I am not a religious person. Unless someone I love is celebrating some great life milestone, you will not find me in a synagogue. And yet, I had a deep affection for Rabbi Ron Aigen.
My family had deep roots in a traditional synagogue in Westmount dating back to the turn of the last century. Three generations of my family were married in those halls, generations of children were educated in the after-school programs and as a boy, my father even had a stint as president of the junior congregation. All that changed twenty years ago when my grandfather—the most observant and kindest member of my family – sitting devoutly in his pew in the sixth row, suffered a massive stroke on Yom Kippur.
The event shattered the remaining members of my family on a personal level, but perhaps more profoundly, the spiritual ties were severed that day. Faith shattered, our memberships lapsed, and my family cut ties with synagogue, and, for the most part, religion in its entirety.
Far away from any synagogue, in the Laurentians, by the lake on a dock at Howard Berger’s country house, my father met a man named Ron Aigen. Maybe it was because Ron didn’t look like a typical Rabbi, or maybe it was because it was a comfortable, completely un-religious meeting through friends, but my dad opened up to Ron. By the end of that day, Ron had somehow uncovered that – unbeknownst to the rest of us –my father still knew his bar mitzvah haftorah. And, astoundingly, Ron had convinced him to return to synagogue, just once, to perform said haftorah in memory of my late grandfather.
Later that year, tears in his eyes, my father took the bimah at the Reconstructionist synagogue and performed, in perfect cadence, the haftorah that had made his father so proud. That day marked the beginning of a healing journey in which my father found his way back to synagogue – and even onto the board of directors. He has performed the Rosh HaShannah haftorah portion – the longest of the year – many times since, in memory of his father, with Rabbi Ron beaming at him from the sidelines.
I never made my way back to synagogue the way my dad did. In fact, after a partner’s turn to religious extremism ended our relationship, I became downright opposed to anything synagogue related. But Rabbi Ron never judged me for being less-than religious.
A few years ago, the phone rang in my home office. The caller ID said Dorshei Emet, and when I picked up the phone, the caller cheerfully announced that he wanted me to write the text for his synagogue’s website.
“But Ron,” I laughed, “why on earth would you hire me to write a synagogue’s website? I am certainly not the most religious person you know.”
“No,” he said in his soft sweet way, “you are not. But I’m not looking for the most devout Jew; I’m looking for a great writer.”
I took the job that day, and we collaborated for the next few months: me learning about the history of the Reconstructionist movement in Montreal, and him learning a thing or two about punctuation. In all that time, he never tried to preach or indoctrinate, and in him I found a healing force in my own life; a real-life reminder that religion didn’t have to be something to be feared. In his quiet way Rabbi Ron taught me that not everyone connected to a synagogue was trying to change me; and that I could find my own personal connection to Judaism that felt comfortable to me.
Years ago, on that dock, my father had asked Rabbi Ron: “how can I still believe, when the most devout, most giving, most spiritual man I knew, was stuck down by a stroke, of all places, in a synagogue?” The Rabbi reflected, and replied, in words that have become legendary in my family:
“Where should he have had a stroke? In the street, by himself? Alone with your elderly, ill mother? No.” Rabbi Ron shook his head. “If this, the most unfortunate of things, had to happen, let it have happened when he was surrounded by members of his community. Surrounded by people who cared, people who knew him, people who immediately saw there was a problem and rushed to help. That is all any of us can hope for – that if the worst should happen, he should be surrounded by love.”
Today, as I reflect upon Rabbi Ron’s death, I’ve been replaying my father’s question all those years ago. Only now, the question is “why should a beloved Rabbi, a devout and good person, a community man, a family man, a new grandfather on the cusp of retirement, be struck down, by a stroke of all places, in the hospital?”
I can only apply the advice that Rabbi Ron himself gave us, and wonder, if perhaps, he was destined to have a stroke, maybe G-d ensured that he fell in a place where he was surrounded by people who cared, people who knew him, people who immediately saw there was a problem and rushed to help. And that, if the worst should happen, he should be surrounded by love.
Rest in peace, Rabbi Ron.