I have stood in this place many, many times. I do not know exactly how many mothers I have buried during my fourteen-year career as a congregational rabbi, but I know it’s been many. But today, it is my mother, and rather than speak as Rabbi Baum, I’d like to speak to you as the son of Rachel Baum.
And in a way, that’s how I feel today, humbled by this moment, trying to share what it was like being my mother’s son. I want to begin by thanking all of you who have shown us more support than I have ever imagined during the most difficult moments of our lives. I’m grateful to my friend and colleague Rabbi Hector Eplebaum who is officiating today so I could be my mother’s son at this moment. Thank you Rabbi Watstein whose shul we are in right now, and who is chaperoning our children en route from Camp Ramah, and the Bnai Aviv community, for opening your home to our family at the last minute. Thank you to our CSK community who has supported our family through thick and thin, and have given me the time and space to help my mother during her most difficult moments. And thank you to my father Alex, who has been my mother’s caretaker and partner for life through the best and worst times in her life. And thank you to my loving wife Alissa, and our three children, Avi, Harrison and Layla.
And if I thanked everyone else, our family, friends, community members, and colleagues around the world who have reached out to us, we would be here for another day. We are truly humbled and grateful for all of your love.
This is hard for me. My mother died on Tisha B’av, the saddest day of the Jewish year. It is a day where we mourn the losses of the two Holy Temples in Jerusalem, and remember the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. As I sat holding my mother’s hand after she passed, I felt something I have never felt before: my entire world has changed. It is as if my Holy Temple, the foundation of my life, is gone.
I am their firstborn son, born after seven years of infertility. They named me David, and immediately after I was born, a hurricane named David threatened to hit the newly created Baum family in Miami, Florida. My mother wanted to take me up to Brooklyn, which I affectionately call, the old country, but my father wasn’t having it. Ironically, Hurricane David ended up missing Florida and hitting New York. In those years, my mother called me Duvedelle, a Yiddish word for little David.
She was loving in her own unique way. She was very honest, maybe sometimes too much. She told me, “David, you’re my firstborn, but you were not a cute baby.” I ruined almost every friendship they had because I had a terrible gag reflex and threw up everything I ate. My parents shared a story with me that they took me out to dinner with them and another couple. They burped me and I spit up all over one of their friends. It was the last time they took me out. As my father shared, they spent their weekends with us rather than leaving us with babysitters. I hate to think that I was the reason for this.
At the same time, we grew up with a great deal of independence. We were latchkey kids. At 10 or 11, I was taking care of my brother and baby sister. There was a story that our step-grandmother of blessed memory, Marilyn Reisch used to always share. Richie was about 10 years old and called her to ask how much Tylenol he should give to Sandy because he took her temperature and she was running a fever. Marilyn was aghast at this, but my mother was proud. Look at the children I raised, they can take the baby’s temperature and seek out medical advice!
My mother and I had a unique relationship. I take after my father, so let’s just say, I used to frustrate her a lot. I can’t tell you how many times I asked my mom to find the ketchup when it was right in front of me. Or the time I left my shoes outside of the door and she tripped on them, spraining her ankle. She didn’t forgive me for six months.
As you’ve heard already, she was incredibly accomplished as the first female finance director of Miami-Dade County. My brother Richie will offer some words about her career in his eulogy, but honestly, she never spoke about work at home. A moment when I realized how big of a deal she was in the county was at her retirement party. The county flew me in as a surprise to offer the benediction at the event. I was a rabbinical student at the time, and I was hiding backstage until the beginning of the event. I came onto the stage to see hundreds of people, including some famous politicians, to surprise her.
We just never knew how loved she was, and how great of an impact she made in the county. She is the first female and the longest-tenured finance director in the county’s history. After the event, I asked her why she never went into the corporate world where she could have made a much more lucrative salary. She told me that she believed in serving the people and she believed in public service. My mother showed me that public servants are what keep this country going. She lived a life of service, and it is one of the main reasons I am a rabbi - to serve the Jewish people and the civic community.
My mother taught me valuable lessons, not through long stories or beautiful love poetry. She showed her love in different ways - mainly by feeding us, providing for us, by giving us tough love - telling us the things we needed to hear, not what we necessarily wanted to hear. She was my greatest teacher.
In last week’s parashah, Vaetchanan, the parashah when she died, we read the Ten Commandments. My mother excelled at the mitzvah of Kibud Av V’Em - honoring your father and your mother.
She took care of my grandparents until both of them passed away. My grandmother likely suffered through the same ailment that my mother suffered from. I recall her decline, how she gasped for breath, and how my mother cared for her and provided for her. She was with her when she took her last painful breaths. My grandfather, her father, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. When he became more and more combative, when he was a shell of the man he was, she never gave up on him. She didn’t put him in a home; rather, she had an aide live with him in his apartment. She was also a devoted daughter-in-law to Frank who just passed away in 2021, and thought of him as if he was her father.
There is another mitzvah, that we must fear and be in awe of our parents. I was both in awe and fearful of my mother. My father may have threatened us, but he never followed through; that’s mainly because my mother did. I recall mouthing off to her in my teen years, and suffering the consequences. I never did that again.
But more than anything, I was in awe of my mother. She never complained about anything, even though she suffered through a lung illness that she did nothing to deserve. She did not want us to bring any undue attention to her during her illness, so we mostly kept private about her condition.
She handled her illness with the most immeasurable dignity I have ever seen in a human being. I am in awe of her kindness and humility. She helped so many people in life and never told us about any of them. I am only now hearing stories of how she helped people find careers to support their families, and how she was like a mother and aunt to so many.
But I feel grateful that I was her son, and that I know she loved us the most in this world. Her greatest accomplishments were her children and grandchildren. She loved you all more than you will ever know.
I did want to end with one piece of Torah; I’m sorry, I’m still a rabbi.
The Talmudic sage Rava taught that we are asked certain questions when we come to the World to come. They are the following:
Were you honest in your dealings in life?
Did you busy yourself with procreation or leaving a legacy?
Did you set time for Torah study?
As you’ve learned, she excelled in all of these, and even later in life, after retirement, she became an avid student in Jewish studies and you’ll hear more at the Shiva. But there are more questions that Rava said we are asked. I wanted to focus on just one:
Tzipita Li'yeshuah? Did you have hope in your life?
These last years were really difficult for her, but these last six months were immeasurably painful.
We knew that she would only be able to live with a lung transplant. We went to rigorous doctor’s appointments numerous times every month. It was physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting, but she never gave up. We received word a couple of weeks ago that she was finally put on the transplant list. She was so happy and hopeful. She pushed herself to get stronger and forced herself to eat, just so she could have another year with us. On Thursday morning, she texted us that they found a donor, and I could tell that she was elated. But less than an hour later, she was gone. She left this earth with hope in her heart. As painful as this is, and we are really hurting, I am not angry, because my mother was never angry. Her parents survived Auschwitz, she came to this country with nothing and built a beautiful career and family. As much pain as I feel now, knowing that my mom won’t be here for us, I am still grateful that we had her. I am grateful that she was there with me under the chuppah when I married the love of my life Alissa, that she was there when our children were born and she devoted a year of her life to watching our son Avi when both Alissa and I were starting our careers, and she was there when that boy became a bar mitzvah.
I will always love you mom, you are my foundation, and I feel lost without you, but I am grateful that you gave me life, and you will always be my greatest teacher.