Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Remembering Rabbi Dr. Samuel Press

I am saddened by the recent passing of Rabbi Dr. Samuel Press, who led the congregation at Beth Abraham Synagogue in Dayton, Ohio for 25 years starting in 1978. Prior to moving to Ohio, he served as the Chief Rabbi of Alaska and was also the Alaska Command Jewish chaplain for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

I have four memories/stories to share about Rabbi Press: 

1) Not long after Rabbi Press moved to the Dayton area, I was hospitalized for five days and four nights with a partially dislocated joint in my neck (it is not clear what caused this injury, but what I remember is that my head tilted to one side, I could not lift my head up, and it hurt a lot). I was in first grade, about to turn seven years old, and it meant a lot that Rabbi Press visited me while I was in the hospital with my neck in traction. I remember talking to Rabbi Press about my passion for the Cleveland Browns, and I remember that he listened intently even though--if I recall the details correctly more than 40 years later--he was a sports fan but not much of an NFL fan.

2) Rabbi Press placed enormous emphasis on treating people right, and displaying compassion for others. It is a great honor to receive an aliyah (a Hebrew word meaning to go up, and referring to being called up to read from the Torah during a Jewish prayer service), but Rabbi Press said that if you knock someone over in your haste to do an aliyah then you wipe out the entire honor.

How many people go through life so focused on themselves that they don't care about how their actions harm others? F. Scott Fitzgerald offered this vivid description of such people in his classic novel The Great Gatsby: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." 

Rabbi Press attempted to transform Beth Abraham Synagogue into a congregation of people who cared instead of being careless. He set an example by treating people kindly and with compassion. I can't say that every congregant followed his example, but I can say that he never wavered from setting the right example and challenging everyone--in a proactive way--to follow his example.

3) After the writer Eric Breindel passed away, I read a tribute to him that I will never forget: it stated that he spoke the truth without fearing the consequences. I can think of no higher praise that could be provided about someone. 

Rabbi Press spoke the truth without fearing the consequences.

I will never forget a sermon he gave during which he thundered from the pulpit about "That antisemitic Pope!" He was talking about Pope John Paul II, who invited Nazi war criminal Kurt Waldheim to the Vatican for an official visit and who consistently expressed support for terrorist Yasser Arafat while remaining silent about the Jewish victims of terrorism committed by Arafat's PLO. It also should never be forgotten that the Vatican still holds over 800 Hebrew manuscripts that are the rightful property of the Jewish people; scholar Dr. Manfred Lehmann described with unflinching criticism the Vatican's shameful handling of this issue

It was not easy or popular for Rabbi Press or Dr. Lehmann to speak the truth. Jews who speak the truth about the Catholic Church often face as much or more criticism from within the Jewish community than from outside the Jewish community, because many Jews think that if they shuffle and bow enough then they will be spared during the next wave of persecution--ignoring the fact that such cowardice has never been rewarded. We are seeing this today as leftist Jews who thought that being self-proclaimed "progressives" protected them from antisemitism are finding out--to their shock and dismay--that antisemites do not distinguish between religious Jews, secular Jews, right-wing Jews or left-wing Jews; for antisemites, the only good Jew is a dead Jew.

4) A few years after Rabbi Press gave that sermon, I wrote a well-researched and in depth article about the Catholic Church's long, sordid history of institutional antisemitism which sadly continues to this day. The Dayton Jewish community's "leaders" did not like this article and sought to isolate and discredit me. Dr. Lehmann supported and encouraged me, but most of the Dayton Jewish community remained silent while some cowards lashed out with ad hominem attacks against me (because they had no valid refutation for what I had written). One Dayton Rabbi supported me: Rabbi Press. I was never daunted or intimidated by  those who attacked me--despicable people, many of whom are now deceased, and none of whom deserve to have their names remembered for posterity--but I never forgot how Rabbi Press stood up not just for me but for the truth.

Rabbi Press was a man of courage and honor. I miss him, and I send thoughts of comfort and consolation in his memory to his family.

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