With Pastorin Ulrike Wohlfahrt
Pastorin Ulrike Wolfhahrt and I After my sermon at the Bonhoefferkirche  in 2015


I never expected she would come to the train station herself … but there she was. I mean it was one of the biggest days of her life, the day when she was to be formally installed as Pastor of the Ev. Lutheran Church in Brokstedt, Germany.

She wrote that “someone” would meet the train, so we would know how to find the church, but she rode her bike to the station to greet us herself. The four of us walked back to town together,  Ulrike, Vickie, the bike and me.

In the hour before the service, a group of young scouts were busily preparing the churchyard for the reception afterwards. They worked with purpose and determination. They seemed so proud to take part in such a special day for the village.

The church was beautiful. Ulrike had asked me to read portions of Psalm 103 in Hebrew while her husband, Pastor Alexander Wolfhahrt read the same passages after me in German.  It was a touching moment.. the choir sang beautifully, and their voices clearly resonated with a feeling of how very special the day was.

Then the Propst, Dr Kurt Riecke charged Pastor Wolfhahrt and the Congregation to cherish the bond they had created. Then he invited me up to share a thought with Ulrike and join him in asking God to bless her.

As I walked to the front of the church, my mind flashed back to the first time I met Pastorin Ulrike Wolfhahrt in 2015. She was one of the Pastors At the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Church in Neumünster, and she asked me to preach a sermon explaining why Jews do not believe in Jesus as Christians do. She wanted the congregation to hear a frank explanation to the community of this important theological difference between our two religions.

Her welcome and warm encouragement of me to deal with this difficult subject gave me strength. We formed a bond that day that was very special. We shared a mission to deal with a sensitive subject in a way that was open, honest and mutually respectful.

A year later, on our next visit to Germany she brought her beautiful four-year-old son Samuel to visit me in Bad Segeberg. The three of us took a nice walk on a chilly autumn afternoon and then had cocoa in a lovely coffee shop.

Afterward that visit, Pastor Wolfhahrt wrote me that Samuel had said, “I like Stephen because he knows my heart.”

And so as I walked to the front of the church last Sunday I thought of the biblical passage when Samuel revealed that he chose David to be King over his brothers because God knows his heart. (I Samuel 16:7)

And before I placed my hands and on her head to ask God to bless her, I said, “Just as the Biblical Samuel said of David, God has chosen you and Alexander to be parents of your Samuel and leaders of this church because God knows your heart.”

When the Propst formally presented Pastorin Wolfhahrt to the congregation, they rose in a touching standing ovation for her. It was a beautiful tribute that sent shivers down my spine.

Then Pastorin Wolfhahrt began her sermon about the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32). My German is not nearly good enough to understand all that she said, but I know that she spoke with conviction and passion and held the congregation in the palm of her hand.

After the service Pastor Wolfhahrt received the warm congratulations of the many people who crowded the church, and a lovely outdoor picnic reception ensued.

Vickie and I returned to Bad Segeberg filled with joy that we could share such a wonderful event.   We felt we had been blessed to witness such an extraordinary moment of spiritual unity between a Pastor and her community.

Days later the feeling endures.

Flora’s Torah

Grandma and Saba were staying with Flora and Logan while Mommy and Daddy were out. Tomorrow, Flora will be four years old.

While  Grandma was putting Logan to bed, Flora and Saba were sitting at the table while she finished her dinner.

”Saba,” Flora Asked, “How did God make the world?”

”I don’t know how God made the world,” I answered. “That is why I pray to God, because there is so much about God we don’t know.”

“Although I don’t know how God made the world,” I continued. “I think I know why: So that all of us will try to make the world a good and kind place for everyone to live.”

”I think God made the world,” Flora answered, “with lots of paper and tape. Then God made the tape really strong, really, really strong so that everyone can stand on it.”

”That’s an interesting idea.”

”Saba, why did your Mommy die?”

”She died because her body was old and worn out.”

”Tell me the whole story of how your Mommy died,”

”Well, she lived for a long time in New Jersey, and then Grandma and I wanted her to live closer to us in Connecticut. So we brought her here to live. She was happy here, but one day she fell, and then she got sick. We thought she was getting better, but her body was just too frail, and so she died. We were very sad. She was very nice, good and kind, and that is why we were so happy when Mommy and Daddy named you after her.”

“Was God ever a little boy?”

”No Flora, God is not a person, God is an invisible force in each of us who wants us to try however we can to help others and make the world a better place. God is not a boy or a girl. God has no shape or form or any body that we can see. God wants us to help others, but God does not make us. We have to decide to help others, and I hope you will.”

As I reflected on my talk with Flora, I know she will have lots more questions, but it was most important to me not to tell her anything that I don’t believe myself.

