I had intended to write some political posts, but after attending the funeral of one of the most beloved members of my former congregation, my mind turned to other things, especially to that great man, a simple man in some people’s eyes, but learned in Torah and the traditions of his ancestors and kind to all he met.
He was, as the rabbi put it in his eulogy, the congregation’s “sexton” or factotum, doing all manner of little things, necessary for the synagogue to meet ritual requirements, for services to run smoothly and do get done anything else that needed doing.
Few, outside his family and that synagogue, knew Sam Widawski, but those who did, delighted in his presence and now treasure his memory.
Sam was born in Poland in the 1920s and survived sixteen Nazi camps. Despite losing his family and witnessing horrors that we cannot even imagine, he never gave up his faith in humanity. He treated us all with dignity.
I recall how he would often greet me after Shabbas services and on holidays by asking if I were “still a Republican.” I knew from the tone of his voice and the expression on his face that his comment was one of affectionate curiosity. Coming to America at age when most Jews were Democrats and most anti-Semites (outside the South) Republican, he must have found the idea of a Jewish Republican a strange novelty.
It wasn’t just that. It was his unique way of acknowledging me. Whenever he asked that question, he made me feel welcome in a congregation he had joined over three decades before I had.
Whenever he asked me about the particulars of my political views, it was always in the most civil of tones, of a man who wanted to learn and understand.
When I decided to change congregations, I regretted that I would not see Sam on shabbas morning. He was a reminder of the kind of man we should all strive to be, devoted to his family, involved in his community, treating each individual with respect.
So many of the congregation, including former members, showed up today, a sign of the community’s respect for this man. He was, to our congregation, a great man. He had like George Eliot’s Dorothea “no great name on this earth,” but he did in our community.
Many congregations of many faiths, have men (or women) like Sam who serve their community and make it a better place. Outside that community, their passing doesn’t attract much attention, but their example should. For they teach us how to live a life with dignity and treat our fellows with respect.
Surely, George Eliot was writing about human beings like Sam Widawski in the concluding words to Middlemarch: “that things are not so ill with you and men as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in invested tombs.”