This eulogy was delivered January 1, 2017 for a friend and colleague, David J. Steiner, who died tragically at age 51 in a bus accident in Uganda in late December 2016. You can read some of his writings or an article about his life and death to learn more about him.
I do not want to be here today. No one wants to be here today. We NEED to be here – we feel a deep need to support each other, to support David’s family, to show and love for David himself. We never envisioned that we would be doing this anytime soon. There is no other word for what happened but “tragedy.” There are many emotions churning with us: shock, wondering when this bad dream will end; deep sadness, and pain, and anger; confusion, wondering how such a thing could happen. These emotions are all natural and appropriate.
Our task today is not to accomplish healing; rather, it is to begin healing – to begin to get perspective so that the last few minutes of David’s life do not block out 51 years of active living and caring. We have to find a way to feel appreciation for this wonderful person who touched our lives.
When David was a rabbinic student in Jerusalem, he was once asked to bring “the siddur [prayerbook]” to the next class session. In his own argumentative way, David thought, “What do you mean, THE siddur? There are many siddurim out there.” So he brought a volume of the poetry of the foundational Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik to class and said, “This is MY siddur.” In that spirit of creative reclamation, I want to share a poem by another Hebrew poetic giant, Yehuda Amichai:
“A Song of Praise” by Yehuda Amichai
I want to sing a song of praise to all that remains
Here with us, and does not leave, and does not wander
like the migrating birds
And does not flee to the North,
and not to the South, and does not sing, “My heart is in the East,
and I am at the edge of the West.”
I want to sing to the trees
That do not throw out their leaves,
and withstand the blaze of summer and the cold of winter
And to those people who do not
throw out their memories,
And withstand more than those people who throw out everything.
But above all, I want to sing a song of praise
To lovers who remain together for joy, and for pain, and for joy.
To make a home, to make children, now and for the other seasons.
David loved to teach, and to learn, using classic Jewish texts. In one of his favorite Talmudic stories, four rabbis entered a garden of Pardes/Paradise, exploring the deepest truths of life. It became the basis for a screenplay he wrote, and I believe it also reflects the many-sided nature of David himself.
Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Elisha Ben Avuya cut the shoots; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.
Part of David was Rabbi Akiva, entering in peace and departing in peace, deeply connected to Jewish observance, tradition, and literature, though on his own terms. Part of David was Elisha ben Avuya, cutting shoots, a heretic rabbi who questioned divine justice and providence, who was willing to challenge authority in the name of human dignity. Today, David has also become Ben Azzai, the deceased who lost his life living out his sense of himself as a Jew and as a mensch, a decent human being. David’s Judaism and his Zionism, his sense of right and wrong, took him to Africa to continue to love the stranger as himself [Leviticus 19:34]. David loved the stranger his whole life – even as a child, father’s friend who often visited their house was gay and black, but it never occurred to young David that Uncle Otis was not his real uncle! David experienced being smuggled across the Mexico-US border in his twenties to better understand, he made friends with everyone from Ramat Gan, Israel to Ramallah in the Palestinian Territories, David put a human face on Chicago school closings and the current refugee crisis – he always lived out his values of loving the stranger, human dignity and peace.
David was a new take on the wandering Jew – the wandering rabbinic student. From Hebrew Seminary for the Deaf in Chicago, when I first met him, to the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, to ultimately studying with me at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, where he anticipated ordination by the end of 2017. From David’s time as a camper at Habonim Dror’s Camp Tavor, to High School in Israel at HaKfar Ha-Yarok, service in the Israeli Defense Forces, living in Israel for two stints including active work with Bina – the Secular Yeshiva, director of congregational Jewish education at both Reform and Conservative synagogues and Hebrew teacher and tutor at my Humanistic congregation, David was a Jewishly literate secular Jew. He appreciated the Israeli scholar Ari Elon’s distinction between ribbonut [self-authority] and rabbanut [external authority] – for the secular Jew, authority comes from within. David even planned to start a Chicago community called Ribbonim:
a congregation that pursues peace and justice, cherishes traditional text and contemporary creativity, takes responsibility for its role in the entire Jewish world – including Israel – and sees its Judaism as the past, present and future of a collective of people who combine memory and myth with a secular, humanistic vision for the future.
David was always many things – he was a cow midwife (which he claimed qualified him to assist his wife for the home births of two of their children), he was an educational software developer, a property manager, a documentary filmmaker, a typewriter collector, a teacher and school director, a Cubs fan whose Heavenly Temple was Wrigley Field, an advocate for causes and institutions he believed in, a loving son and life partner and Abba/father and a wonderful friend who always made time to catch up on long phone conversations, who loved to laugh and share stories. David was an educator who understood that students should be a dignified part of a learning community, and that you learn by teaching others. He once developed an educational program called “JoJo the Scarecrow,” which would have made students teach JoJo math and English to learn it themselves. Or think about his putting cameras into the hands of his subjects at Barbara Sizemore Academy for us to see through their eyes.
When I heard that David was becoming a mediator (as if he needed one more thing to be doing), I thought, “What a perfect job for David: listening, affirming, offering compromises and solutions, creating peace out of conflict.” You almost never argued with David, though there was always a discussion. I even tried to be mad at him once for something, but I can’t even remember what it was about!
Today is the end of the season of Hanukkah, where one candle on the menorah, the shamash, gives light to the others and is not at all dimmed by its generosity. Think of David’s empowering students to teach, loving the stranger, entering in peace and leaving in peace. Lighting lights in this season not unique to Jews – it is part of the human need to light the world to fight cold and darkness. From this year forward, Chanukah will always be a season of personal memory – for David’s parents and their partners, for David’s siblings and the people in their life, for David’s children, for his loving partner of the last several years, and for all of David’s loving friends and connections here and around the world. Just like today, Chanukkah future will be a time of sadness and also joy, when we will feel the pain of loss but also consolation of beautiful memory and loving connection. In Jewish life, lighting a candle also helps mark the anniversary of a death, a day called “yartzeit/year-time”.
Our mission, this year and every year, will be to move from yahrtzeit to shamash, from memory to celebration, from sadness to joy, keeping a place for both in our hearts. David’s life and our loving memories of him are the shamash for us, the candle lighting the way out of cold and darkness to light and warmth, to enlightenment and knowledge, to joy and laughter with a twinkle in our eyes, to a community of shared purpose and affection.
I want to sing a song of praise to all that remains here with us… withstanding the blaze of summer and the cold of winter…for joy and for pain and for joy….now and in the other seasons.