Baltimore, MD - Sept. 18, 2022 - Our friendship was born out of a very public dispute. We were speaking more at each other than with each other, and decided studying Torah together would change that.
A very good friend of mine passed away this week. His name was Louis Sapolsky, but everyone knew him as “Buddy”, and he was indeed everyone’s buddy.
Buddy was unstintingly warm and friendly, a Jewish communal professional with a huge heart and endearing manner. We were close friends, and for more than ten years we were chavrutas, Torah study partners, as Buddy, Eric Nislow, and I would get together every other week for serious Torah study.
Those times were of the most cherished slots in our schedules. We would study at 8:30 on Thursday mornings, after I had completed my rabbinic morning routine of teaching two early morning Talmud classes. During our sessions we explored in depth the book of Genesis, learning and carefully analyzing the text.
I was the teacher, sharing with Buddy and Eric the Biblical story along with layers and generations of tradition, Midrash, and commentary. But we were partners as we explored together the profound ramifications of these ideas on our lives and values, on the world, and on the Jewish mission and future. Our learning was rich and interactive, both eye-opening and heart-stirring.
Intensive Torah study was a new experience for Buddy, and he regularly expressed amazement and appreciation for it. The bond that formed between us around the exchange of ideas was especially meaningful.
It had not always been that way.
Our friendship was born out of a very public dispute. Buddy had served for years as the Executive Director of Baltimore’s JCC’s, and Eric served as his president in 2009 when the JCC proposed to change a long-standing communal standard and open one of their facilities on Shabbat. This proposal was strongly opposed by the Orthodox community, and as a congregational rabbi active in our local federation, I was one of the leaders of the opposition.
We had many conversations and meetings, some private and others very public. Speeches and statements were made, and articles were written. Ultimately, the JCC and the Federation proceeded with their decision, the public commitment to Shabbat was weakened, the sense of community was hurt – and our friendship began.
I cannot recall the exact details of how we started our bi-weekly learning sessions, but they emerged from a shared realization that it was unhealthy that we had not built a meaningful relationship earlier; that with all the meetings and exchanges, we had been speaking more at each other than with each other. We decided to study together to change that, and we did, becoming wonderful friends.
The Torah (Deuteronomy 24:9) teaches us to recall how Miriam had been stricken by leprosy and had to be isolated from the community after speaking negatively about Moses and a decision he had made. As described in the original narrative (Numbers 12:1), Miriam had spoken “b’Moshe,” about Moses. It is so often the case that our problems begin when we choose to speak about each other rather than to converse with each other. Had Miriam shared her concern with Moses directly, had she chosen to discuss it, the issue may have created connection rather than isolation.
Our Sages taught that the very opposite of using the tongue to speak negatively about others is to use it to engage in Torah study together (Talmud, Avodah Zara 19b). In the words of Ethics of the Fathers (3:2): “When two people sit together and words of Torah are spoken between them, then the Shechinah (Divine Presence) abides among them.”
Buddy was a good friend and a wonderful study partner. Our friendship taught me a great deal. Yehi Zichro Baruch, may his memory be for a blessing.