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Four Men Who Made a Difference in My Life

Four Men Who Made a Difference in My Life

Man and young boy kicking a soccer ball on a grassy field

Father’s Day was not a day of celebration for me as a child.

I never knew my father. My parents divorced when I was an infant. I was raised in my grandparents’ home in Chicago, with occasional visits from my mother, who was often away singing opera in New York and Milan.

All the other kids at my synagogue had fathers. They always talked about “dad” and looked on with pride as their fathers took positions of leadership and moved about the bimah (synagogue podium or platform). I felt a certain sense of inclusion by proxy, but, of course, it was not the same as having your own father present.

As I prepared for my bar mitzvah, I attended the synagogue’s Tefillin Club, where 12-year-old boys of our traditional congregation learned how to put on tefillin (small black leather boxes containing verses from the Torah and worn in prayer) and master the elements of the adult worship service.

One of the four Jewish male mentors in my formative years was Harry Schlitten, a senior member of the congregation. At the Tefillin Club, he would come over to each of us individually and share a bit of his wisdom. I had no idea what he did for a living, but to this day I can still see the diamond-encrusted pin he wore proudly on his lapel, his symbol of being a 33rd-degree Mason. What that meant we didn’t know, except that it was a sign of exceeding accomplishment. He regularly told us so. He also seemed to know the details of my life and, with a caring hand on my shoulder, would tell me: “The most important thing is to be a mensch.”

The second of my mentors was my Boy Scout leader, Harold Robbins (not to be confused with the bestselling author). He and the other men he brought together to take charge of our synagogue’s Troop 635 knew they had the awesome task of teaching us responsibility. Preparing for the annual Scout Jamboree, held every June in Marquette Park, was one of those times when responsibility counted. If you shirked the tough jobs, Mr. Robbins would simply ignore you. If you accepted the responsibility to bring the equipment up from the synagogue basement storage room, you were doing the right thing. If you accepted the responsibility of leading the annual service at the Jamboree – usually my job – you again were doing right.

I well remember his line-marked face reflected in myriad campfires as he let each of us know individually that being a Boy Scout was a key step on the road to becoming a man, that fun should follow work, and that the “jobs” had to be done right.

We were the only Jewish troop among scores of others sponsored by churches and fraternal organizations. Mr. Robbins taught us that we had to be at least as good as the best of them – that our tents, our equipment, should always be in top condition and “look smart.” Jews needed to behave that way.

And then there was my Orthodox rabbi, Mordecai Schultz. Right after I became a bar mitzvah, he would often call and tell me I was needed to complete a minyan (Jewish prayer quorum). Would I come? My bar mitzvah counted. I was needed. Imagine that!

The fourth seminal male figure in my life was David Fox, my Hebrew school teacher. He would always arrive in his plumber’s truck about 15 minutes before class to toss around a football and share an experience intended to teach us a life lesson.

One summer, while I rested in my bunk at Camp Moshavah, some 250 miles away, the door parted, and David Fox’s face appeared. I was ecstatic to see him. I learned later that he had made the long trip to see a friend, but, as an 11-year-old, you never could have persuaded me of that. To me, he was like a father, representing all that was important and right.

I learned from David and the other men who had given me a sense of belonging that you don’t have to be someone’s father to be a positive influence and role model, especially for boys who don’t have a dad in their home.

As the director of a camp for most of my adult life, I have the good fortune to have been a mentor to many young people.

And as for Father’s Day, having two loving daughters has made it one of the brightest days on my calendar.

Jerry Kaye is the immediate past director of URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, WI, which he headed for 48 years.

Jerry Kaye

Published: 6/13/2018

Categories: Jewish Life, Family, Parenting, Jewish Camping
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