This eulogy for Howard Blitman, z”l, was delivered on January 4, 2021 by Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D.
Howard Blitman, z”l
I am blessed to live my life in an intergenerational web of connections, to have beloved mentors and beloved teachers alongside my parents — including Howard Blitman. One of the most important lessons from my own parents is to show up as often as possible at simkhas, at celebrations, so that we see our dear ones at a happy moment before we reconvene on a sad occasion such as this one. That wisdom was the determining principle when we made arrangements last September to gather at Bet Am Shalom to award Howard the Presidential Recognition Award from Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement. We honored Howard for his service as a long-time member of the board of governors and for his many contributions to the Reconstructionist movement.
This virus has taken so much from us. It has forced us to defer and to alter and to adapt in ways that are full of challenge. Howard was originally scheduled to receive the award as part of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s graduation ceremony in June. He had been so delighted by the letter notifying him of this honor. Seth Rosen, the chair of Reconstructing Judaism’s board of governors, and I visited him shortly after it arrived and Howard spoke about how this honor was a culmination of his lifelong embrace of Reconstructionism. His connection was nurtured by his parents, who were close friends with Lee Sneider, one of the founders of the Reconstructionist movement. When Howard was a child, Lee introduced him to “Uncle Ira,” better known as Rabbi Dr. Ira Eisenstein, son-in-law of founder Mordecai Kaplan and a chief builder of both the congregational union and the rabbinical college. After he returned home from Korea, Howard chose the movement as an adult, attending the Society for the Advancement of Judaism on the Upper West Side to hear Kaplan and Eisenstein speak, moved by Reconstructionism’s embrace of Jewish peoplehood and by the nonpersonal theology that meshed with his scientific turn of mind.
It was hard when I called Howard in early May to tell him that we had decided not to hold a public graduation — that we would graduate our rabbis in a private ceremony and would defer the awards and honorary degrees to next year. I mentioned that perhaps we could find another way to honor him sooner. Howard was at once bitterly disappointed and very understanding. He urged me to find a way for it to happen sooner rather than later. I heard the urgency in his voice, with a little clutch in my heart for what we both left unsaid.
We are all grateful to staff members of Reconstructing Judaism and Bet Am Shalom for their efforts to create that special, socially distant day. It was unlike anything we ever would have previously imagined, and it was wonderful. As these times require, we kept the gathering small and streamed it out to a larger crowd, including many members of the board of governors of Reconstructing Judaism. Howard and Maureen were both there, as were many of their family members. It was a good day for Howard: he was present and deeply happy. It was a longer and more expansive ceremony than usual, and Rabbi Bronstein and Seth Rosen and I all spoke, and Howard made a few remarks. You all know that as an engineer Howard moved easily between the macro and the micro, and it was sweetly appropriate that Reconstructing Judaism granted the award in the beautiful sanctuary of Bet Am Shalom, the Reconstructionist synagogue Howard helped to rebuild after a catastrophic fire.
I’ll share some of what I got to say to Howard, not just about him, and then I’ll augment a little bit:
Your focus, Howard, if it’s not on your family, your focus is on the future. You are a true Reconstructionist, always looking forward, curious and confident. In your board service to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, you chaired the Special Programs Committee, seeking interesting ways to broaden our impact and appeal, and that was the role you played as well on RRC’s last Strategic Planning Committee as a stand-alone institution. You were an early champion for our investing in digital outreach; you were firmly (and presciently) convinced this was the path forward. There was one memorable Executive Committee meeting when you vehemently urged us to put more resources into our website because “that was where the young people were,” and then, at the end of your stirring speech, you admitted that you hadn’t really gone online, but you knew it was important. Howard, you have always built for the long haul, combining vision and creativity with good and careful planning. You have done that for your family, for the Bet Am Shalom community and for the Reconstructionist movement.
In addition to all this, Howard played a critical role in an expansion of Camp Havaya, the Reconstructionist summer camp in the Poconos. Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, the executive director of our camping program, wrote to me:
[Howard] was truly instrumental in bringing the Eco-Village to life – connecting us with a project manager, working with the bank, and helping shepherd us through the construction process. Throughout, he was wonderfully generous with his time, his expertise, and his guidance. And he was a kind and patient teacher, especially with a rabbi who had no previous construction experience!
Isaac also mentioned that Howard “always seemed genuinely interested in, completely engaged with, and totally committed to the success of whatever project [he was] working on.” This was so apt. Tributes have been flowing in from fellow board members. Don Shapiro described Howard as a good friend, and Karen Kolodny, who met Howard through their shared service on the board and got to know him much better when she became the executive director of the JCC of Mid-Westchester, talked about how helpful and engaged he was in supporting her work at the JCC, especially the theatre renovation. She summed up, “[Howard] was committed to the Jewish community.”
Isaac said that beneath Howard’s “gruff exterior” he always found Howard to be “incredibly warm.” I saw the gruffness, the fierceness, the intensity. And, as I said to him in September, for me, personally, I could not have had a more passionate champion. Howard nurtured me in my rabbinical work; Howard and Maureen welcomed Christina and me to Nantucket; he cheered me on in my doctoral studies, asked for and even read my dissertation; and celebrated and supported every step of my presidency. And at every single encounter, after asking about my well-being, Howard also inquired after Christina’s. The generous support that he extended to the Reconstructionist movement, he also extended to me, and I am so grateful.
To mark that day in September, we commissioned a piece of music in Howard’s honor. The text we chose to set to music was a verse from Psalm 118: Even ma’asu habonim haytah lerosh pinah. In our prayerbook’s translation: “The stone rejected by the builders has become this place’s founding stone.” Howard was the stone, the foundation of strength on whom we all relied. Howard was the builder, who crafted materials into structures that shelter us. Howard was the visionary, who saw materials and people for their worth and drew out their potential. How lucky are we that we knew him. Let us look to the future, as Howard always did, and let us build the world we want the next generation to live in. There can be no better way to honor his life and to make his memory a blessing.