Today I Buried a Friend

Today I buried a friend.

In attendance at the funeral with me was the president of the largest movement of Jews the world has seen; other clergy; representatives of neighboring communities; members of various intersecting business, social, and religious circles; friends; and numerous acquaintances.

Toward the front were his grieving parents, wife, and two teenage daughters.

I met Seth only a few months ago, in his capacity of Temple President, at a meeting of three concerning the religious school and whether I would run it. We talked about vision and salary, education and culture, supervision techniques and attendance policies, work hours and commuting distances.

Follow-up discussions were devoted to health insurance, keys, voice mail, computers, e-mail, security codes, and myriad other details related to a new job.

The job interview is always an odd way to meet someone, and this was no exception. By the time the process was concluded, I knew where Seth stood on everything we’d discussed — he preferred to lock the door before arming the alarm, for example, and he was adamant that e-mail addresses should be part of the Temple’s branding — but I didn’t know who he was.

Seth was always around the Temple, though, giving us lots of informal opportunities to talk in addition to our formal meetings. We discussed mundane matters like budget lines and teacher salaries, and lofty goals like how to foster Jewish commitment.

I remember one particular day I came to Seth when I discovered what could have been a huge problem. He responded with a cheery if ironic one-word answer: “excellent!” His simple reply was laden with complexity. We’ll fix this together. We won’t let it stand in our way as we build for the future. And for sure we won’t let it stop us from having fun now.

Come September, Seth wasn’t the only Erlebacher to hang out around the Temple. I saw his elder daughter Rachel each week, because she was one of the 3rd-grade teachers and part of my job was to supervise her. It didn’t take me long to see how talented she was. At one point, at a congregational dinner, I think, I told Seth how lucky Rachel’s students were. He was polite enough to say “thank you,” but his eyes replied, “yes, I know.”

His younger daughter Brianna, too, who was both a student on Wednesdays and soon a student teacher on Sunday mornings, was particularly helpful to me, especially in my first few weeks, before I knew how the teachers and students expected things to run. I remember I said something to Seth about how wonderful Brianna was, and, again, courtesy won out in his polite reply, but I could practically hear his body language: “You don’t have to tell me. I already know.”

Seth and I talked about the school, of course, and the Temple, about summer camps and the future of the Jewish people. We celebrated Shabbat together. We mocked the ineptitude in the world (sometimes, sadly, our own), chatted about current events, and planned for a better tomorrow.

Six months ago I met the Temple President.

Today I buried a friend.

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