Today our congregation mourned the passing of past president Al Green. A few folks have asked me about my eulogy from today. I present it below
What do you stand for? That’s the fundamental question Torah asks us this week as we read parashat nitzvaim. We read: you stand this day...but the stand is not just a casual positioining of the self. To ‘natzav’ is to be firm and resolute, immovable, like a rock. It is to stand at attention, with intention; it is, in short, to stand for something.
Al Green stood for a great many things. He stood for responsibility. He stood for caring, for seriousness and service. He stood at his place in this congregation and this community to act as a role-model for others. He stood for what was right. And to many, to me especially, he seemed to be a permanent fixture, a tamid, alway here, immovable, ready to serve.
Where did this devotion to service and resolute determination come from? Perhaps it came from his father, a poor railroad worker, who himself was devoted to serving others, including volunteering to fight both in World War I and, as a forty-year old, in World War II. Perhaps it came from being the eldest of five siblings during the Great Depression, where his sense of seriousness and responsibility to his family was driven by the scarcity the family experienced. Perhaps he was just a serious and intense guy, which he was. Some, I would guess, would wither under the pressure that he placed on himself; instead, this drove Al harder. He graduated high school at 16, went to university at University of Delaware and had his masters degree by age 21. At this point world war II had broken out, so he entered as a lieutenant and served in the Pacific all the way through the end of the war, and continued in the reserves, finally retiring as a colonel. It was during the war while he was deployed that he saw a photo of Florence Ferber, who had just acted in the Wilmington High School senior play. He wrote to his sister that, when he returned from the war, he was going to meet and date this girl. And so, when he got back, he hopped a flight to Michigan to meet her at school. She was dating someone else, but when he saw Al’s persistence and determination, he quickly got out of the way. They were married in 1947, and he was profoundly devoted to her. He loved her deeply, fiercely, even at the end of his life worrying who was going to eat with her, or drive her, or take care of her. They would raise three children together: Penny, Karen and Andy.
While he had a head and an interest in medicine, and while Florence’s parents offered to help support that dream, he felt that, with a family, it was time for him to start his career, to take care of his family. So he went to work as a chemist, working for National Vulcanized Fiber for 35 years, eventually as a senior executive.
But as ambitious as he was with his work, his devotion was to his family, and to serving others. His children were everything. He was there in his quiet, steady way, and often shared letters so they knew how he felt. He was eloquent in his writing in a way that he wasn’t as a speaker--always direct and to the point in conversation, he could express his feelings more freely on the page. This best illustrated his dual nature. Al could be tough--he had high expectations and high standards, worried constantly about others, and going against him was something you did very very carefully. He wanted what was best for his kids, and believed truly that his children, including his daughters, could be whatever they wanted to be, and supported their dreams and hopes. He could be tough on his kids and a tough person to talk to, but he also was upset when they were upset or hurt, concerned for their welfare. He could be loving and caring, and had a soft spot for babies. He had to be the first person to meet his first grandchild in the hospital, and would perk up whenever his great-grandson was brought up or came to visit. And it didn’t have to be in the family, either. He’d go over to babies in the restaurant to visit and have a chat.
As he was with his family, so he was with his community. His was a life of service to others, informed by his Jewish values. He volunteered at St. Francis well into his 90s, and was a beloved presence there. Florence remembered how one time, when she fell, he brought her to the emergency room and came in with her, nearly carrying her, and the staff rushed over to make sure HE was okay. He served as a volunteer with Federation well into his 90s and was given a lifetime achievement award in 1991. He was president of the Temple, president of the memorial park, volunteered with SCORE, Camp Pinemere, the JCC. Basically you name it, he did it, and was still hard at work doing it--signing checks, checking in with people--up until only a few years ago. And while he was awarded time and again for his efforts, he wasn’t interested in the accolades or the applause; it was the work that gave him the greatest satisfaction. It was doing what was right fulfilling the words of the prophet etched in our wall: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
And he did walk humbly with God. He was, as I said earlier, always here. Friday nights with Florence, and Saturday mornings, wearing his tallit long before that was acceptable in Reform circles, eyes closed as we sang the liturgy, ready to cheer on the bar mitzvah student, as much there to support them as to derive support from the service. I always knew that, if I needed to check about a name on the kaddish list or find out how things were, I could rely on Al, as did the rabbis who came before me. In one of the notes he wrote Andy, back in 1982, he talked about Saturday, Shabbat morning, being a day of relaxation, of reflection and renewal, a chance to pray, to visit his mother-in-law in the Kutz Home (which he did every saturday), and ended the note: that it was a great day to be alive.
Al passed one week from his 96th birthday, a full life, an exemplary life, a life that was truly great.
Now it falls to us to stand as, once, he stood, in the place he stood, to live up to his memory and his example, to be inspired by his devotion and his determination, to stand as he did, fulfilling the words we say to each of our b’nai mitzvah students, bowing low before God, standing upright before mortals, loving peace and pursuing it, and bringing all to God’s Torah. May this be his blessing to all of us as we say, amen.