Rabbi Mordecai Waxman of Great Neck, L.I., a giant of Conservative Jewry and the only rabbi to be knighted by the Pope for his work in fostering Catholic-Jewish relations, was eulogized at his funeral Tuesday as the "rabbi of rabbis." Rabbi Waxman, surrounded by his family, died at his home Saturday at the age of 85 following a brief illness.
More than 1,000 mourners attended the funeral at Temple Israel in Great Neck, where Rabbi Waxman served as spiritual leader for 55 years. He was slated to retire at the end of this month.
Old Mill Road, on which the synagogue is located, was renamed Waxman Way just before the funeral. A police escort led the procession to Beth Moses Cemetery in Farmingdale.
Known for his oratorical eloquence and keen intellect, Rabbi Waxman served as president of numerous national Jewish organizations, many of which sent representatives to eulogize him at a funeral service that lasted nearly 22 hours.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, the noted author who once served as Rabbi Waxman’s assistant, observed that Rabbi Waxman had heard many of the same words of praise at a retirement dinner the synagogue held for him in June.
He said Rabbi Waxman was looking forward to retirement because it would give him time to update with his son, Rabbi Jonathan Waxman, his 1958 book "Tradition and Change," which at the time became the bible of the Conservative movement.
"There was ever so much he wanted to live for and problems on the Jewish scene" he wanted to address, said Rabbi Kushner.
Rabbi Jerome Davidson of the neighboring Temple Beth-El of Great Neck called Rabbi Waxman a "brilliant scholar" who ruffled the feathers of some colleagues with his historic message to Pope John Paul II when the pontiff visited Miami in 1987.
Rabbi Waxman, leading a delegation of 168 Jewish leaders, addressed the Pope in his capacity as chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation.
Following that meeting, members of the Synagogue Council of America, of which Rabbi Waxman was also president, criticized him for "not expressing enough outrage" at the Pope for meeting earlier in the year with Kurt Waldheim. The Austrian president had been accused of complicity in Nazi war crimes, Rabbi Davidson recalled.
Some even said that Rabbi Waxman "may never speak for the Jews again," Rabbi Davidson said. "Rabbi Waxman replied, ‘I spoke the truth as I see it, and no one is going to put words in my mouth or callousness in my heart.’"
Just 10 days before the Miami meeting, Rabbi Waxman and eight other Jewish leaders had met with the Pope at his summer retreat in Italy to register their protest over the Waldheim meeting and to threaten to boycott the Miami visit unless he apologized. There was no apology, but the meeting produced a Vatican promise to address anti-Semitism, Israel and other matters.
Representing the Pope at the funeral was Eugene Fisher, an associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "We mourn the loss of a mentor and a guide," he said.
Fisher noted that after the Church in 1998 issued a statement on its role during the Holocaust, Rabbi Waxman delivered a penetrating critique, after which the Church issued a "clarification prompted by the probing questions of Rabbi Waxman."
Among the Catholic clergy at the funeral was William Murphy, bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, L.I. Political dignitaries included Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-L.I.), who on his way into the sanctuary called Rabbi Waxman "the softest tower of strength that anybody could imagine. He was a great humanitarian; the whole world weeps."
Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, former president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly of America, of which Rabbi Waxman also served as president, termed Rabbi Waxman the "rabbi of rabbis" for the "generous assistance" he gave to his colleagues over the years.
"He was a pastor par excellence and a positive moral influence," he said. "He could grasp trends in the community and he was a brilliant speaker, writer and leader."
Another speaker, history professor Mark Perlman, who was Rabbi Waxman’s brother-in-law, called the rabbi the "last of a generation of orators" who was able to take "three to five unrelated socio-political threads" and weave them together to develop a cogent thought.
Rabbi Michael Greenbaum, vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which honored Rabbi Waxman earlier this year, called him a "mesmerizing speaker" and called his congregation the "flagship of the Conservative fleet."
"No one worked harder for klal Yisrael [the Jewish people]," he said. "He was a bridge builder: between the Catholics and Jews and between Jews and Jews. He spoke of the need to build bridges between Israel and the diaspora, and was an articulate spokesman for Conservative Judaism."
Jack Stein, a former president of Temple Israel, pointed out that Rabbi Waxman was in the forefront of the egalitarian movement in Conservative Judaism, and was called upon for advice on abortion by then-Vice President George Bush. Bush sent his own message of condolence.
The congregation’s president, Steven Markowitz, said that for all of Rabbi Waxmanís involvement on the world and national stage, he continued to lead his congregation and to make a "profound impact" on each member.
"The public persona was not the man," he said. "He was caring, sensitive and generous with his time, his strength and his money."
Just a few days before his death, Markowitz said Rabbi Waxman called to tell him about two families that needed help.
"His speech was labored, his breathing difficult … but he cared little about himself and only about our needs and future ideas for the synagogue and about how I was holding up," Markowitz recalled.
Rabbi Waxman’s three sons, David, Jonathan and Hillel, delivered their own eulogies, as did his five grandchildren. His wife, Ruth, a magazine editor and teacher, died in 1996.
"My father always put the interests of others above his own," said David. "If at times he appeared domineering … it was for the sake of the greater community. He knew he was a good rabbi and yet he remained a modest man."