Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Tallest Rabbi I’ve Ever Known

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Rabbi Yehuda Ferris is the tallest rabbi I’ve ever known. Not because he’s six foot three with an Abraham Lincoln-esque black coat and physique, but because the older I get, the taller this man of character grows in my mind.

One of the most transformative character traits is the ability to express gratitude. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share the reason why this tall rabbi was and is a role model whom I feel grateful to know. (For those asking, “why now?” I’ll answer, “why not?” In other words, why do so many of us wait until later to eulogize and show gratitude for those people who have changed our lives?)

Rabbi Ferris holding the Megillah his grandfather smuggled out of pogrom-occupied Russia by dressing up as a woman, alongside Rebbetzin Miriam Ferris. ©Chabad of Berkeley

As a boy, I looked up to Rabbi Ferris because my father — the superhero of my world — looked up to him. As an adult, I continue to look up to him because I’ve come to realize that what is louder than evanescent charisma is often the quiet beats of spiritual stamina. As Rabbi Yossy Goldman, senior minister of Sydenham Synagogue in South Africa, once taught me, “The greatest sermon you can give is how you lead your life.”

But unlike Goldman, Ferris doesn’t lead a large and prestigious synagogue. He doesn’t have the massive membership, the gorgeous cathedral or even the choir. But he’s never left his post at Chabad of Berkeley since the day he stepped foot there in 1981.

An Enigma of Contradiction

“Behind every great Rabbi is a woman laughing,” Rabbi Ferris once said to me, his face completely deadpan but his eyes exuding humor. Always deferential to his wife and co-director of Chabad Berkeley, Rebbetzin Miriam Ferris, Rabbi Ferris never exuded a pretense of greatness. On the contrary, the words “self-deprecating humor” are an apt description of his clerical style. And yet, I consider him one of the greatest rabbis I’ve ever met and the role model for my own ministry.

Why? Because he is a nuanced enigma of contradiction. Humble, but unfailingly tenacious. Humorous, but soberingly solemn. The court jester who is really the king.

In other words, Rabbi Ferris is whatever the people need him to be. A camp bus driver, radio show host, college campus activist, stand-up comedian, teacher, scholar and, most importantly, friend. I remember watching him one day serenading Holocaust survivors at a local Jewish nursing home with his operatic baritone. His long, piano-trained fingers strummed his acoustic guitar, the shoulder strap threadbare from overuse. This man, who spent seven years immersed in the intense, intellectual academia of Hadar HaTorah Yeshiva — starting with a cursory Jewish education and graduating with rabbinical ordination and knowledge of copious amounts of Talmud — was smiling as a woman tapped her fingers to the Israeli folk song he was playing. He has the intellectual rigor to master the intricate theological puzzles of Kabbalah, yet he was proud simply to bring another person joy.

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris playing guitar (center) with members of “The Ferris Wheels” band. ©Chabad of Berkeley

“People helping people,” is a catchphrase I rarely heard Ferris say but witnessed him live. A foot-soldier of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (z”l), Ferris and his wife offer prayer and Shabbat services, Friday night dinners, holiday programming, lectures, young adult events, a popular Jewish summer camp, women’s circle, Bikur Cholim visitation, prison chaplaincy, food distribution, counseling and more.

The Jester

One of Rabbi Ferris’s spiritual weapons is his skilled deployment of jocosity. I remember my father’s face turning red from laughter during his sermons. Puns, sarcasm, knock-knock jokes — nothing is off-limits. Hundreds of his students around the world (including myself) fondly speak of the “Rabbi Ferris jokes” they heard from this incorrigible quipster.

“I have a photographic memory,” Ferris says. “Unfortunately, it’s currently out of film.” Or, “What does the dyslexic, agnostic, insomniac do? He stays up all night wondering if Dog exists.” Or, “There are three things that happen when you get to my age. One, you start forgetting things. And the other two…darn it, I forgot!” The sheer irreverence of Ferris’ humor is enough to make Ferris Bueller proud. I guess it makes sense that an East Coast Chassidic rabbi shepherding “Berserkeley” has a certain “Frisco Kid”-esque sense of playfulness to survive the “wild, wild West” of the Bay Area.

One time, when I was in elementary school, I stood outside the Chabad House with Ferris as we stopped people on the street and asked them if they were Jewish. “Yes, I am,” one man walking his black Labrador replied. “Would you like to join us for a Minyan (prayer quorum)?” Rabbi Ferris asked gently. The man looked us up and down. He seemed duly unimpressed with the tall, lanky Rabbi and the wide-eyed kid who stood loyally beside him. “Yes,” he responded, “but on one condition. My dog has to join us for the prayers.” Even a child like myself knew that bringing a dog into the sanctuary was sacrilege. I could almost hear the gears in his brain moving as Rabbi Ferris quickly pondered the situation. Then, smiling smoothly, as he always did, he said, “Sure. After all, weren’t dogs given special mention in the Torah, Exodus 11:7?”

Another time, I joined my rabbi as he officiated an outdoor wedding for a young Israeli couple at the Oakland Zoo. I kid you not.  Rabbi Ferris concluded the prayers preceding the Ketubah ceremony. As he uttered the last word, the nearby chimpanzees began to howl. “Perfect timing,” Rabbi Ferris grinned. Then, during his sermon on the semi-private plaza across from Reptile World, Ferris cracked a joke. “Eve complained to Adam, ”Do you really love me? Adam replied, “Who else?” Silence. I scanned the crowd — oh no, they’re not laughing. Then, 3.5 seconds later, after the crowd translated the joke in their minds from English into Hebrew, everyone burst out in a loud guffaw. Thank G-d, I sighed to myself.

