Monday, May 05, 2014

My Rabbi Myer Kripke Story

The first time I heard the name Rabbi Myer Kripke was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1998. I had only begun my studies in the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary three months prior and responded to an email message asking if any of the new students would be interested in guiding tours of the Seminary for visiting groups. My flight from New York City back to Detroit didn't leave until later that evening and I had nothing else to do before the Thanksgiving recess so I thought I'd check it out.

When I arrived to the Women's League Seminary Synagogue I met Rebecca Jacobs who at the time was in charge of arranging these tours for groups and donors visiting JTS. She gave the small group of us students a tour of the Seminary campus. Since I had done my fair share of research about the history of the Jewish Theological Seminary before applying to rabbinical school and since I had been living and studying there for the past few months, I figured there wasn't much I didn't know about it. Wow, was I wrong! Rebecca told some very interesting stories about the historical buildings that made up the Seminary campus -- the Schiff, Brush and Unterberg buildings as well as the Library building which was knows as the Boesky Library until Ivan Boesky was indicted for insider trading and the Seminary removed his name.

Rabbi Myer Kripke, of blessed memory
Rabbi Myer Kripke, of blessed memory

What really grabbed my attention was the way Rebecca told the story of the fire that ruined the Seminary's large brick tower that stood prominently on Broadway and had housed the Seminary's vast library collection. Rebecca spent a good twenty minutes talking about how the fire started, the NY Fire Department's response and the way the local Upper West community helped to save thousands of the books damaged in the fire. She explained that the fire had damaged many of the Judaica books that the Seminary had saved from Eastern Europe following the Holocaust. She concluded her story of the JTS Library fire by saying that the inside of the Seminary tower has sat vacant for the past thirty years with the charred remains of that fire inside.

But then her story of destruction turned to a story of hope when she told us how a Conservative rabbi from Omaha, Nebraska and his wife had pledged to donate the necessary money to renovate the Seminary's tower and turn it into a 21st century building with a technology center, high tech classrooms and conference areas. The story of Rabbi Myer Kripke was so intriguing it could be made into a Hollywood movie. Myer Kripke, who passed away last week at 100, married his bride Dorothy at the Seminary in the breezeway under the library tower. The Seminary's chancellor at the time, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, officiated the wedding and agreed to waive the typical fee but asked the couple to repay the Seminary when they were able. Fast forward several years and the Kripkes, who were living in Omaha where Myer was the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue, were members of the local Rotary Club. The story goes that Warren Buffett's wife enjoyed reading the book series written by Dorothy to her children and Warren told Myer that the wives should meet. Long story short, the two couples became close friends enjoying many family meals together on the Buffett ranch and Buffett invested the couple's inheritance in his Berkshire Hathaway companies. The $67,000 portfolio that Myer Kripke gave to Warren Buffett to invest ballooned over the years to $25 million.

The renovated Kripke Tower at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Photo by Rabbi Jason Miller, 2004)
The renovated Kripke Tower at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Photo by Rabbi Jason Miller, 2004)

When Rabbi Carol Davidson, who was working in the development department, received a phone call from Rabbi Kripke that he and Dorothy would like to discuss a donation, she flew down to the couple's modest home in Omaha. She mentioned that there were plans to finally restore and renovate the Seminary's tower and Rabbi Kripke said the couple was interested. They donated $7 million toward the $11 million cost of the project and also pledged $8 million more to the Seminary, which will be received now that both Rabbi Myer and Dorothy Kripke have passed away (she predeceased him in 2000).

I must have told the story of the Seminary Library Tower fire and the Kripkes' generous donation over a hundred times while giving tours of JTS. And not only was I fortunate enough to see the completion of the Tower renovation and take classes at the Seminary in the new classrooms, but I had the chance to thank Rabbi Kripke in person for his generosity. At the dedication of the Kripke Tower in 2002, Myer Kripke had the honor of hanging the large mezuzah at the entryway of JTS and I was there to shake his hand and thank him for bringing 21st century technology (and a lot more classroom space) to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Fast forward to 2008 and I decided to call Rabbi Kripke for a favor. I thought long and hard before making that phone call because I didn't want to bother the aging rabbi whose health I had heard was deteriorating. My uncle had been diagnosed with advanced stage Pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. I talked to my brother about what we could do for my uncle that would cheer him up a bit and let him check off something big from his bucket list before he succumbed to the cancer. Without hesitation my brother said that his dream was to play golf at the super exclusive Augusta National Golf Club, where the Masters is played each year.

I knew that in order to play one had to be a guest of a member. After a Google search told me that not only was Warren Buffett a member of Augusta National, but he had previously allowed someone with a terminal illness to fulfill their dream and play there as his guest, I figured it was worth a shot. So, I picked up the phone and called Rabbi Kripke at his home. He answered right away and we spoke for a few minutes before I nervously told him my uncle's story and my desire to have him play at Augusta. "I'll see what I can do," Rabbi Kripke said.

About an hour later I received a phone call on my cellphone from Warren Buffett's personal secretary. Yes, on the phone was Debbie Bosanek, the woman who was mentioned by President Obama in his State of the Union address as an example of a middle class worker in a higher tax class than her billionaire boss. She told me that Mr. Buffett was currently in his jet flying overseas, but she wanted to get all of the information before asking him. I explained the situation to her in detail and then she had me wait on the line while she asked him. She came back on the line to explain how terribly sorry Mr. Buffett was to hear of my uncle's prognosis, but that Augusta National had a new policy expressly forbidding members from allowing guests to play the course as charitable acts. Well, I tried.

While I wasn't able to get my uncle to play at Augusta National before he eventually died in February, 2009, I did have a chance to talk with Rabbi Kripke again and see firsthand how generous of a man he was. He could have very easily told me that he didn't want to bother Warren Buffett with a favor and I would have understood completely. Instead, he took the time to inquire and tried to help a colleague with a dying relative. Rabbi Kripke was a mensch.

Rabbi Kripke's obituary in yesterday's NY Times accurately portrayed how humble of a man he was. "The money did not change the Kripkes, however. Indeed, they gave most of it away, much as Mr. Buffett has done. They remained in Omaha, as content in their three-bedroom, $900-a-month apartment as Mr. Buffett has famously been in the modest house he bought there in the 1950s. Rabbi Kripke remained at his synagogue, never making more than $30,000 a year. He never bought any real estate."

Today I'm honored to serve as the Interim Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Toledo where Myer Kripke spent his childhood. Some of his relatives are still members of the congregation and I shared this story with them. Of course, they were not surprised to hear this story as his generous spirit is well known.

May the memory of Rabbi Myer Kripke be for honored blessings and may his legacy of humble generosity live on for generations.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you, Rabbi Miller, for bringing the amazing story of the JTS library tower back into my memory. Today I had the honor of listening to a webinar with Dr. Ron Wolfson who just so happened to mention Rabbi Kripke, his wife, their wedding at JTS, and the wonderful gift they shared with JTS. I worked at JTS during the entire renovation and I also have a copy of the book about the fire at home. This story was always a great one shared amongst JTS employees and students. When I searched Rabbi Kripke's name, you might be happy to know that your blog was second in line on the Google search.

Thanks again for sharing your story!


Lisa Chandler