Hineni Biennial: The Enduring Legacy of Seth Erlebacher
Just ten days ago, thousands of us left Washington, DC, inspired and uplifted by the largest, and by acclamation the best, Biennial in URJ history. Nearly 6000 Reform Jewish leaders of all ages gathered from 48 states and Canada representing over 540 congregations. The music and the insights keep echoing within each of us, a long weekend of concluding and beginning all at once.
There are so many “take aways” from our time together, so many moments of feeling the dynamism and the possibility of this largest movement in Jewish life. Over the coming weeks there will be many opportunities for us to reflect upon how we will harness the energy and vision of our exhilarating gathering. But for now I’d like to focus on just one of the thousands who gathered. Seth Erlebacher of blessed memory was the president of Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, New York. For weeks Seth prepared for the Biennial carefully choosing which sessions he would attend and sharing those choices along with his excitement with the 220 families of his close knit congregation.
On the Friday afternoon of the Biennial, Seth posted photos on Facebook as he waited patiently on the long lines to get through security to hear President Barack Obama’s address. It was exhilarating for Seth and for the rest of us. And then tragedy struck. As the delegates left the hall, Seth Erlebacher collapsed suddenly. Those nearby did what they could to help him and our own Rabbi Rex Perlmeter accompanied him to the hospital, but Seth did not make it. He died shortly after. As word spread, a wave of grief and loss swept through our community. Though we are a Movement of 1.5 million people, we are really a large family. And our family is in mourning for a truly inspiring leader, Seth Erlebacher.
As the new leader of this family of Reform Judaism I needed to be with the grieving members of The Vassar Temple for the funeral of their beloved president. The sanctuary was filled to overflowing with many standing to honor their 46 year-old leader. Seth’s rabbi and friend, Paul Golomb, invited me to share a few words on behalf of the larger URJ family.
Here is a part of my memorial tribute:
President Obama began by speaking about last week’s Torah portion in which Joseph’s father Jacob told him to join his brothers in their pasturelands. The President pointed out that Joseph stepped forward ready to fulfill his father’s instruction by saying just one word, “Hineni- Here I am.” President Obama also spoke this word to all of us expressing his commitment to remain responsive to the challenges of the Jewish communities of America.
In the Hebrew Bible this word Hineni epitomizes what it means to be in sacred relationship. The word which President Obama quoted is spoken only 14 times in the Biblical text. When God calls to Abraham, Abraham answers God by saying “Hineni.” Abraham did not wait for God to spell out the task nor did he ask for any guarantees. And moments later when Abraham’s son Isaac cries out to his father, Abraham responds by saying Hineni. The term Hineni signifies–being ready to respond regardless of the nature of the request. Hineni can teach us about the very essence of relationship; about our relationships, not only with God but with other human beings.
Over and over again throughout his life Seth Erlebacher said Hineni to those around him. To his beloved wife Melissa, and his daughters Rachel and Brianna, to his parents, Albert and Delores, to his brothers, Steve and Ross, whatever his family needed, he was always ready to do anything for them. And when Seth’s Temple called out to him for leadership, once again he answered Hineni—here I am. This is the response Jewish leaders have spoken throughout our history; Seth gave freely of his time and wisdom as he served his congregation and people.
None of us will ever be able to make sense of Seth’s tragic death this past Erev Shabbat, but we will always be able to make sense of his noble life. His loss is beyond devastating to his family and to this entire Vassar Temple community but we at the Union for Reform Judaism also feel keenly his loss and mourn Seth’s death.
As Seth’s family and colleagues offered their remembrances it became abundantly clear that Seth embodied the best of Reform Judaism. His devotion to his family and his faith was constant and unwavering. Each week he looked forward to sharing the joy of Shabbat with his community. Seth’s commitment was infectious.
As a brilliant and beloved engineer at IBM he was fluent in the latest technology and at the same time he was the consummate people person. The demands of his work could have occupied all of his waking hours but Seth felt called to serve his Jewish community. His daughters Rachel and Brianna spent summers at Eisner Camp having their Jewish souls enriched and awakened by the power of Jewish camping. Rachel traveled to Israel with NFTY and returned even more connected and committed.
In his blog from the Biennial, Seth reflected on the launch of our Campaign for Youth Engagement. “We know that youth and families can find relevance, community, and purpose in our Reform Jewish communities. And yet, our synagogues lose connection to 80% of the children who become b’nei mitzvah…What we see at Vassar Temple is no different than many other congregations. The Reform movement is committing to make a change.”
Seth understood the serious challenges facing our congregations and our movement, but as a true leader he was always focused on turning challenges into opportunities. It couldn’t be more clear that great congregations come in all sizes and are found throughout our Union. Nurtured by dedicated lay leaders like Seth Erlebacher, our congregations make a difference in the lives of our members every day.
This past Yom Kippur in his presidential address to his congregation Seth shared, “So, why have Melissa and I, as well as many of you, chosen to spend so much time and energy here at Vassar Temple? We all believe that a vibrant reform Jewish congregation in this community is critical to maintaining our Jewish values for this and future generations.”
As we contemplate the Jewish future let us all draw inspiration from this exemplary congregational president whose life has touched all of us. Our hearts go out to his aching family and congregation.
With the memory of Chanukah lights still fresh in our minds, let us commit to keep the light of Seth Erlebacher’s life burning brightly as a beacon of what is possible. What a powerful example he has given us.
A candle is a small thing.
But one candle can light another.
And see how its own light increases,
as a candle gives its flame to the other.
(The Eternal Light by Moshe Davis and Victor Ratner)
Seth Erlebacher has given his light to all of us.
May his memory light the way forward.