Thursday, May 26, 2011

Eulogy for Gerald Arenson (z'l)

Our temple President sadly died this past week, and was laid to rest today. Here's my eulogy for him:

Tucked neatly away in a corner of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers found in Mishnah, is a teaching in the name of a scholar, Ben Hei Hei:

Effort is its own reward. We are here to do, and through doing to learn; and through learning to know; and through knowing to experience wonder, and through wonder to attain wisdom, and through wisdom to find simplicity, and through simplicity to give attention and through attention to see what needs to be done.

This was Jerry Arenson’s favorite verse from Pirkei Avot, and it’s easy to see why, for it describes the kind of person Jerry always strove to be: a man of simplicity and attention, a doer, who had wisdom to share with others, someone for whom the effort was always its own reward.

Jerry was born and raised in Los Angeles, growing up at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, along with his sister Arlene and his brother Alan. It was from his mother Shirley and father Irving and especially his uncle Art that he developed his sense of family and his values. He was raised with certain life expectations, not just physically but morally as well.

While at Los Angeles high he met the woman who would be his lifelong sweetheart, his Judy. They ran against each other for National Honors Society president. She won, of course, and that annoyed him at the time, or so he would joke later, but something about her caught his eye. He tried to get her attention but she wouldn’t look his way walking down the halls. This wasn’t because she was blowing him off—she would take her glasses off between classes and couldn’t see the person trying to get her attention. Well, with classic Arenson tenacity, he won her affections, and they have been together ever since. They were married at Wilshire Boulevard Temple when Jerry was in grad school—he was among the first in his family to go to college—and Judy wasn’t quite 21. The bridesmaids wore red. That was 52 years ago this past March. And in those 52 years their devotion for each other was constant and palpable. You saw it in the way he held her hand as they took their morning walk, or the way she rubbed his back. You saw it in the way they talked to each other, interacted with each other, danced with each other at the DuPont country club, and Jerry was an excellent dancer, and especially in the way Jerry took care of Judy these last years.

They didn’t have enough money to start out on their own, so Uncle Art came to their rescue, helping them get situated before he finished school and they moved out to Wilmington where Jerry took a job with DuPont, while Judy got active in the Jewish community, between Hadassah, teaching religious school and other endeavors. And of course, starting their family, welcoming David, Dan, Debbie and Andy into the world. Family was all-important to Jerry. A private person, with family Jerry could be more of himself. With his family he could giggle, especially if he was trying out a new (usually terrible) joke. “looks like Grandpa’s got the giggles again.” Someone would say. Nearly every vacation they ever took was to visit family back in California or elsewhere. Whatever the kids were into, he made sure to be fully present. He coached their teams, served as a scout master, running meetings with a toddler and a baby in each arm, and was always present in whatever activity the kids were into. For him it was essential to take care of people and make sure their needs were met, seeing what was needed and helping people as he was helped years before. And he was a devoted and immensely proud grandfather to Jeff, Jessica, Jason, Jacob, Rebecca, Eric, Sonya and Holton, sharing that love in a letter to you eight, as well as his ethical and moral legacy, and in some of his last words to Holton. One of the ways he showed that love was through the family vacations he’d throw every other year, especially the cruises, and he left instructions that those family vacations continue. He wanted to be the glue that held this family together and even in his passing, endeavors to do so. In remembering dad, Deborah commented that again and again, her friends would say, “I love my father and he’s a good man, but your father is the example.”

He also showed his affection for others by wanting to help them improve themselves. If there was a point of light in every person, Jerry was going to focus on that light, focus on that unique talent, and mentor that person. He did not suffer imperfection in people not living up to their ideals, he always wanted people to be their best selves and wanted to bring that out in people. There were his lectures on how to live life appropriately, so many that his kids numbered them. There were his lists—so many lists—on how to develop someone’s inner self. He was always proud of the way he mentored people at DuPont, trying to get them to come up with personal goals and develop plans on achieving those goals. And he shared that with his personal mentoring of young students here in Wilmington. As a community leader, whether it was in his homeowners association, or in the Reform Movement’s international efforts, especially helping establish liberal congregations in the former Soviet Union, or here at Beth Emeth, where he served with tremendous pride and love, there was always a sense that he was mentoring others, trying to develop others. And while that was, in some ways, most obvious in his work as president of this congregation, where he worked closely with staff and laypeople, welcoming new congregants with great joy, and helping new leaders cultivate their own visions. But it was equally true of his work as finance chair. As many of you know, finance is the least fun job on a synagogue board: you’re working the budget, figuring out dues, and asking people to pay their dues and if they haven’t, why they’re in arrears. Who wants to be accounts receivable for a synagogue? But Jerry did this job for nine years with tremendous rachmanut, tremendous sympathy and care and sensitivity to everyone with whom he interacted.

Jerry took pride in that mentoring ability, as well as his independence. He played tennis nearly till the end, often giving much younger players a run for their money, as our youth director can attest. He had very few unfinished projects in his life, though some required his son’s help. “I tried to fix the sink, so what are you doing this week?” But the main reason he didn’t leave unfinished business is because of his tenacity, his focus, some might say his stubbornness. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing the right way, and worth seeing through to completion. He would never give up on a project, merely put it aside for a while and come back to it later. And come back to it he would, but never with ulterior motive. Jerry was Jerry—congruent in his personal and public life, as clear and ethical in his business as he was in his dance instruction or in the sound of his voice singing with the choir.

Jerry was here to do, and by doing to learn, and teach, to attain and share wisdom, and pay attention to those around him. For this he was put on this earth, and we are blessed to have walked awhile with him and be the focus of his attentions, the beneficiaries of his love and learning. His legacy to his family and friends, to all of us, is undying and indestructible. Zecher tzaddik livracha, may he be remembered for blessing. Amen.

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