I miss him greatly. I know we all do. His smile, sense of humor, warmth, wisdom and vision. We have lost a giant.
I know that no matter how much I can say, it will never be enough. It is impossible to encapsulate the life of a man whose impact transcended generations and knew few bounds.
For this reason, I feel a burden. Here is a man who believed in planting Torah in Stamford, CT. He strengthened an Orthodox synagogue that to this day is one of the most diverse and inclusive in the country. It is a model of the kind of Orthodoxy that is embracing, vibrant, and loving. His love and charisma extended beyond the synagogue. He was the Jewish community’s rabbi and a rabbi to the City of Stamford people of all faiths.
How can any of us do justice to man who loomed so large, possessed such passion and influenced so many lives? Serving in the rabbinate for over forty years… the countless interactions, Torah taught, acts of kindness, outreach to Jew and non Jew, money raised for Tzedakah, sermons delivered, the love of a husband, father, step father, great-grandfather, adopted father, uncle, brother, mentor, friend and consummate rabbi to so many.
He possessed an infectious love of life and a positive joyous spirit. Every day he desired to accomplish more, to learn more, to help more, to grow. His soul was not at peace if he could not be expanding the reach of his soul in the world.
Our Orthodox community today is a result of Rabbi Ehrenkranz’s vision, his dedication, and his wisdom.
I know I speak on behalf of our entire shul and the Stamford community when I express our everlasting gratitude to you, Rabbi Ehrenkranz, for your passion, dedication, scholarship, warmth, vision and love for the Jewish people and humanity.
On a personal level, words cannot express my appreciation for his friendship throughout my tenure at Agudath Sholom for his wisdom, care and deep support. You did whatever you could to see the success of the shul and support me.
Last week, when he called and shared that he was very ill I decided to visit him in his and Sandy’s apartment in Tel Aviv. It was an hour that I will cherish forever. I would like to share a few reflections from our conversation.
He reflected with me on how tough it was to root Torah Judaism in the city but, to his credit, he built not only a synagogue, but a community and a vision of Orthodoxy which transcended the walls of the synagogue.
He was a person who was always trying to build bridges, trying to impact people in small and large ways by amplifying Godliness in every human being, and by ensuring that the Jewish people would continue to be a light unto the nations. He spoke about the miracle of the Jewish people and that we should never underestimate ourselves and our role in the world.
When I asked him last week what motivated him to be a rabbi, he told me with was the influence of his father who served as a rabbi in Newark for 40 years.
I was asked what inspired Rabbi Joe to be such a bridge builder and healer. I believe that he had a a sense of history and his role in deepening and expanding the brand of Torah Judaism in America and finding ways to live and increase the sparks of Godliness in the world and in all humanity.
As I shared this past Shabbat, the rabbi was most animated when we discussed a complex passage of Torah. He reminded me of a statement at the end of the Tractate Makkot. As Jews, we possess 613 commandments. Yet, King David distilled the entire Torah into 11 principles. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, suggests that Kind David sensed that in his generation people would no longer be able to observe the 613. Rabbi Ehrenkranz asked me, how can that be? The Torah’s laws are eternal. Rashi is not a left winger!
He left me with the question. I told him I would share the query with our shul, which I did on this past Shabbat. Upon reflection, I realized that he was teaching me a final lesson. One which embodied his outlook on life and his eternal spirit.
The Jerusalem Talmud explains that in King David’s generation the Jews were very observant of the rituals between man and G-d but lacked commitment to interpersonal relationships. They was a predominance of tale bearing and gossip. King David encapsulated the Torah into the 11 principles in Psalm 15 as a message his generation needed to hear. Yes, do your best to observe all 613 but do not forget that the road to holiness is paved with menshlechkeit and love of your fellow man.
In this dimension of his life, he truly excelled. In the past few days and in my entire rabbinate in Stamford, I have heard so many stories of the enormous impact he had on people’s lives. ‘He married me, he did my child’s bris, my children’s Bar or Bat mitzvah, their wedding, a funeral.’ To be present in those moments and be intertwined in people lives in such holy times creates memories forever.
It was much more. He lived his life devoted to impacting people’s lives. People shared, “He was my Rabbi” or “Rabbi Joe was Judaism.”
Such statements as, “I will never forget when he walked the two and half miles to blow shofar for my father right after services,” or, “I will never forget when he quietly sent some money to pay for a suit for an orphan.”
“My feeling of closeness to the shul is from him.”
He reflected with me that he had 45 years of happiness at Agudath Sholom. He remarked, “They are such good people.” Everyone here has been touched in some way by Rabbi Joe. He always knew how to say the right thing. His magnetism drew people to him.
I want to conclude with the following vignette.
When I arrived in his apartment last Monday, he told me that he had done thousands of funerals and began to share some instructions for his. He then asked me where the funeral should be… maybe in the chapel… after all who will remember me….?
I was amazed at his humility. At that moment, I assured him that his deeds will be remembered far and wide for many generations. Each of us has been touched by him.
When God placed the soul of Rabbi Joe, Yosef Yehuda, in his body 87 years ago, he gave him a special and holy mission. Arriving in Stamford as a young rabbi in his mid twenties with a dream, he transformed our reality.
He taught us, he loved us, he laughed with us, he cried with us, he listened to us, he danced with us and he dreamed with us. He intuitively understood that life has purpose. He reminded us that each one of us graces this world with the responsibility to be kind, be ethical, live life fully and leave hundred of imprints every day. Rabbi Joe — your memory will be eternal.
Diane and I cannot thank you enough, your wife Sandy cannot thank you enough, your children and step children Bart, Doris, Laura, Bina, Allan, Michelle and Howard and the many grandchildren, and great grandchildren, cannot thank you enough, and our community and country and world are eternally grateful for your being such a special mentor, rabbi, teacher and friend, who lived a life of courage, vision, compassion and scholarship.
We are all Rabbi Ehrenkranz’ disciples and his children. We all mourn his passing and celebrate his outstanding life. Our tribute to him today is one more lesson he teaches us. We are all here together in the same place. Jew and non Jew. Young and old. Black and white. This is his vision of the world. This must be our vision as well.
In a day from now, a week or a year, we may all be walking in different places and living in different spaces but I know we will forever be bound by the inspirational life and lessons of Rabbi Joe Ehrenkranz. We will be united by the common spirit of love, live and deep reverence for our faith and humanity that he embodied.
As I was about to leave last week, he told me he had to close his eyes.
In my final gesture to Rabbi Ehrenkranz, I offered a prayer and let him know I will do my best to build on his legacy at Agudath Sholom. I told him that his memory will always be a blessing to the thousands of people he touched.
I wish the family and our community much strength and comfort in the days ahead.
May the soul of Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, HaRav Yosef Yehudah ben Harav Mordechai a”h be bound in the bond of eternal life.
Follow Rabbi Daniel Cohen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rabbidcohen
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.