I was sitting at my workstation, typing away on my PC when a Facebook message flashed on the lower righthand corner of my screen: “Walter Boninger has a birthday today.”
He would have, if he had lived.
Walter, who was my friend and “rabbi,” died in Pittsburgh on March 25, 2018, a month short of his 90th birthday. I didn’t even know about it until another friend dropped me a line to let me know.
At first, I was reflexively ticked off at Facebook for keeping people’s accounts active long after they pass away.
Then, after thinking about it, I became somewhat grateful for the oversight. Walter was an amazing man who helped shape my youth.
A refugee from Nazi Germany, he lived through Kristallnacht, a pogrom carried out against the Jews, Walter and his parents were fleeing the country in 1939, when their ship hit a German mine and sank. Walter became an orphan at age 11.
He nevertheless made it to the states, was raised by relatives in New York and became a social worker.
Walter took a job at the Cleveland Society for the Blind and acted as cantor for a synagogue in Mayfield Heights.
Later, he moved to Butler, Pennsylvania, to take a job as the spiritual leader for the synagogue there. That’s where I, a young reporter in my first job, met him.
Walter was not really a rabbi; he did not have smicha (ordination), at least not at that time. But we called him rabbi anyway, and in every way you can imagine, other than official, he was.
A short man with gray, wavy hair, soft voice, who walked with a limp, Walter was approachable.
One of my most vivid memories of Walter was the day I rode with him to Polk State Hospital in northwest Pennsylvania, a gothic-looking home for the mentally ill located deep in a forest. (It seemed like the set for an Alfred Hitchcock movie.) Walter served as the rabbi for the Jews living there.
It was Passover, so he brought a little Torah from the synagogue, which was called “The Baby.” His “congregants clamored to touch it as he walked it around the room, chanting “Torah, Torah, Torah, Torah.” For those people, Walter was their only lifeline to their faith.
Another time, I inherited a painting from my grandmother, a copy of Marc Chagall’s Rabbi with Torah, which my Aunt Audrey had painted. I was young and dumb, so I thought I would just give it to the synagogue. Walter made me keep it. I was a little offended at first, but today that painting hangs in our house in Louisville and is one of our prized family heirlooms. Like me, my daughter will inherit it.
Walter understood its value before I did.
I lost touch with Walter after I left Butler. Then, years later, after returning to Pittsburgh, I walked into Temple Sinai one night. There he was, retired, white hair now, sporting a goatee, but he was singing enthusiastically in the choir – doing what he really loved.
He was never comfortable being called rabbi, for obvious reasons, but the title suited him. He was a teacher, not so much through his sermons, classes and written drashes (though he did all those things), but simply by the way he behaved. He survived so much pain in his life, yet he became someone who offered so much comfort.
A refugee from a hostile country (at least to Jews), Walter and his parents sought refuge in America, much like many people from Central America who are seeking asylum today.
Walter made it. As a result, my life, and the lives of so many others, were enriched. One wonders how many lives could be enriched by the refugees at our southern border, if only our country gave them the same chance that it gave Walter.
But that’s a discussion for another column.
Sometimes, I freak out thinking about all the people I once looked up to who are now gone. It’s up to my wife and me to provide for our daughter sans the traditional family safety net.
Then a Facebook message flashes on my screen, reminding me that those people are still providing comfort from across the ether of time. It feels good.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)