In his Nov. 21, 2018 Torah commentary posting on Jewish Sacred Aging, Rabbi Address challenges us with one of the most profound questions in our lives: “Who is the person[s] who changed your life?”
I am blessed to have had several in my life. The two I will share with you have a common denominator: they give of themselves so automatically in gemilut chasadim (“acts of loving kindness”) that they might not even know how they changed somebody.
Joe Hite (I never knew how to spell his last name) changed my life on Jan. 30, 1967. The way he did it is imprinted in me as a moral compass for others. It was the first morning synagogue service on the day after my father’s funeral. I showed up in the small Orthodox-style chapel of the Conservative Synagogue where I had earned bar mitzvah only four-and-a-half years before. I was only 17, in the intercession between the first and second halves of my senior year in high school. I was now a kaddishule. I was the first to replace dirt in my father’s grave the day before.
Only moderately observant then, I fumbled with putting on my tefillin. The usher-gabbai-chief macher, approached me from behind, gently put his arm around my shoulder, and whispered to me, “I am Joe Hite, and I will help you.”
Suddenly, I relearned how to put on my tefillin. Within a few weeks, I was even taking my turn in leading that davening. It was clearly a make or break moment for that synagogue and established Judaism. Joe Hite represented more than just himself. An inappropriate comment then is what makes people dis-affiliate. A gentle comment then got me forever.
So in the most challenging year in my life, only 17, in the period that began with the last semester of high school, then summer, then the first semester of college, I wound up having perfect attendance, three times a day, every day, no. matter where I was, to say kaddish on behalf of my father. I look back on that as one of the greatest achievements of my life. Because of Joe Hite’s kindness, I could look in the mirror and say, “I am a kaddishule.”
Most likely, Rabbi David Zucker never knew Joe Hite, yet used the same profound phrase with a similar impact.
After I retired from a career in another field with thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices and prisons, I began the transition to professional chaplain and continuing towards Board Certified Chaplain, BCC (I present next May). One of the requirements for BCC is a Masters in Divinity (or equivalent). I already had a Bachelor’s in Statistics and an MBA, and many extension courses. However, I had neither the time or the means to matriculate for another Master’s Degree. I reached out to Rabbi Zucker, whom I learned was on the planning committee for chaplaincy conferences.
In a deja vu moment, Rabbi Zucker called me and said, “I am Rabbi David Zucker, and I will help you.”
Exactly the same words as Joe Hite had used just over 50 years before. Rabbi Zucker helped steer me towards the 14 university courses I have taken on my own the last few years, which Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains recently certified as the equivalent of a Master’s in Divinity.
Both men, angels or melachim in my life, walked the same path of automatic gemilut chasadim without even realizing this was automatic for them. I had the opportunity to share that feedback with Rabbi Zucker. I never had the opportunity with Joe Hite, but when I walk in his footsteps, I know I am honoring him.
The mirror image of “who has influenced your life” is equally important in looking at yourself: “Whose life/lives have you influenced?”
As Joe Hite and Rabbi Zucker illustrated for me, you do this by not realizing that you do this, by not being intentional, but by being who you are, the best you are.
Such an automatic moral compass is found in a guideline called “The Rabbi’s Prayer” or “The Rebbe’s Prayer.”
It goes something like this: “If you act as if the person who sits down next to you on the bus is the Messiah in disguise, if he chooses not to reveal himself, would it have made a difference?”
Jewish Sacred Aging ensures that our memories will be a blessing. May you be the one who changed somebody. Amen.
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.