He seems to be able to make anyone laugh — even the dean of my high school Yeshiva, Rabbi Ezra Schochet, who is the most solemn rabbi I’ve ever known. Rabbi Schochet, a respected Talmudist and scholar, runs Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad with the stern disciplinary pedagogy of a military general. “He does this in order to give his students the fearless heart of an elephant,” my friend Paz Shusterman (z”l) once explained to me. I’ll never forget seeing Rabbi Schochet laughing like my father laughs during Rabbi Ferris’ sermons.  (The joke was the one about the son who tells his mother he doesn’t want to go to school because all the kids hate him. The mother replies, “Honey, you have to go for two reasons. First, you’re 45 years old. And, second, you’re the principal.”)

Shaking Lulav with Professor Alan Dershowitz (left) and Rabbi Gil Leeds (far right) of the Rohr Jewish Student Center at U.C. Berkeley ©Chabad of Berkeley

Iron-Clad Resolve

Many people, even his own Rabbinic colleagues, know Rabbi Ferris as “the funny man.” But the humor is just a tool, masking his steadfast staidness. One time, Steve Harris — a local homicide detective — came across a gruesome crime scene. Two Jewish couples had been celebrating their Shabbat meal. One of the women was pregnant. Criminals crept in through the windows and beat and tied up the men. Then, they dragged the women down to the basement, where their screams wouldn’t be heard. “There was only one Rabbi I knew I had to call,” Harris told me. “Rabbi Ferris.” When I asked Rabbi Ferris where he found the wisdom to counsel the victims, he said simply, “HaShem brings us to where we need to be and gives us the words we need to say.”

Harris wasn’t the only “macho man” who could see the iron-clad ethical resolve beneath the rabbi’s comedic veneer. There was once a sniper in the United States military who was given special permission to attend Shabbat services for just a few hours on Friday nights. Where would he choose to go? The Chabad House of Rabbi Ferris. (Eventually, he became a lawyer. As Rabbi Ferris says, “Killing people for a living? Not the best job for a nice, Jewish boychik.”)

My favorite story about Rabbi Ferris begins with a man appearing at the Chabad House one day, demanding to convert to Judaism. Rabbi Ferris, ever the gentleman, stopped what he was doing and invited the stranger inside his office for tea.

The man proceeded to tell Ferris that just a few weeks prior, he wanted to kill himself. Everything in his life had soured. He bought a thick rope and decided he would hang himself in the last place his life had been fully happy — his elementary school. On a Friday night, when school was out, he drove over to Emerson School. As he got out of the car, it suddenly dawned on him that the children would return to school on Monday and might see his dead body before the cops would arrive. “I couldn’t do that to them,” he told Ferris. “So, I began walking aimlessly about the neighborhood looking for a secluded place where I could end my life without traumatizing the children.”

Eventually, he found the perfect place. “A small dog park in a residential neighborhood, with a large oak tree in the corner.” As he tied the rope around the branch, his ears suddenly heard the angelic sounds of happiness. He looked up. The entire neighborhood was dark, it was late and all the lights were off. “But there was this one house across from where I stood that had light and life streaming forth from its open windows. As I peered closer, I saw they were Hassidic Jews. The table was laden with all sorts of delicious-looking food. The guests were singing, laughing and smiling. At that moment, I felt something shift inside my heart.” The man began to cry. He leaned forward to Rabbi Ferris and stated, “Rabbi, it was a miracle. At that moment, G-d told me that there was still happiness and light waiting for me in my life. ”

Rabbi Ferris replied, “Was that house on Claremont Boulevard?” The man stopped crying, his face blank with shock. “How did you know that? I never approached the house. I ran away that night and never told anyone what happened. No one in the world knows which block that happened on. How do you?”

Rabbi Ferris, the man I’ve only seen cry once, clasped the man’s hands in his own while a tear rolled down his cheek. “Well, that’s because I live on Claremont Boulevard, across from a dog park called ‘Monkey Island,’ which has a wide, strong oak tree. You were standing in front of my house. And, every Friday night, we leave our windows open in the hope that the world hears the sweet sounds of Shabbat.”

One year later, Rabbi Ferris danced hand in hand with that man as they celebrated his Jewish wedding.

Rabbi Ferris taught me that laughter can be like that open window on Friday night. Opening hearts and opening minds. I watched him as a child, and no one feels the need to impress a child, and what he impressed upon my psyche for all time was what it means to be a Chassid. Like his Rebbe, he loves all people and wants the world to do a few more random acts of goodness and kindness.

Rabbi Ferris taught me that humility means openness. When he’d walk regally down the street, I’d try to keep up with his long stride. He’d wave and say hello to everyone we passed. When I asked him why, he replied, “Didn’t Shamai teach that we must greet everyone with a warm, cheerful, and pleasant countenance?” (Pirkei Avot 1:15)

I’ll never forget when the “Hate Man” of Berkeley, Mark Hawthorne, an American philosopher, activist and former reporter for The New York Times whose beliefs centered on people being radically honest about their negative feelings, pursued Rabbi Ferris up and down Telegraph Avenue, demanding that the Rabbi say, “I hate you.” But Rabbi Ferris, with his smooth smile, simply refused.

In today’s day and age, I believe we need spiritual leaders like Rabbi Ferris. In my childhood city of Berkeley, a place proud of being different, he taught me that people are not so different after all. As he once quipped, “Labels are for T-shirts.”

In the days of Moshiach, I pray that I am standing tall beside my family.

And, in front of me, will be the tallest rabbi I have ever known.

Rabbi Levi Y. Welton is a pulpit Rabbi, medical professional, and officer in the United States Air Force. Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he holds degrees in science, education and film. His dream is to help bring Moshiach and follow in the footsteps of his mother and father, Dr. Sharonah & Rabbi Benzion Welton who are proud, Chassidic Jews.

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