From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

What It Means to Be a Mensch

Jews are characterized by modesty, mercy and kindness.


I learned this story from Rabbi Benji Levene of Gesher, who lives in Jerusalem, Israel. Benji tells of how, when he was a child, his saintly father, Rabbi Chaim Jacob Levene, tried out for a position as rabbi in Jersey City, in a synagogue where Rabbi C. Y. Bloch, of blessed memory, had served for many years. Although there were many other candidates for the position, Benji’s father was chosen. When the chairman of the search committee called to tell him the news, Benji’s father thanked him, but said that he would need a week before he could give his answer. The chairman was puzzled but granted the request, and at the end of the week, his father accepted the position. It was only years later that he learned the reason for his father’s delay.

“It was my father’s custom,” Benji said, “after we had settled into the community in Jersey City, to visit the widow of Rabbi Bloch every Friday morning, and sometimes he would take me along. We would go up several flights of stairs to her modest apartment, spend a quiet hour with her, and my father would inform her of what was going on in the community. Once, my father had an errand to do, so he excused himself and left me with the widow. She gave me cookies and a soda, and then she said, ‘I am going to tell you a story, which I don’t want you ever to forget.

“‘When your father was asked to accept the position of rabbi here, he said that he needed a few days before he could give the committee an answer. Do you know why he did that? It was because he first wanted to come to see me.

“‘When he came in, he said, “I know that for many years you were the first lady of this congregation, and I understand that it will be difficult for you, after all these years, to see someone else take your husband’s place. The board has offered to make me the next rabbi, but I have not given them an answer yet. I wanted to see you first, in order to ask your permission. If you want me to take the position, I will, but if in any way you feel that you don’t want me to be here, I will leave right away.”’

“The widow told me that at that moment she started to cry, and she said to my father, ‘Now that my husband is gone, who is there who cares about me or thinks that what I feel is important? I am so touched that you came here today to ask my permission.’ And then she paused, ‘I told him, not only do I want you to stay and be the rabbi, but now I feel as if my own son were taking the position.’

“Then, wiping her eyes behind her round granny glasses, she continued, ‘Only then did your father go back and accept the position. And for the first year, he did not sit in the rabbi’s seat on the pulpit in the synagogue, in deference to my husband’s memory. And he never told anyone what I have just told you.’”

Benji Levene said that this story made more of an impression on him, and taught him more about what real piety is, than reading ten books of ethical instruction. “I learned,” he said, “that sensitivity to the feelings of another human being is more important than concern for one’s own status, position or power. My father’s behavior in that incident remains for me the archetype of how a rabbi should act, of how a Jew should act, in fact, how all human beings should treat one another.”

Rabbi Benjamin Levene
Retold by Rabbi Jack Riemer

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