Like the tree of the field is man, says the pasuk in Devarim: Each of us deeply rooted, weathering varied seasons, capable of growth and creativity – no two exactly the same.
This was one of my father’s favorite verses, and one of the many which inspired his approach to life (and also one of his poems). He was a teacher, a highly educated intellectual, a darshan and mechadesh in Torah, a poet and artist and appreciator of all things beautiful in nature.
Yet what distinguished him above all were not those gifts, or even his abiding love for Hashem, for humankind, for the land of Israel, and for his family. What made him most remarkable was his extraordinary moral refinement – his ability to rise above the differences that divide us, the indignities and ego games, the negativity and hunger for control. This generosity of spirit fueled his commitment, in theory and practice, to Klal Yisrael, the ideal to which he devoted his entire career.
My father, Rabbi Dr. Jerry Hochbaum, z”l, who passed away on 18 Adar II, radiated optimism and gratitude. Whether presiding over the Shabbos table (which usually included some number of motley guests) in my parents’ humble apartment on the Lower East Side or enjoying whatever homemade dish my mother had prepared, he felt as fortunate as a king and expressed thanks for every small blessing. Returning home on a cold winter’s night, he would sigh and say, “It’s good to have a home.”
In his beloved shtibel, he gave shiur every Shabbos morning and many an afternoon, and lectured in venues around the tri-State and beyond area long after leaving academia. Whether the audience was a room full of intelligentsia or a small chevra of old-timers, my father’s enthusiasm for spreading his vision of inspired Jewish living did not alter.
His warmth extended not only to Jews but to all humanity – he never failed to engage in conversation toll collectors (this was pre-automation era), taxi drivers, waitstaff, or whomever was mopping the floor and commend them on the great job they were doing. “You’re a credit to your profession,” he would tell my grandmother’s home-health aides during the years she lived with my parents, who cared for her with a degree of kibud horim that has served as my yardstick ever since.
When my father finally realized his lifelong dream of aliyah at the age of 80 following my grandmother, a”h’s passing, he reached what I believe was the pinnacle of his fulfilled life: living in the Holy Land, his beloved wife at his side, his children and grandchildren all settled here as well, and new projects – including the publication of his book of illuminating parsha insights on Jewish leadership and a volume of his poetry written over many decades – to engage him. He became a member of the morning minyan at the President’s residence (across the street from my parents’ apartment), where the security guard would greet him and ask how he was doing. My father’s reply: “I’m in Jerusalem, the sun is shining, and I’m alive!” If, as Chazal teach, a wealthy man is one who is content with his portion, then Jerry Hochbaum was very rich indeed.
I could write endless pages about what my father meant to me, how much he taught me, the treasure trove of priceless gifts he bequeathed, and the massive void his passing has left in my life – but it would still not be enough to unpack the shaken cargo of my heart. Instead, to share a sense of the measure of who my father was, I would like to focus on his singular contribution to Klal Yisrael.
My father, whose last name (my maiden surname) translates in Yiddish to “tall tree,” spent the lion’s share of his career at the helm of an organization called the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. Created with German reparations to rebuild Jewish culture following the devastation of the Holocaust, the organization supported (and continues to support) institutions and individuals engaged in communal, rabbinic, and scholarly work that is, or has the potential to be, a building block in the collective infrastructure of our people, from Belarus to Berlin to Berkeley to Buenos Aires.
In that role, my father built bridges connecting Jews of all stripes in all corners of the Jewish landscape and worked with leaders of every denomination, remarkably earning the respect of them all. The focus of his work was to support struggling communities – many still trying to shake off the ashes of the Shoah and cope with the depredations of communism – by providing texts and leadership that spoke their language. This included the publication of thousands of books, including translations of Torah volumes, in Russian. “Let my people know” was his mantra as well as his mission.
My father traveled tirelessly across the globe, at times at great personal peril, to facilitate Jewish learning and community. (Although I missed him during his frequent trips and eagerly awaited his homecoming, I never felt him far. Neither I nor my sisters ever doubted his love, which he freely expressed, or his fatherly devotion. He was with us even when he was away. And when he was home, he was part of every activity, every accomplishment, every pursuit of fun, knowledge, exploration, and growth. He was, right up until the end, my biggest cheerleader whose overflowing faith and confidence filled in the gaps in my own.)
