Simon L. Eckstein died recently at the age of 96. May he rest in peace.
I remember him well, but when he was a young man. As our rabbi at the Beth Shalom synagogue. But most importantly, as the father of Yechiel, his son.
Book cover: Rabbi Eckstein, bottom right.
Opposite: Yechiel next to Rabbi Eckstein, on right
Yechiel and I were best friends in grades one and two at Hillel Academy in Ottawa. I used to go over to their home on Daly Street after synagogue services on Saturdays. The Rabbi was an imposing figure, tall with an engaging smile and booming voice. He and his lovely wife Belle were very nice to me, I recall. But before reciting the Kiddush, the Rabbi would always insist that I say “Shabbat shalom” to the little man under the table. I would look under the table each time. Each time, there was no one there. But it was obvious that everyone above the table was waiting for me to do the Rabbi’s bidding so we could recite the prayer and dig in.
Rabbi Eckstein was eloquent. He gave great sermons. Of course as a child, I was less appreciative than I am now. He disliked when shulgoers would cut out during his speech. Now I understand better. He had prepared himself for it all week in his study behind the bima (where Yechiel and I would sneak occasionally). And as any performer, he wanted everyone to hear it.
Our religious Hebrew day school was right next to the synagogue and the Rabbi would often come to visit, to make sure that we were attending synagogue on Saturday (his synagogue, in all probability). But I think that there was another ulterior motive for his visits – to visit Yechiel!
I became a conscientious shul goer, attending prayers every Saturday and eventually becoming a leader in the Junior Congregation. Although we drove to synagogue (i.e., were not observant in the orthodox sense), I was a true believer. Perhaps the Rabbi sensed that, because he was very kind to me. I remember discussing, with my folks, the possibility of my travelling to New York with Yechiel to attend Yeshiva University high school (according to Yechiel’s recent book, it was a good thing I demurred – besides, I would have become a rabbi!).
Our bar mitzvahs were seminal occasions in our young lives. I still remember walking across the bima (elevated praying stage) for his blessing, following my reading from the Torah. And at Yechiel’s bar mitzvah I distinctly recall the smile on the Rabbi’s face when he was about to bless his own son.
When I was in the ninth grade, the Rabbi persuaded me to attend a sleepover of religious Jewish teenagers (NCSY) in London, Ontario. The occasion was a Jewish holiday (Simhat Tora). I still recall the religious epiphany I experienced there, dancing round and round with the torah scrolls.
Towards my senior year in high school, the Rabbi invited me to daven (pray) the musaf prayer in front of the whole congregation on an upcoming Saturday. This was a huge honour, and a matter of some controversy (I was not a Sabbath observer). I remember it well.
I left for Israel when I was almost eighteen. One year, when I was back for the summer, the Rabbi asked me to give the weekly Sabbath sermon. Me? In those days I was a firebrand, young and impetuous. I talked about the need not only for Jews to care about and donate money to Israel, but also to come see what they were doing with the donations. The talk did not go down too well with some of the folks in the audience, but the Rabbi was supportive of me. As always.
Yechiel by this time was now living in the US and we slowly lost touch (although we have been happily re-connected in recent years). My family eventually moved to another synagogue and there I found the Rabbi of my adult life.
But I will never ever forget Simon L. Eckstein, the Rabbi of my youth.