I lost one of my dearest students recently, Rav Mordechai Scher. Mordechai’s passing is very painful for me, hits me particularly hard.
I first met Mordechai more than 40 years ago, somewhere in the early 1970s. He walked into the New York offices of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), looking for action to help Jews. Mordechai — “Mark” in those days — walked in looking like others who would come in to the JDL office from out of nowhere: Motorcycle helmet and accompanying worn-down black-leather jacket. A small bottle or flask of tequila in his back pocket. Long, long hair. Sunglasses — indoors.
There was something so sweet about him, though. He was no motorcycle groupie. He was no hard drinker. He was too sweet, too inner-goodness kind. So, instead of his being shown the door, he seemed to be a guy with prospects.
Although a rich man’s daughter could see in Rabbi Akiva what the Tanna of the Mishnah potentially could make of himself if he would leave his shepherding and go off to learn for some years, few could have seen anything in the early Mordechai of what he could make of himself. He came from assimilated parents, from a background of gornisht foon gornisht (nothing from nothing). But with guidance he re-focused his life’s long-term path from “doing for Jews” on the streets and in the arena, and in p’ulot (actions) that had to be carried out in stealth, to learning Torah for many, many years, teaching Torah, and saving as many or more Jewish lives — and countless more Jewish souls — by pursuing the next phase of his journey: learning Torah in Eretz Yisrael, teaching Torah to the uninitiated whom he knew and understood so well from personal experience, and never ceasing to continue learning and growing and drinking at the feet of tzaddikim and Gedolim (righteous Torah giants) of all sorts.
(As an aside, his is one of scores of stories of what Rav Meir Kahane and the American JDL did for the growth of Jewish young men and women whose portals into Torah and mitzvot came via JDL and street activism. In viewing the tragedy and disaster of what has become of so much of today’s “Snowflake Generation” of Modern Orthodox Millennials on campus, much of that tragedy was precluded a generation ago because there was a JDL and a Rav Kahane, and a few who worked with him zikhrono livrakha, who gave young Jewish idealists on college campuses Jewish causes for which to fight and struggle — Soviet Jewry, Syrian Jewry, Ethiopian Jewry, Iraqi Jewry, Judea and Samaria, the Jewish Poor in the Inner Cities, citizen patrols in endangered “changing” Jewish neighborhoods, etc. — so that, with their “pintele Yids” (inner Jewish sparks) pining for causes to advance, Rav Kahane focused them on life-or-death Jewish causes for which to devote their college years and their future lives, instead of the causes advanced by the non-Jewish world like today’s panoply of campus causes that range from the mundane to the nonsensical and even to the anti-Israel.)
Mordechai continued learning Torah in Eretz Yisrael, for many many years, on increasingly higher levels of learning. Soon he had become an especially popular kiruv (outreach) lecturer at the OU Center in Jerusalem. His first wife was a lovely young lady whom he had met there, herself a young lady searching for a path to the truth she had not learned from assimilated parents in Beverly Hills. He had two children with her.
Rav Mordechai made a life for himself in Eretz Yisrael before finding himself teaching as a rav in Houston, Texas and later in New Mexico. I am not sure how he ended up there. I think it was because his second wife, an exceptionally impressive professional in her own right, ended up with a “dream job” in Santa Fe.
For those of us whose lives’ circumstances have brought us to places where we never anticipated living (and, if we could have chosen, would have avoided living there), the question becomes: “Now what? What do I do now that I am stuck here? Do I become a bookkeeper, a doctor, an investment banker, an accountant? What do I do with this next phase of my life out here in this beyond-yenem yenemvelt (middle of nowhere)?”
Many of us make our peace that a door is closed, and we do in fact turn inward, using that circumstance to focus on personal needs and growth, feeling we already have paid our dues to the external Jewish society. But some of us never stop. Mordechai was like that. If circumstances now sent him to Santa Fe, a place famous mostly for its art colonies, Georgia O’Keefe, and the nearby filming of the cable television series “Breaking Bad,” that did not mean that the place was bereft of Jews. And if a Jew was living there in the middle of that Nowhere, then — almost by definition — he or she desperately needed fire and kiruv (outreach). So Mordechai built a kiruv operation there. He taught every kind of Torah subject that the locals could handle. He touched whoever could be touched. And he never stopped.
Approximately four years ago, Rav Scher learned he had lung cancer. Some of us began davening for him by name every day these past four years. All along, he never missed a beat. He never stopped learning and teaching Torah. He embraced every day with love of G-d, of Torah, and of israel and the Jewish people.
Along the way, Rav Mordechai Scher served several years on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His voice always was a voice of common sense and reason. He inclined towards that Centrist, religious-nationalist world view that many of us share and that seems to reflect the core of the RCA and Modern Orthodox rabbinate. He always spoke intelligently, articulately. He made many new friends and never an enemy. Anyone who met him could not help but love the guy.
A few weeks ago we were on the phone. Having come towards the end stages, though perhaps not aware how close to the end, he was in the process of seeking to be admitted into a significant clinical trial regarding a new poential treatment for lung cancer being conducted at the University of California at Irvine (UCI) Medical Center. During the call, he was coughing heavily, almost every syllable. Though he apologized to me once or twice during the conversation for coughing, I remember telling him it was nothing, that I barely noticed — but I could not sleep for the next two nights, distraught as that coughing had left me. It was one thing for me to know that he was deeply ill, to have exchanged emails and such; it was quite another to hear first-hand what he was experiencing. On the phone, we planned out the details by which I would be lining up housing for him for the next six months in Irvine, through next Pesach or so, at a place accessible both to UCI Medical Center and to daily minyan and Shabbat meals at our home. It was the same Mordechai I had known forty-five years ago, and the same Mordechai I continued knowing throughout that half century — undaunted, fearless, courageous . . . only, evolved from our first encounters, now so very deeply trusting in G-d, that everything was part of a plan and that everything was for the good. But I cannot begin to describe his courage as he faced this test.
There is so much more I would like to share. Some truly too personal. Some truly not to be shared. But we all have lost someone so very special, someone who gave so much for Torah and for Am Yisrael and for Eretz Yisrael . . . and who had yet so much more to give, for us in the rabbinate and for the Jewish People. This loss really is a much more terrible loss than words can describe. He still was young. He still had dreams. His hope was that, if the UCI clinical trials would prove useful to any degree, he finally could return with his wife to Israel. Only his illness was delaying his return.
And now he has returned, laid to rest in Beit Shemesh. And we are so much the more orphaned for it.
Time passes so quickly. Forty years in the wink of a moment. Love the people around you. Make sure they know how much they mean to you. Let them never doubt how much they have touched you in their lives.