Open Letter to My Students 44: This One’s Personal

elderly woman sitting on a park bench on lakeside
Photo by Qingju Wen on

Note from Rabbi Address: We are pleased to have as guest contributor Rabbi Larry Hoffman, a beloved and respected teacher to so many colleagues and one of the major experts on worship and sacred space. Rabbi  Hoffman has given us his permission to post this letter and request to be part of a unique and beautiful tribute. Please take a moment to read this and, we hope, respond. Memory is a powerful part of who we are as a people. Study adds to that reservoir of love. 

All day, every day, octogenarian Bernard Cottle sits on the same park bench, as if keeping guard over the cemetery opposite. He used to sit there with his wife, a friend explains, and when she died, he more or less took up sentry duty on it. One night, when no one was looking, he even spread her ashes on the earth below, so that (again, when no one is looking), he could still converse with her.

Bernard is a character in The Thursday Murder Club which I was reading as a break from more weighty matters. But there I was, one of the characters, or, more accurately, many of the characters, because the Thursday Murder Club is a set of aging people in and around an assisted-living home. What I share with most of them is that, like Bernard, we have lost our life’s partner, who, however, still inhabits the places where we used to sit, eat, walk, and love together.

Like Bernard, we eventually think about perpetuating the presence of the person we have lost: establishing what Isaiah calls a Yad Vashem, “a memorial and a name.” The term was borrowed to name the Jewish People’s Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, but Isaiah used it to describe God’s promise that those who lead the good life will receive “an everlasting name that shall not perish” (Isaiah 56:5).

So Bernard sits dutifully on the bench where his wife once sat as well, and sure enough, people who see him remember her. I imagine he must worry that when he too dies, people will forget them both; had he the means, he would surely endow the bench, emblazoning upon it a plaque with his wife’s name for all to see even after he is gone. We all know people who have perpetuated a yad vashem that way: if not on a park bench, then as part of a synagogue memorial wall that lights up at appropriate occasions.

Those who can, go farther still. They choose some praiseworthy passion of the person who died and fund that passion for the benefit of others. That’s what I am doing now, in this second year of Gayle’s death. And I am writing this because I hope you will help me.

Gayle was a Jew in a small-town Canadian synagogue. She converted there, learned Judaism there, and paid dues there until she died, even after moving to New York to be with me. But hers is just one of many tiny to medium-sized congregations spread widely across the miles, overall under-appreciated for their enormous contribution to Jewish life, despite meagre resources and insufficient clergy who must often work alone, responsible for everything. I wish to honor Gayle’s memory, by honoring those congregations and those rabbis.

Toward that end, I am establishing the Gayle A. Hoover Memorial Fund For Adult Learning, a comprehensive system to provide quality offerings for adults like Gayle, using Zoom technology to link small and medium-sized congregations across the miles as an ongoing community of communities. We will encompass, as well, the handfuls of Jews in even smaller Jewish communities, where no synagogue exists at all. The program is for Canada, but it is a prototype that, once up running, will be replicable anywhere.

Imagine a faculty of all the rabbis and cantors in the system, as well as professors from universities, and experts in everything from Kabbalah to cooking, in a virtual Academy of Jewish Study. Large congregations who can afford quality programming have agreed to stream selective programs to the smaller and mid-size synagogues where people can gather for the offerings, along with a follow-up conversation with their local rabbi or cantor.

The fund will also mount an annual or biennial weekend retreat for members of participating communities to gather in person and meet the friends they have made on zoom, thereby creating a “community of communities.”

Importantly, the program has been enthusiastically welcomed by rabbis and adopted by the Reform Jewish Community of Canada, which guarantees its continuity.

But as you can imagine, the endowment funds I need just to administer it all are significant; and so, I hope you won’t mind as I ask for your help. If you have resources to share, please contribute what you can. If you know others who might help, please pass the word to them. Your support honors Gayle’s memory and is a gift to me. It is also, after all, a great cause, a model for quality Jewish education even for the smallest synagogues that need feel isolated no more. I cannot thank you enough.

To contribute:

In the United States,

In Canada,

For contributing foundations:

Recipient Name: Gayle A Hoover Fund for Adult Learning


Organization Address 633 Third Ave, 7th floor, New York, NY. 10017 ATTN:  Development Department

Organization Telephone Number 212-650-4140

Organization Contact Person: Felicia Schuessler —

Organization Tax ID 13-1663143

1 Comment

  1. Dear Rabbi Address –
    This was a wonderful “open letter”. I have been so fortunate as an adult Jew to have been educated by so many thoughtful Jewish clergy including yourself, our mutual friend and teacher “Jake”, and also was fortunate enough to learn from Rabbi Hoffman when the URJ utilized Synagogue 2000 to train and educate congregational members/leaders. The story resonated with me as I am now of an advanced age.

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