Friday, November 7, 2008
I visited an old friend this week in Mobile, Alabama, several old friends actually. I was there for a dedication. Sadly, my oldest friend - mentor and confidant - actually the hero of the day, was not present. To visit him, we needed to make a stop before the dedication and even at that stop, he was only present in spirit, for we were visiting his grave. Mayer “Bubba” Mitchell, one of the founders of Ramah Darom, a giant leader of the American Jewish community, and a courageous civic and national leader, died just over a year ago. Monday marked the grand opening of one of his grandest dreams: The Mitchell Cancer Institute of the University of South Alabama, a world-class cancer treatment center and research institute for the citizens of South Alabama, as well as those of Northern Florida and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
I am sure that the list of those who miss Bubba is long and esteemed. In fact, I am certain that were he still alive, he would have had to pull himself away from the unending phone calls from politicians seeking advice up to the last minute before the voting started on tuesday, in order to attend the dedication. I might even go so far as to say that the entire election season, and perhaps the outcome itself, would have been different if those same politicians would have been able to hear Bubba’s sage wisdom. At the dedication, the Governor, US Senators and Representatives, state and local politicians, all spoke with great warmth of the man we all knew as Bubba. His impact and his absence were powerfully felt.
The day was sunny, perfect actually. The new building gleamed, light and airy both inside and out, inspiring a sense of hope for the future for patients and researchers alike. Bubba’s wonderful wife, Arlene, his fantastic brother, Abe, his children and grandchildren brimmed with the pride and love they felt for Bubba and this major accomplishment, just as they mourned his very notable physical absence. After all the politicians and university representatives spoke, it was Arlene’s and then Abe’s turn to address the huge crowd. It requires incredible poise and grace to speak on such an uplifting and yet difficult occasion. Both sounded messages of hope that the Mitchell Cancer Institute would someday produce cures to this wretched disease. Abe taught the crowd a portion from the Talmud insuring that the central role that the Jewish People and Jewish Tradition plays in the life of the Mitchell family was shared with an audience the majority of which was not Jewish. It was an incredible moment. After the ribbon cutting, Rabbi Steve Silberman delivered a stirring benediction.
I miss Bubba too. At these difficult times, as I try to navigate the economic challenges that all Jewish organizations are facing, his wisdom would be reliable and forward- thinking. I miss his friendship and mentoring. When you sat with Bubba, he made you feel as important as any Senator or Representative that might call, even as he had to take that call from a person of such high political stature. In doing so, he reinforced the enduring sense that the work of Jewish education is important, that it is what we are all about, a value I fear is being challenged in these economic times when institutions will save so-called “financial profit centers” while sacrificing the core programs that justify their existence in the first place - the growth of and strengthening of Jewish identity, knowledge and commitment. He genuinely cared about and loved the Jewish people and felt it was his responsibility to work to support and protect them, be it those in his community or those half way across the world. We need more Bubba’s in this world and as I said before, I miss him very much.
Abraham is sent out into the world on a mission, to The Land, where he would be directed by the Hand of God. Along the way, he inspired others to join him. That sense of mission, of responsibility, of calling was shared by our friend, teacher and leader, Mayer “Bubba” Mitchell z”l. His legacies - a strong, committed family, a summer camp to inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders, an Israel advocacy organization, AIPAC, he led in the early 1990’s and influenced until his death and whose headquarters in Washington DC bears his name, a Jewish presence in Mobile, a commitment to education at the University of South Alabama, and a Cancer Institute that will help heal South Alabamians and find cures to cancer - are each awe inspiring. And yet, his most important legacies are those whose lives he touched, who he inspired personally or institutionally. I feel very blessed to have been so touched.
Many thanks to the entire Mitchell family for allowing me to join them in Mobile this week and for sharing Bubba with all of us.
I will be leaving for Israel on Wednesday night to attend the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities. If you are in Israel for the year or are attending the GA, please let me know. I would love to see you.