Thursday, November 13, 2014

Where Would I Be Without Rabbi Mort Hoffman?

Every rabbi has a rabbi to whom they can point as the reason they are a rabbi today. Mine was Rabbi Mort Hoffman. Let me explain.

I arrived on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, in late August 1994. I had returned from my first visit to Israel only weeks prior and was now frustratingly trying to figure out how to get back to Israel as soon as possible. The term "Gap Year" wasn't as popular twenty years ago as it is today, but I was regretting not registering for a freshman year program like USY's Nativ. I had fallen in love with Israel and was not excited about commencing my four year experience at MSU.

During "Welcome Week," I received a call on my dorm room land line phone (remember, this was 1994!). The voice on the other end introduced himself as Rabbi Morton Hoffman of the local Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

He told me that he had gotten my name from someone at the Michigan State Hillel house who said I could teach Hebrew at his congregation's religious school. I acknowledged that I had a Jewish day school education, spoke and understood Hebrew, but had no teaching experience. Rabbi Hoffman said that he didn't expect I would have had any teaching experience since I was a college freshman. He then went on to explain that his wife, Aviva, had been diagnosed with breast cancer and would be unable to teach her 4th grade class while she was undergoing aggressive treatment. Hebrew school was about to begin in a week and he was now scrambling to find a temporary replacement for her.

Rabbi Mort Hoffman and Jason Miller (April 1998) at Michigan State University

Rabbi Hoffman told me that he'd send a taxi to pick me up at my dorm and bring me to the synagogue for an interview. When I asked him which day he'd like me to come, he responded, "How is now?"

I arrived at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, which was both a Conservative and Reform congregation. Rabbi Hoffman was ordained at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, while the cantor, Bruce Wetzler, was Conservative (services on Friday nights were Reform and then Saturday mornings were Conservative). I walked into Rabbi Hoffman's office and he immediately began to speak in Hebrew. He was obviously fluent. He complimented me on my Hebrew, which was at its peak since I had just returned from Israel, and then he began telling me about the class I would be teaching (I guess that meant I got the job). He told me that I would teach from 4-6 PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays and then from 9 AM until noon on Sunday mornings. The class on the weekdays would only be eight 4th grade students who were considered advanced, while the class on Sunday mornings would be the entire 4th grade. He then gave me a key to the synagogue and told me the alarm code before telling me he'd drive me back to campus.

My first Hebrew School class at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing, Michigan (February 1995)

After a few sessions teaching that 4th grade class, Rabbi Hoffman had me teaching a 12th grade class on Sunday evenings at the neighboring Kehillat Israel congregation as well. I had only turned 18 the month before and, as such, was younger than a couple of my students in that class! I had been thrust into the world of Jewish education thanks to Rabbi Hoffman.

Did Rabbi Hoffman see something in me that afternoon at his office? I don't know. All I know is that I had no intention of ever teaching a class, let alone a Hebrew School class. And becoming a rabbi was nowhere on my radar screen back in the late summer of 1994. I owe so much of my life today to Rabbi Mort Hoffman.

With Rabbi Mort Hoffman at Michigan State University in January 2013

I taught afternoon religious school and Sunday school at Rabbi Hoffman's congregation for the next three years. In fact, I taught the same children year after year. As they moved up from 4th to 5th to 6th grade, so did I. And then I began tutoring the same kids for their bar and bat mitzvah. I'm still in touch with most of them to this very day. Throughout my college years, Rabbi Hoffman mentored me. As a teacher, I reported to the Religious School principal, but I sought out Rabbi Hoffman for advice and counsel. I suppose I thought of myself as his intern in an informal way.

Once I decided I would apply for rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I began visiting Rabbi Hoffman's office more often. With any question I had, he would begin, "Well, at the Hebrew Union College we learned it this way. I don't know how they'll teach it to you at JTS..." He encouraged me to use the synagogue's library to study for my classes and it was in that library that I spent dozens of hours writing my admission essays for rabbinical school.

During my senior year of college, Rabbi Hoffman called me into his office. He told me he was getting closer to retirement and needed to downsize his Judaica library. He told me to take what I wanted from among his vast collection of books. For the past twenty years I proudly kept many of his books on my bookshelf, all of the volumes still displaying his personalized bookplates with his name in Hebrew.

I'm so grateful that Rabbi Hoffman gave me an opportunity that set my life on a wonderful course. And I am so proud that I have enjoyed the same books that once occupied his Jewish library. Now, I am paying it forward. This evening I have invited a teenage boy from our Jewish community (who is considering rabbinical school after college) to come over and select some of my Jewish books as I am now downsizing my own library. Perhaps he'll take home some of Rabbi Hoffman's books and allow me to tell him about this great man -- a mensch and a scholar -- who influenced me.

I wrote this with tears in my eyes as I learned that Rabbi Mort Hoffman passed away this morning. Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet. The death of ones teacher is always difficult, but Rabbi Hoffman's passing seems to have hit me more deeply. I often wonder what my life would look like today had he not made that phone call twenty years ago. I'm glad he did. May the memory of Rabbi Mort Hoffman, z"l always be for blessings and may his soul be bound up in heaven.


Anonymous said...

That's a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Rudy Salinger, Midland MI

Unknown said...

The influence of a teacher is something profound. This was a very inspiring story about how your principal helped you become the wonderful rabbi that I'm sure you are. I don't know. I'm not even Jewish. However, I think that the themes you spoke of in this article are universal. We all need mentors in our lives to help us reach our potential.