prayer of Hallel you sang on holidays past.

And when your shul as we all knew it was no more, you brought the holiness and warmth with you wherever you were. In your final years, we learned that you did not create a Mikdash me‘at wherever you went; instead it was you who was the Midkash me‘at.

And now, your presence on this earth is no more. But when I close my eyes I still hear your voice. I feel your soft hand on my eyes, splashing my face with water for negel vasser from the worn metal cup in your unadorned kitchen at 540 Grand Street. I feel your hand in mine as we walk through the early morning cold, underneath the train tracks (with a twinge of fear in my heart, but confidence in your stride) through the drug-infested park behind your shul. I feel the warmth of your pillow under my head on those Yom Kippur nights when, as a little girl, I slept in your bed and Bubby was in the bed nearby, while you stayed up all night praying and learning for your community and for your people. And, most vivid of all, I feel the soft felt of your hat and rough wool of your coat in my hands, as Bubby and I stood at the door awaiting your departure from shul on those Shabbos mornings, watching you move around in the shul’s basement preparing countless meals to warm the hearts and minds of those whose lives you touched.

Zaidy, now that you are no longer with us, when I close my eyes once again I conjure up a picture of your present as vivid as my memories of your past. I see you in the Bais Midrash shel Ma‘alah, playing the role you perfected on earth. But now, you are in the most elegant beis midrash, and your congregants are the greatest of tzaddikim. Now, it is no trouble for you to draw a minyan, and the prayers and words that flow from your lips are as crystal clear as the light that shines from your face. And were you to have only nine in your quorum, I am sure the Al-mighty himself would serve in your honor, as did the Torah those times when your entreaties were unsuccessful at pulling in a full ten for a lonely minyan on Stanton Street.

Zaidy, I pray that we find it within ourselves to perpetuate the righteousness and humility that was your life. For you were an angel on earth, while we are of flesh and blood; but we have lived in your shadow, and that has inspired us to try.

Your granddaughter,



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