It is common for a rabbi to be familiar with death. When someone in the synagogue passes away, our hearts grow heavy, for community becomes akin to family. We discuss mourning rituals, theology, and ways to help loved ones connect to the souls of those that have continued to the world beyond.
But when a rabbi’s classmate, another rabbi dies, it almost feels as if the world has tilted. Everything is a bit off balance. Someone that has spent his life comforting, mentoring and teaching others is no longer with us and it just doesn’t seem right. It feels terribly wrong.
Rabbi Fred Elias was one of my original classmates in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In our Mekhinah class, there was a special bond that held all of us together. We understood that to withstand six years of intense study in New York City, we needed each other. You couldn’t find a more different group of people. Students of all ages, stages of life, a bunch of east coasters, international students, and a few of us from the west coast. Different observance levels, personalities, and approaches to learning. We were an odd group of students that somehow transformed into family; our goal of bringing the values and wisdom of Torah to the world holding us together.
Fred wasn’t the loudest. He wasn’t the quietest. But he was steady. Reliable. Strong. Wise. Witty. And good. So very good. The epitome of a mensch. Often, in rabbinical school, students feel a sense of judgment. We were always worried that we weren’t rabbinic enough, smart enough, bold enough. Did we really belong in this school that would one day put our name on a certificate and call us rabbi? It felt fraudulent.
Through the years I realize this judgment was less about students and teachers assessing each other and more about the individual constantly attacking one’s self-worth. But Fred walked around the Seminary with a calm presence, making each student feel welcomed, embraced, seen and at home. Around Fred, you never felt judged. You understood that you were in the presence of a real rabbi: someone who took you exactly the way you are and inspired you to be better.
I haven’t been in touch with Fred in a long time. And yet, when I heard he died, my chest physically hurt. My heart aches for his beautiful family, his beloved students, and special community. A great man has left this world. A cherished rabbi and a treasured friend.
May Rabbi Fred Elias’ legacy of being a mensch live through each of our days. I pray his memory instills within us the desire to be a blessing to our families, our community, and for generations to come.