There are moments in life that we may anticipate but are never quite prepared for. I experienced one of those moments this past week.
I find myself at a loss for words while there is so much that I have to say. It is challenging to capture and celebrate a life so rich and enriching, so authentic and wholesome. A leader so humble and self-effacing, yet so confident and determined.
The Gemara in Maseches Taanis tells the story of Choni Hameagel, who saw a man planting a carob tree and asked him, “How long does it take for the tree to bear fruit?” When the man told him 70 years, Choni asked if he was certain that he was going to live so long to see the fruits of his labor. The man replied that he had found carob trees planted for him and therefore, just as his forefathers planted for him, so too he was planting for the next generation.
West Orange today is a beautiful Orthodox Jewish community, with all of the amenities of Jewish life. We have shuls, schools, an eruv, a mikvah, as well as kosher stores and a variety of communal chesed initiatives. Baruch Hashem our community continues to grow as we add more and more new families to our shul. There is quite a waiting list at the offices of our local realtors to purchase a house in our neighborhood. This all didn’t just happen by chance.
Sixty years ago West Orange was an unseeded field, it was a vacation spot for many from New York City, but the notion of an Orthodox community was not even a dream. This Shabbat we read about our exodus from Egypt. The Navi tells us that the Jewish people are endeared to Hashem because we followed Him into the desert, an eretz lo zaruah, an unseeded land, and had faith that we would survive—and thrive.
There is one man who was responsible for the growth and vibrancy of our community. This past week our shul said goodbye to a true legend, an icon, a rabbi’s rabbi, a gadol in midot, an extraordinary human being, our venerated rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Alvin Marcus, zt”l. Rabbi Marcus served our shul for more than half a century. It was Rabbi Marcus, zt”l together with tbl”c, his wife Marilyn, who planted the seeds of the tree from which we all find nourishment. Rabbi Marcus is the reason West Orange has the special flavor of being a welcoming, warm and sensitive Orthodox community.
From a geographical perspective, Rabbi Marcus was a trailblazer. At our shul dinner in 1979, he stated: “ In 1966, when our congregation was founded on its present site in West Orange, the presence of an Orthodox synagogue in the suburbs was an oddity. Thirteen years later, we are not alone. We have proven to others that Orthodox Judasim and its representative lifestyle can be viable in the suburbs of New Jersey.”
Where can I possibly begin when speaking about the breadth of Rabbi Marcus’s reach? He was a man who led through love, welcoming and engaging people way before it was popular to use the word “inclusive.” Rabbi Marcus believed that the shul should be the center of communal life, and he placed unity as the foundation for the community. He welcomed and embraced those who were not observant, and gave everyone the respect they deserved. He insisted that our Sephardic members have their own minyan, to preserve the tradition of their families.
He instilled a passionate love of Israel in our shul’s soul, which has resulted in dozens of members making aliyah, and dozens of our youth serving in the IDF. Rabbi Marcus insisted that chesed stand out as an integral part of community life. Weaved together with unity, West Orange became and continues to be known as a place where members of the community see each other as an extended family, especially when someone is in need.
Most of all, Rabbi Marcus treated the children of our shul like his own, and insisted that they feel at home in shul. The Rabbi felt that the shul must play a central role in their lives. I will forever remember the story I was told about the portable basketball hoops we have in the social hall. One day, Rabbi Marcus was walking by a nearby playground, and saw teenagers from the shul playing basketball. He insisted that even basketball be played in the shul building. He would do anything to get a child to spend time in the shul. The feeling of love that he had for the children of the shul was mutual and remains until this day.
There has been a custom in our shul which has its roots decades ago, begun by the youth on Simchat Torah. The old classic “Vekarev Pezureinu” song that many shuls traditionally sing at hakafos each year had a different rendition for the second stanza in Congregation AABJ&D for the last number of decades. “Unefutzosainu Rabbi Marcus! Unefutzosainu Rabbi Marcus!” would pierce the walls of our shul as the youth paid tribute to our beloved rabbi.
