I woke up before five this morning; no alarm clock. I looked at my phone and read about my friend, my role model and someone I revered – which is very rare for me – since the mid 1980’s.
During the summer of, I believe 1983 my family rented a house on Deal Road in Oakhurst, New Jersey. My father went to the synagogue that was a few blocks away and me a young Rabbi there. The prayers were held on the second floor of what I can remember to be an old small home. One Saturday morning I met my father in the shul (I am not one to go too early) and was promptly greeted with a full smile and a handshake by the Rabbi. It was that morning when my admiration and love for this man began.
A little about me – I am a very critical person who does not just admire people because of their finances, titles or physical appearances. In fact when a title is bestowed I usually have the opposite reaction and wait for the beholder to prove themselves to me.
I am not fooled by speeches, appearances and handshakes. Kisses and hugs are best saved for intimates not acquaintances and speeches are best given by the intellectuals not the minimally educated.
But with Rabbi Ezra Labaton there was an ingredient that is way too often missing in people. Sincerity. With his every act his heart and soul were revealed to be true.
With Rabbi Ezra Labaton there was an ingredient that is way too often missing in leader. Humility. He never tried to stand taller or to have the loudest voice. When you met him you would know just where he stood as he spoke with words that forced you to think and to think hard.
I was instantly taken by the Rabbi and found myself more than a couple of dozen times calling him for advice, affirmation and just to say hello.
That small second floor prayer room has grown into an enormous synagogue on the same spot where the original edifice stood. Since he became the Rabbi of West Deal it has taken on his identity. People bought homes or moved to the area so they could attend the Shul. The community has grown in population, intellect, outreach and in charitable acts. To visit Magen David of West Deal on a Shabbat is to see the community there in action. Mothers and Fathers, both old and young, children and grandchildren and infants and expectant mothers all standing as one. The common denominators are love, sense of tradition, sense of family, love of Torah and the never ending task of Tikum Olam (making this world a better place).
That was the Rabbi. Along with his wonderful wife Emily, they were living examples of what it means to live as Sephardic Jews. But most important how to live as fellow human beings in a world that can be full of corruption, greed and freezing temperatures. Their children have been leaders as well championing causes within the community and throughout the world.
The Rabbi always listened to my complaining, personal troubles and family struggles with an open heart and not an ounce of judgement. He would speak gently with great care and respond in a way that make me realize what was important, what was correct and how or whether I should act in response to the situation.
His loss leaves a void in our world – it leaves us wondering whether future generations will ever have a man who was as sincere and intelligent; as caring and full of humility; as Jewish with a mind full of questions and answers as this man.
I have had the honor of knowing Rabbi Ezra Labaton and his family. I have had the honor of him knowing who I was and would reach out to me when he would hear that I was in some sort of situation or another.
He called me when I came out of the hospital in March to see how I was doing. When I hung up from him I felt sad because as much as I hated being in the hospital my prognosis was good. His was not. But he never lost faith and he always wanted to know how my father was. In fact he used to call my father several times a day just to say hello to him; knowing how much it meant to my father to receive the call.
I could go on and on about Rabbi Ezra Labaton and how he helped make this world a much better place when he left it than how it was when he first arrived here.
We will miss him forever – but always remember and be inspired by his humility, intelligence, sincerity and his love of the Torah and its messages.
I thought about what I can do to honor him. What did he mean to me?
He was always there.
I would leave a message on his machine and he would always call back. He was always there.
I guess the first step to making a positive impact is just being there. Once you are there its up to you whether to act or to watch.
The Rabbi watched, learned and taught – and he was there. He was always there.