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The Inadequacy of ‘Thank You’ to a Retiring Rabbi

The impact a member of the clergy has on each congregant is so beautiful and vast, it can’t be captured in just a few words of gratitude.

Showing gratitude
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I remember the first thing I ever heard about Rabbi Howard Jaffe. “You only have to meet him once,” a rabbi-friend told me when she heard we were considering joining Rabbi Jaffe’s synagogue. “He’ll remember your name, where you’re from and anything else that comes up in conversation, even if you’re in a crowded room and only talk for 10 seconds.”

Rabbi Howard Jaffe
  Rabbi Howard Jaffe

My friend was right, and we did join that synagogue 11 years ago. At the time, our son Ben was in a baby carrier—now he is just over a year away from the rite of passage that will be his bar mitzvah. At the time, Rabbi Jaffe was the beloved rabbi of a vibrant congregation at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts—now he is preparing to retire after 22 years of service.

The synagogue is holding many events to celebrate and congratulate, to feel and process, and to move through this time of great transition as a community. After all, to everything there is a season, and as we read in our prayerbook every Friday night, “This is an hour of change, and within it, we stand quietly on the border of light.” At a time when every aspect of life feels like it’s in flux, the process of wishing Rabbi Jaffe well stands out even more than I suspect it would have in the pre-pandemic “before times.”

I have tried several times to write a letter to Rabbi Jaffe to express my thoughts and feelings, to make sure he knows how much he means to me and to my family. It’s all come up short, which leaves me feeling grateful to have built such a multi-faceted and meaningful relationship, one that’s so hard to neatly summarize. 

Instead, I’ve spent time surrounding myself with memories, learnings, inspirations, challenges and support that Rabbi Jaffe has given me over the years. To mention just two: there was the time he invited my son and me to talk about grief together after my father died—I’ll never forget how I felt watching him speak directly to Ben about his 8-year-old feelings and how much refuge I took in reflecting across the generations on the Jewish view of grief and loss. 

Second, there was the powerful Friday night early in the pandemic in which, on Zoom, Rabbi Jaffe tearfully quoted a biblical verse that said, “We will not abandon this house of God.” He emphasized that we were not having a “virtual service,” but a real, true worship experience that was taking place thanks to the gifts of technology. 

These are two mini-moments from a decade of connection, teaching and conversation. And now, as I wish Rabbi Jaffe well on his retirement, I think back to that comment my friend made before I ever met him. 

“You only have to meet him once for him to remember you,” she said. 

One thing is for sure—I would be all the poorer had I “only met him once.” And as for remembering? I hope he carries with him some of the conversations we’ve had over the years. But I know for certain that I will never, ever forget him.

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