We will forever cherish this past Simchas Torah, when Rabbi Marcus was pushed in his wheelchair by his dedicated son Josh, into the middle of our circle as we serenaded him with this special twist of the song. It was the last time I danced with the rabbi. I have so many memories of him dancing at simchas in his scooter and then wheelchair, so many times when the rabbi would insist on standing up and dancing at a simcha with the choson or baal simcha. After his debilitating stroke in 1998, Marilyn refused to let the rabbi slow down; she gave him a new life by schlepping him to simchas, and was unwavering in the honor that was due him. Marilyn taught us all what it meant to love, and what marriage was truly about.
We will continue to sing his song because it really represented the essence of Rabbi Marcus’ life’s mission. He was a uniter, and molded his growing community around this theme. Someone told me on Shabbat that when they moved to the community, they heard Rabbi Marcus speak about shalom three or four times in the first few weeks after their arrival. They asked a veteran of the shul if there was some controversy engulfing the community which the rabbi was addressing, the response was, “No, that is just the way Rabbi Marcus does business.”
He was a shining example of what it means to greet people “bsever panim yafos.” Even in the past few years, when the Rabbi had difficulty speaking, his smile was how he greeted people. The twinkle in his eye gave comfort and hope. Rabbi Marcus was a veteran when it came to judging others. I couldn’t help but think as I sat next to his bed a few hours before he was niftar, of how always looked to give others the benefit of the doubt, and referred to people as a “good guy,” even when clearly they were not behaving as such. I always wondered what words he would have at the very end for the malach who was charged to take him home.
Rabbi Marcus believed in people, and the ability of people to change. I remember one time during my first few years in the shul, confiding in him that someone had embarrassed me in public, and that the person didn’t so much as apologize. I shared how hurt I was, and that I didn’t know how I could look at the person again. Rabbi Marcus turned to me and said, “You are going to make him your best friend.” He never asked others to do or say what he would not do himself. I have never met anyone like him before, and I am certain that I will never meet anyone like him again.
Rabbi Marcus was a powerhouse in the MetroWest community. Being the ambassador of Orthodoxy was not a simple task, especially in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but he was one of a kind. He was firm in his beliefs, but embraced everyone with a handshake and smile. He was an extraordinary rabbinic guide to the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, and was heralded as the undisputed leader among his colleagues. I have never met a leader more humble, and as I began my hesped I acknowledged that although he would never want any of the recognition or praise, kavod haTorah took precedence.
Orthodox rabbis today have it pretty easy in a sense; we stand on the shoulders of giants who preserved Orthodoxy during a time when its survival was being challenged. Rabbi Alvin Marcus was one of those giants. He was a committed servant of Hashem who dedicated his life to shepherding, loving and inspiring Hashem’s children. In 1983 he was given an honorary degree by Yeshiva University. In his words Rabbi Norman Lamm, z”l, president of YU, described Rabbi Marcus’ accomplishments and said, “All this you have done without vanity or anger, but with your own soft words of decency and sweet common sense and with an abundance of charm.”
As the shiva comes to a close, I continue to contemplate the impact of his loss for our community, while at the same time recognizing that Rabbi Marcus would want us to look forward to the future. Rabbi, your legacy is intact with all of the people you have touched, all the Torah you have taught and all the seeds you have planted for us. We will miss you terribly, but will always continue to ask ourselves what Rabbi Marcus would tell us to do.
In a fractured world where we regularly find ourselves searching for authentic and real role models, Rabbi Alvin Marcus was a shining light. His impact on the AABJ&D family, the West Orange community, the Jewish community of MetroWest New Jersey, and klal Yisrael will be felt for generations to come. While Hashem provides us with leaders in each generation, seldom have we been blessed with a blend of humility, class, menschlichkeit and emes as we have with our beloved Rabbi Marcus.
May Hashem give his wife, Marilyn, strength and good health to enjoy nachas from her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and our shul family.
Yehi Zichro Baruch!
Rabbi Eliezer Zwicker is rabbi at Congregation AABJ&D.