One of my favorite memories of my time at HUC-JIR was watching Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz make his lunch on Thursdays. As everyone chowed down on bagels and shmear, Dr. Borowitz meticulously prepared a bowl of grapenuts, bringing his own bowl and spoon, cereal box, a quart of milk, and jar of cinnamon. If anyone stared as he did this, he would say gruffly, “It’s heart healthy.”
I heard this afternoon that Dr. Borowitz, my teacher, has passed away. I began to post my hesped (remembrance) on Facebook, as my friends and colleagues were doing, but found I had too much to say about this literal and figurative giant of the Reform movement.
He was firm in his ideas about worship and language, among other things. Once, after a cantorial student gave a beautiful “sermon-in-song” in lieu of a spoken sermon, Rabbi Borowitz got up and said, in his deep voice, “I think there ought to be a sermon,” and proceeded to give one extemporaneously.
When Rabbi Josh Strom and I led Birkat Hamazon at Thursday lunch, using the familiar, campy, chaverai n’varech “friends let us bless,” instead of the more formal, rabotai n’varech, “gentlemen/rabbis, let us bless,” he cornered us and asked, sincerely, “Am I your chaver?” (Rabbi Peter Rigler shared that he had a similar experience).
While Dr. Borowitz was certainly principled, he was also open-minded. He didn’t sign ordination certificates, except by special request, for ideological reasons surrounding LGBT ordination, but he let us challenge him, and we were all privileged to watch him evolve on this matter. After years of students pointing out that LGBT individuals were also building Jewish families, he changed his mind.
He was convinced that the Jewish people were not producing enough children to replace those lost in the Holocaust, a drum he pounded publicly often enough that I’m pretty sure that’s why I have a little brother (my mother heard this claim at a Hadassah luncheon, but we can’t confirm that he was the source that inspired her to have a third).
I had the pleasure of studying one-on-one with Dr. Borowitz, quite by accident, when I was the only person to show up for the first day of his Mishneh Torah class. It was a privilege to have him as my chevruta (though not, as he pointed out, my chaver) as I learned Hilchot Teshvua, which is probably the most used volume in my rabbinic library other than the TaNaKh.
He wrote extensive notes in the margins of our essays in flowing, purple script, which to me felt incongruous with his gruff exterior, and always made me feel like there was another side to him.
Dr. Borowitz was possibly the most intimidating intellectual figure I’ve ever studied with, large in stature with a booming voice, but I occasionally caught him letting his guard down: making faces at a student’s baby, or laughing as he watched us try on costumes to imitate our professors at the Purimshpiel.
He was filled with gentle wisdom that I still carry with me. When visiting his class as a prospective student, there was a loud commotion in the hallway, someone screaming. It was something the rest of the class was used to, someone with a chronic condition, but still, we all wanted to jump up and offer help, even though our help would have been useless and possibly harmful. Dr. Borowitz reminded us, in a quote I’ve applied to many things, “It’s not your tikkun (I.e. not yours to fix).”
I spent senior week in college reading Renewing the Covenant (exciting times at Brandeis!), and was inspired by his model of leadership found here. He argued that being a rabbi was just as much about making space for others as it was about what you had to bring to the table. Though I cannot find the article I wrote responding to his theory, I can tell you here that it shaped the way I think about education and leadership.
I’ve had the privilege of watching Dr. Borowitz granddaughter, rabbinical student Emily Langowitz, preach at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. While she is certainly an incredible almost-rabbi in her own right, she also carries on something of his stature, his brilliance, and his eloquence. I always went home after her sermons inspired (and, to be honest, intimidated).
Every year, as the fifth-year students scrambled for jobs in an increasingly dismal market, Dr. Borowitz would post a photograph of himself taken around the time of his ordination, “Last student in rabbinical class to be placed. Placed after ordination.” As if to say, “Everything is going to be alright. I turned out fine, didn’t I?
Yes, you did. Dr. Borowitz. And, thanks to you, so did we.
I can’t attend his funeral. I’m officiating at one myself, for an unaffiliated family seeking comfort in tradition. I think he’d have wanted it that way.
Zecher tzaddik livracha. May the memory of this righteous man be a blessing.