A long time ago (1978-1981), I served as a student rabbi at Temple B’nai Moshe in LaSalle/Peru, Illinois. Students from my rabbinic school in Cincinnati would travel every two weeks, from September to June, to our assigned congregation to lead worship, engage in study, teach children, and make pastoral visits to congregants facing illness or other challenges.
One of my members at Temple B’nai Moshe was a man named Irving Bell who lived in Ottawa, Illinois. Mr. Bell, who founded Bell’s Clothing in 1922, was born in 1899 in Lithuania. He came to the United States in 1913 (at age 14) from Germany at the insistence of his parents, Moses and Dora Kubelsky. He joined his uncle Meyer and cousin Benny in Waukegan, Illinois. While going to school there, Irving worked at his uncle’s store. Meyer Kubelsky liked what he saw in his nephew as a salesman. That was not so with Meyer’s son, Benny.
Irving’s daughter, Marcia, related a story that, one day, Meyer said to his son, “'Why can't you learn to sell like Irving instead of playing your stupid violin?” The way Irving told me the story was that his uncle said to his cousin, “You’ll never amount to anything.”
While Irving shortened his last name to Bell, his cousin Benny dropped his last name during his career, and added a first name: Jack. Irving’s cousin was well-known entertainer Jack Benny.
Most every time I saw Irving at Temple, he would say to me, “I remember the beginning of the Haftarah (a section from the biblical prophetic books) from my Bar Mitzvah like it was yesterday.” He would then recite in Hebrew, ChazonYeshayahu ven Amotz asher chazah al-Yehudah. It was the first verse of the book of Isaiah, “The vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz, that he beheld concerning Judah.” Then Irving would add, “but if you asked me what I had for breakfast, I couldn’t tell you.”
This past Sabbath was the week when Jews around the world recited chapter one of book of Isaiah. So I thought about Irving and his frequent sharing of a distant memory.
In the section from the book of Isaiah from Irving’s Bar Mitzvah, the prophet railed against the people of Judah for not understanding the need to sincerely follow their faith. He claimed that they only went through the motions of their rituals with no intention and no sense that they were supposed to translate belief into action.
So Isaiah declared to the people that they should “cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, uphold the rights of the orphan, and take up the cause of the widow.”
In his book, All Politics is Religious, Rabbi Dennis Ross explained that Isaiah insisted that community members should meet people in need where they were, as opposed to blaming them for their plight. Seeking justice was not about imposing punishment. It was about approaching vulnerable members of society with a sense of compassion and fairness.
Both Irving Bell and his famous cousin, Jack Benny, amounted to something. It is likely that their new community in Waukegan assisted them in feeling at home after they first arrived, setting them up with what they needed to be able to, eventually, help themselves.
Isaiah’s message can still guide us today. We can be here for each other, offering help to one another when necessary. The choice is ours, as the blessingsthat can come from our hands and hearts could be ours as well.