Young Israel of Scarsdale fairly hummed with purposeful activity last Sunday morning. In the social hall, groups of pre-teens and teenagers, assisted by several sets of parents, carefully helped younger children paint seder plates, decorate pillow covers and afikomen bags, and embellish Elijah cups.
These items, which were being sent on to a children’s home in Israel, Bet Elazraki, were created as a family chesed project honoring the memory of the late Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein and his equally cherished wife, Deborah, as part of a program observing their second yahrtzeit. The two died in a fire in their home in April, 2008.
“With time, the pain, and acute nature of the pain, dissipates,” said Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern, who took over after the deaths of the rabbi and rebbetzin. “The hope is with the natural mourning process the painful realities become cherished memories. If Rabbi and Debbie were here, they’d be kvelling. They were big proponents of bringing families together.”
With a focus on chesed, study, and the dedication of a walkway at a nearby park, the morning also featured Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, as the keynote speaker. Close to 300 people, from both the Scarsdale Young Israel congregation and the larger community, walked to Carpenters Pond for the walkway’s dedication.
“There was the idea of honoring their memory outside the synagogue community that came up shortly after their deaths,” said William Schrag, a member, and former president, of Young Israel of Scarsdale.
Noam Bramson, mayor of New Rochelle, said, “Jacob and Debbie Rubenstein were adored, respected and beloved by neighbors and community members of all faiths and traditions. They were leaders beyond the walls of the shul.”
The Rubensteins’ particularly embracing and welcoming leadership was a theme that resonated throughout speakers’ remarks.
“When I think of Jake and Debbie Rubenstein, I smile and think of celebration,” said Joel, the YU president. “I think of two things — their real commitment to Judaism, and their boundless capacity to not judge, but to embrace. Even as they judged no one, they inspired all.”
While the memory of the community’s loss two years ago was still vivid, there was a definite sense that Scarsdale’s Young Israel wanted to do something meaningful — and not mournful — to acknowledge the ongoing influence of their much-loved late rabbi and rebbetzin.
“We loved Rabbi Rubensten and Debbie,” said 12-year-old Danielle Plaue, who was helping some younger children paint their seder plates. “They would send you such a warm and happy feeling.”
This past summer, Danielle had visited Bet Elazraki, the children’s home in Israel that had been a pet project of the Rubensteins, which added further impetus to her participation. “I felt I should do it,” Danielle said.
Her mother, Sharon Plaue, whose family has belonged to Young Israel of Scarsdale for the past 18 years, added, “We still miss the rabbi and Debbie. The rabbi was so children-oriented. People wanted to do this.”
Still, Rabbi Morgenstern said, “People are still struggling. The more we can take what they gave to us, bring it into our own lives and make meaning, the more we’re perpetuating their lives. On a Torah level, there are sayings of the sages that say the ‘death of the righteous atones for the Jewish people.’ The death of the righteous atones by how the community reacts afterwards. People are inspired by them.”
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