Until we meet again, Rabbi Meister

An account of the influence of one man's Rabbi

White dove on a tree (photo credit: Thinkstock)
White dove on a tree
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
Last month, my rabbi, spiritual father and mentor in Jewish- Christian relations passed away: Rabbi Dr. Gerald Meister.
The deep sense of personal loss is hard to put into words.
Even harder, I could not fully mourn him in the way I hoped for since he passed away right before the Passover holiday. In Judaism, communal celebration takes precedence over mourning personal loss.
I received the news from his son, Jonathan, at 7:30 a.m. on March 25 in Israel.
With 10 hours left to the start of the holiday and a sevenhour time zone difference between the US and Israel, I took upon myself the task of publicizing his passing for the family.
All day, I was involved in writing the press release, creating the memorial picture with my website manager and calling up close friends of the rabbi in Israel. In the moments in between, I would help my wife prepare for the holiday.
Literally, there was no time to take it all in.
Sitting with 27 family members at the Passover Seder who were rejoicing in the holiday commemorating our freedom from Egypt, I could picture Rabbi Meister quoting English clergyman and mystical poet George Herbert at the table: “Living well is the best revenge.”
Despite what the enemies of Israel have tried to do to her, by the grace of God, we are still here.
Just two weeks prior to Rabbi Meister being called back to heaven, I had the opportunity to be with him during the last 24 hours of his annual Israel visit. I drove him from Tel Aviv to the southern city of Arad to address a Yale University group comprised of Orthodox Jewish and Christian students. These 12 young adults came to Israel to learn the fundamentals of Jewish-Christian relations in order to take their relationships to a deeper level than their weekly Bible study in university.
It was a very surreal moment to be at the Fountain of Tears, an exhibit created by Christian artist Rick Wienecke that depicts a dialogue of suffering between the Holocaust and the crucifixion, and having Rabbi Meister lecture on the mystery of the Jewish people in the context of the Shoah and creation of the State of Israel. I guess you had to be there to fully appreciate the significance of it all. You can actually view the lecture on YouTube.
The day after he arrived back to the United States, his health took a turn for the worse. He went to hospital and was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer with less than two weeks to live. The diagnosis was a shock for all close to him.
I owe a great debt to Rabbi Meister for not only helping me in my sacred calling of Jewish-Christian relations, but preventing me from walking away from Judaism altogether. During my college days, I had serious doubts about staying observant, but God, in His infinite wisdom, brought Rabbi Meister to the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center, the synagogue I attended in Brooklyn, New York.
Rabbi Meister was more concerned about the “why” of Judaism than the “how.”
His sermons were philosophically deep with a sprinkle of wicked humor.
His approach to Judaism was refreshing and challenging to the status quo. In one of his famous Meisterisms, he would say “doing the commandments of God without a belief in Him is simply fetishism.”
He also taught me the Jewish prayer book was the catechism of Judaism and not random liturgical prayers to be recited by habit.
Always defining himself as a theologian, he would quote both Christian and Jewish scholars of the past to deepen one’s journey of faith with God. He looked at the vocation of a rabbi as more caring and nurturing of souls, than dispensing legal decisions.
Born in the period of the Holocaust and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, Rabbi Meister never took the miracle of the State of Israel for granted. He would always schedule the next annual visit to Israel in his calendar before leaving the Holy Land and say, “we do not have the right to leave God’s sacred land without letting Him know when we are coming back.”
He always insisted I learn about the teachings of Cardinal John Henry Newman. As Rabbi Meister enters upon life eternal, I offer Cardinal Newman’s prayer that he shared with me many years ago: “May He support us all the day long, till the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy, may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last.” •