When I first came to Congregation Beth Israel seven years ago, there was a mystery in the synagogue I had to solve. Every Friday morning, somehow, the challahs managed to migrate, apparently on their own, from the refrigerator to the kiddush table in preparation for services that evening. There was always fresh kichel and white fish in the cupboards waiting to be used for the kiddush.
Now, in Jewish tradition, there is a notion that each Jew is accompanied by two angels as he or she goes home from the synagogue on Friday night to make sure that the house is properly prepared for Shabbat. I wondered who the angel was who was taking care of our Shabbat at Congregation Beth Israel. I was sure it had to be an angel, because no human beings were taking credit for providing this service. And -- well -- you expect human beings to take credit when they do something like that.
I want to tell you that I was only a little bit disappointed when I found out that our angel was just Bob Bashevkin. Okay, we did not have a heavenly being making sure that we always had enough white fish; on the other hand, we did have Bob and that’s almost as good -- maybe better.
Why am I starting to talk about Bob by talking about groceries? This is a man who has been selfless in doing every job that can be done in our congregation. He has been president (twice!), he has been treasurer (forever!), he has chaired just about every committee, he has organized events, he has consistently been extraordinarily generous with his time and his resources every time we have faced a fundraising challenge. He has, in all truth, kept our congregation alive for years. So why should I start off by mentioning the trivial detail that, for years, Bob has been our kitchen angel? Because Bob is a man who knows that everything begins in the kitchen and with the right ingredients.
The supermarket can be a dangerous place for a congregational rabbi. There have been days that, I swear, every aisle at Stop and Shop contains at least one member of the congregation, and it’s always one who has something to say to me, and it’s always one whose name I’ve just forgotten. It can take me two hours at the supermarket just to get the ingredients to make tomato soup -- Campbell’s canned tomato soup.
But I never tire of seeing Bob at the supermarket. Watching Bob at the supermarket is like watching a jeweler inspecting a new shipment of gemstones. Every new product on the shelf is like a small revelation -- a new act of creation. In Jewish tradition we talk about having “kavanah,” sacred intention of the heart. Bob has tremendous kavanah in the supermarket. He is a man on a mission. He is searching for the right ingredients.
And this is also what has made Bob such a complete source of blessing for Congregation Beth Israel. For years, Bob has been the consummate shopper for the right ingredients to make CBI the community it should be.
When he saw that our community needed a new recipe to reach out to a new generation of Jews, Bob would not be complacent. Bob made sure that we made the changes that would draw new flavors into our congregation -- young families, intermarried families, energetic people to breath new life into our community, but without compromising on the congregation’s rich historical legacy.
When it became clear that the congregation needed a new home, Bob did not drag his feet in nostalgia for our old building. Bob has seen synagogue buildings come and go, and he knows that the building is just the pot in which you stir the stew of a Jewish community. When we made the choice to move to a new building, Bob made sure that we acted with purpose in making the best choice.
When I first came to CBI as a newly ordained rabbi, I was terrified to make changes in the way we conducted our services. Congregation Beth Israel was founded in 1893 and I thought the prayerbooks were almost that old. How could I be the one to say that things should change? But I learned. Bob was always there, sitting in the congregation -- smiling, nodding and singing along with each crazy new thing I would bring to services. When I saw that a man who was born in this congregation when it was orthodox could accept innovation -- really, enjoy it -- I new that I could safely add some new ingredients, too.
Like a good cook, Bob knows that he doesn’t need to run around or make a lot of noise to achieve what he wants. I see Bob spending a lot of time just taking it all in. He is taking just a sip of the soup, opening the oven just enough to catch the aroma of the roast. When asked, he offers thoughtful, meaningful and wise advice. But he knows that he can be patient if no one asks. He knows that we have the right ingredients here -- everything else will follow.
Now, I need to say something about Bob that is not totally about Congregation Beth Israel, but is also an important reason why we are here today. As important as CBI is to Bob, it is not the most important thing in his life. Bob is a man who understands deeply the value that Judaism places on family and Bob is a man who has made his family his life. It is our great good fortune that Bob sees his congregation as an extension of his family. Even more, Bob is a person whose commitments show that he considers the Jewish people, in the Berkshires, in Israel and throughout the world, to be his family. He has not failed this far extended family in giving them his all.
Of course, Bob’s family begins with Barbara, his bride for the last fifty-one years. Today is Bob’s day, but we all know that Barbara also is a big part of the reason why our community is what it is today, and we can’t help ourselves today from thanking her, too -- and not for the last time.
I often say that, in a true community, no one individual is indispensable. If a congregation is strong, it can survive the loss of any leader because the community is bigger than any of its egos. That is why leaders like Bob are the most valuable asset that any community could want. Bob leads by example, never by decree. He helps to develop new leaders in the congregation because he has no need to feed a big ego of his own.
At the same time, though, Bob’s contribution to CBI challenges my belief that there are no indispensable people in our community. The simple truth is, without Bob, there would be no Congregation Beth Israel today. Bob’s roots are in this community and our congregation is integral to his identity. He is the man who just would not allow it to die. For decades, he has had the wisdom to pursue change. He understood when a new future was necessary to maintain the past. He has had the character and strength to show others the way to the new future he envisioned.
As much as it can be said of anyone, Bob Bashevkin has been the single most important ingredient in making our congregation what it is today. Today, we say to him, “thank you,” and l’chayim.