Rita Goldberg

June 3, 2018

Today, Vickie and I are at the picturesque church in the village of Schulensee in northern Germany where I am preaching to the Lutheran congregation about the events on Mount Sinai and how they can speak meaningfully to Christians as well as to Jews.

Yes, our bodies are in Schulensee but our hearts are at Rita Goldberg’s funeral.

From the day I first met her in Columbia, Rita appreciated interfaith outreach, and enthusiastically encouraged my efforts in that realm. I dedicate my words today in her memory.

Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania with few Jews, Rita particularly appreciated the importance of inter-religious understanding and cooperation. She took a keen interest in what Vickie and I do in Germany, and I dedicate my words today to her memory.  Although Rita would be glad we are here, Vickie and I wish we were with Dick and all of you today.

Rita Zieve Goldberg … I always thought of her as Rita Z.

She was the daughter of a beloved small-town physician who made house calls. Rita inherited his wisdom and compassion.

We met in 1973. They came to Columbia and Temple Isaiah just before I arrived to begin my one-year internship with the congregation. We have been dear friends ever since.

I was first in awe of Rita when I learned she had personally known the great baseball player Richie Allen in high school. The subsequent years would yield more substantive reasons for me to be in awe of Rita.

To me she was ageless. She never seemed young, and – even when we visited her a few weeks back in hospice care—she never seemed old.

Her speech had a unique and endearing lilt, and her laugh was unmistakable. Perhaps it was Rita’s greatest triumph that she was able to laugh and smile despite the tragedy and endless list of illnesses that marked her life’s path.

The first—of many—volunteer jobs I remember Rita taking on was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to serve as a luncheon for the monthly family services Temple Isaiah began holding at Swansfield Neighborhood center.

I remember Dianne Tobin playing a toy organ, I remember the smiling faces of children, some of whom became rabbis, sitting on the floor before me as I told a Shabbat story, but the magic that makes those memories so special was Rita’s sandwiches.I

Rita wore many hats, loving wife and occasional ego deflator of Dick, devoted mother of Andy, advisor to the rabbi, confidante of Vickie, peerless hostess and dear friend to so many.

As memorable as Rita was as a hostess, she was even more memorable as a guest. When she came to your home for any social occasion, you could count on a beautifully handwritten note of thanks appearing in your mailbox the next business day.

Our lives intersected frequently at events big and small, both joyous and sad. She was a fabulous storyteller.

Her home was a favorite sleepover destination for our son Leo when he was small. Vickie was very pregnant with Sarah when we attended second night Seder at their home in 1979. We always recount how Rita’s Matzah balls that evening were the catalyst that sent Vickie into labor to give birth the following day.

Fast-forward to recent days, and it was Rita and Dick who visited out children in San Francisco to give wise council to each of them at a difficult time.

I remember Andy’s Bar Mitzvah like it was yesterday. The date was the Shabbat during Sukkot. Because I was very big on having families build Sukkot, I suggested to Andy that his family should build one. It did not take Rita long to appear in my office to share that Sukkah building was not a Goldberg family forte, and that we should think of some other way to connect Andy’s Bar Mitzvah to the festival. After we put our heads together, Rita and Andy came up with the idea of a model sukkah made out of Popsicle sticks. I can still see it in my mind.

That episode was so typical of Rita. If sukkah building was not her forte, finding equitable solutions to potential conflicts surely was.

More clearly than the miniature Sukkah, I can still see the joy Rita’s face radiated at how much Andy learned and how skillfully he taught the congregation at his Bar Mitzvah.

Inevitably my memories of Rita on that wonderful day in October 1981 scramble discordantly together in my mind with my memories of that horrible day in March of 2009 when Andy died.

There is no greater heartbreak for a mother than to lose a child, and if possible, the heartbreak is even greater when that child is your one and only, and your souls are so inextricably intertwined as are Rita and Dick’s souls with Andy’s.

And yet Rita pushed on with determination and purpose.

Miraculously she found joy in life despite the horror of losing Andy and despite the incredible list of medical issues with which she lived. Through all she endured, even on her deathbed, Rita was always smiling and always looking for ways to help others.

That is why I will always be genuinely in awe of her.

She and Dick shared a remarkable marriage of well over 50 years. Truly they were meant for each other, so much so that it is hard to imagine one without the other. No more poignant definition of the word, “Alone,” comes to my mind than Dick without Rita.

I cannot say with certainty what happens to Rita now, but my hope is that she is not alone. In my mind’s eye I see her reunited with her parents and most of all with Andy.

Together, unfettered by infirmities, they will laugh, smile and revel in each other’s company. They will look after one another, and together they will hope that we will look after Dick with the incredible love and devotion with which Dick looked after her.

That is the best way I know to insure that the memory of Rita Zieve Goldberg will be an enduring blessing!