In his odyssey to build a stronger, more unified Klal Yisrael, my father’s proudest professional accomplishment was the launch of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship (NGF), an innovative program, named for the Memorial Foundation’s illustrious founder, consisting of international and regional gatherings in which participants could strengthen their Jewish identities and knowledge, then bring that new energy and understanding back to their communities. Many would proceed to take on leadership roles in their home countries and in turn strengthen others, thus adding and reinforcing links in the chain that is the Jewish people.
Until his retirement, my father personally organized and presided over every fellowship, in myriad locations across six continents, offering nascent or potential leaders thoughtful content delivered by a carefully curated faculty in a warm, supportive, non-judgmental atmosphere suffused with Jewish meaning. This was my father’s recipe for nurturing Klal Yisrael. And it worked.
That is perhaps my father’s greatest legacy. With the hope of inspiring others in their own life journey, I append below a few excerpts from some of the many condolence messages received by the Foundation from Fellowship alumni and others, which were kindly shared with my family.
Ab, I love you and miss you so much. May you be a powerful intercessor for us before the Holy One, Blessed be He, may we succeed in elating and elevating your neshama as we strive to honor the paradigm you set for us, and may we be reunited soon here in the Holy Land with the coming of Moshiach.
From Israel – “The NGF was an extraordinary and transformative experience… Jerry made a point of connecting with everyone, hearing our stories and getting to know us during the week… What I learned from him is first and foremost: Listen deeply. Listen carefully. And you’ll learn so much. I was always overwhelmed by his optimism – ‘It’ll work out!’ And his unwavering trust in my generation, and in the future. I remember him smiling and nodding encouragingly. His impact on the Jewish world and on me is enormous.”
From Australia – “I first met Jerry Hochbaum at a NGF regional meeting in Australia. His encouragement of my davening, singing, and creativity buoyed me for many years. I was amazed at the beauty and accuracy of his leining on Shabbat… Jerry was a mentsch in so many aspects.”
From Ithaca, NY – “I, like many other scholars in the field of Jewish Studies, am immensely appreciative of his longstanding support for younger scholars… The impact of all his labor and support will continue to live on in the work of so many of us.”
Formerly from London, now from Israel – “A giant of a man who did so much for others… The program helped me crystalize my ideas about my Jewish identity in many different directions and contributed both to my eventual aliyah and to my continued involvement in community affairs.”
From Ann Arbor, Michigan – “I still remember him sitting with us at dinner, talking to Jews who spanned geography, practice, and ages. Yet he related to all of us and inspired all of us. He was clearly a scholar and a mentsch.”
From Tel Aviv – “He was a sort of father figure, or even grandfather figure, to us all. He cared so much about everyone, making sure he got to know us all on a personal level. His passion for the Jewish people crossed ethnic, national, and religious divides. I always loved talking to him and learning from him and his incredible life.”
From Argentina – “He was so ethical and serious, and at the same time warm. I will forever be grateful.”
From Israel – “Jerry was a beautiful, wise, kind, patient, gentle giant who enabled people to be and grow in confidence and skill without feeling pressure to do so – a remarkable man who taught everyone he met ‘to fish.’ Such generosity of spirit and wisdom is hard to find, yet we were the lucky ones. Thank you, Dr. Jerry Hochbaum, for believing in us and giving us the confidence to be all that we are.”
From India – “With the passing of Dr. Jerry Hochbaum, I have lost my mentor in this Jewish world. He was a friend, philosopher, and guide. What a great personality he was. His persona was so magnificent but truly a humble soul… He and his family will always hold a special place in our hearts.”
From Denmark – “Dr. Jerry Hochbaum was a pillar in connecting us from all over the world, creating a special place for Jewish learning and community.”
From Berkeley, CA – “Jerry Hochbaum had a significant impact on my early years as a scholar… and was ever-available, truly accessible, to those like myself – just starting out, as often as not peering uneasily into the distance trying to figure out how and where to make one’s mark. I recall no need on his part to maintain distance, to remind someone much younger and rawer of their immaturity, their lack of clear direction, their anxieties. I recall our conversations with warmth and gratitude. He was a wonderful man occupying an important perch who used whatever influence he had in ways that were humane, kind, and singularly empathetic.”
From Brazil – “It’s so beautiful to see how many people were touched by Jerry Hochbaum’s amazing dedication. Such an open person, always ready to put people in touch and inspire ways to rethink connections with Jewish life. Tzadik gadol!”