For many of you, Eugene Borowitz was a towering figure but to us he was “daddy” or “Gene-o” as our mother used to call him. You might imagine it wasn’t easy growing up as the daughters of this man, whose intellect, presence and impact was so big. We would meet people and they would say “Eugene Borowitz?! The Eugene Borowitz? Ohhh….” We knew growing up he had a special place in the world, but we also knew that we were his special place, his dear family, starting first and foremost with our mother, Estelle, his true true love of 57 years. Then came me, born at a Naval hospital when dad was in the chaplaincy; then Drucy, after the move to Port Washington; and Nan, brought home to the Community Synagogue building where we lived for six more months. That synagogue family, so aptly named, became a centerpiece in our family life, with so many friends and lasting connections, though dad moved on from professional congregational life, first to the Union and then to HUC.
Port Washington was home for 48 years, and dad was a regular commuter on the Long Island railroad, through slowdowns and ice storms alike. He carpooled with neighbors to the train in the morning but often mom would pile us in the car and we’d greet his train at the station, racing to see who could find him first walking off the platform, always with a package of those square Charms candies in his pocket to give us. Our home on 19 Reid Avenue was the site of many, many dinner parties for his students. No doubt some of you will remember being there. Dad was trying to lower the barriers between teacher and student, and always, always trying to build a sense of community. That meant we got to be a part of it too. We practiced learning to be hosts by helping take coats, and serving coffee one carefully balanced cup on a saucer at a time. But there were other parties too, with dad doing a late night run for pizzas when Lisa had a cast party after a high school show, or we had a pasta and wine party so dad could serve all 10 sub-region “crus” of Beaujolais.
Dad’s home office was on the first floor, later relocated to the second floor when our mom needed the first floor for her psychoanalysis practice. He’d be in the office writing away, or correcting papers with the famous green pen, or paying the bills. The door was always open and we were free to go in whenever we wanted to share news of our day or show off a new outfit – well mostly whenever -- there were certainly times you could feel the brainwaves telling you not to cross the threshold!
Dad was serious but could also be a playful, even silly guy. We used to climb up his legs and he’d flip us; or he’d take his arms and pretend to be an elephant. We have childhood memories of sitting on the back of the station wagon at the Tasty Freeze, driving to Camp White Pine or sledding in the back yard. Dad always told us to be careful to sled between the beloved rhododendrons at the bottom of the hill in our backyard, and was the first to laugh at the home movie of him plowing right into one on a sledding run! He liked to watch Laugh-In and Johnny Carson; he loved the Muppets and Gilbert & Sullivan. He always had classical music playing and was a regular for the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast. And of course wine and chocolate were his friends!
Dad wanted to be in our lives as much as possible. He traveled a lot for lectures and second services for high holy days and yet he wanted to be sure we could count on him, lean on him, and he could be connected to us. As we got older, this turned into letters he would write to share what was happening in his life and to offer support or advice; we had lots of phone conversations and of course he always took a speaking engagement wherever one of us lived. He wanted us to be together in true loving connection.
And yet, this fun and loving dad was also the man we waited to welcome home after he was jailed for a night in St. Augustine with colleagues working to advance race relations and civil rights. He was the man who advocated for cross-denominational dialogue by founding Sh’ma from our kitchen table and building it into the journal of Jewish responsibility, working so carefully to create a balanced editorial board and to gain support from friends to get it published. He was the man who wrote all those articles and books, but more importantly demonstrated to us what it means to be a person who loves life and loves to learn. We remember the story our grandfather told that he had to tell dad to pick what he was going to study by the end of his first year of college. Grandpa Benny said to him, “I know you Gene, if I don’t give you a deadline, you’ll be a student forever.” Well, he chose philosophy at Ohio State but the learning did go on forever and he had an inner flame to share and learn as a teacher. For him that meant not just studying and internalizing knowledge, but wrestling with and debating it; and he loved it the most when he was in dialogue with others. He cherished his foundational rabbinic friendships with Arnie Wolf and Steve Schwarzchild, his devoted sparring partners and brothers-in-spirit across decades.
But his best partner was our mother Estelle. She drew him out in so many wonderful ways, as he did with her. They could exchange a look and know what the other was thinking; they had a whistle they used to find each other across the house or the backyard; they had a true I/Thou relationship in the deepest sense. She read his drafts, offering him comments; he supported her growth by insisting she finish or pursue a degree; she helped him grow by suggesting therapy, both as a couple and individually. He often worked too long or relentlessly on a project, which drove her crazy; she coaxed him to leave his desk and take a break for friends, family or travel. They built their life and their love together and continuing his life without her was a challenge he bore but never really got used to.
Our dad was genuinely interested in people. He wanted to be sure he knew someone’s name, and he cared that people should be thanked or acknowledged for efforts big and small. Once, when Drucy was driving with him, they passed through a highway tollbooth and he thanked the tolltaker, commenting to Drucy on the importance of acknowledging the holy “thou” in each personal interaction. He was also unfailingly discrete, no juicy gossip at our dinner table conversations – la-shon ha ra! He loved community and was a participating member of many: in Columbus, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Port Washington and Stamford; through the Community Synagogue, Edgehill, and Temple Sinai, and our summer communities at Camp White Pine and Chautauqua; and through his professional worlds at NFTY, Behrman House, the Jewish Publication Society, the Union, and of course HUC-JIR. He loved his students, TAs, and assistants at Sh’ma. He was devoted to and felt mutual affection from his Bible Study circle here at Temple Sinai. And, the deep bonds he formed with colleagues at HUC were a central part of his life. The College-Institute was truly a second home. He was on a mission to help shape Reform Jewish thinking and practice, and to help develop the leaders who would lead in the next generation.
He loved the way our family grew over time. His sons-in-law brought him special joy, both Phil, that “dear boy” who earned the accolade early on by calling our mother unprompted for Mother’s Day, and Andy with whom he spent many a summer afternoon soaking up the beauty of chamber music together. Then of course there were each of the grandchildren, so precious to him each in their own unique way as he watched them grow into adults: Zoey, Zack, Noah, Emily and Josh; and later the joy of offering blessing under the chuppah as Zoey brought Matt and a year later Noah brought Monikah into the family. Last month he was happy to meet his great grandson Lewis, giving him the chance to make more of those great faces that were dad’s trademark.
In recent months, as his decline in strength and body grew more profound, he found ways to let us know how much he loved and admired us. He always asked what was going on for us; as we would tell him about what was happening at work or with friends and family, he would lovingly ask “and what about YOU darling?” Or say, “I’m really proud of you and your accomplishments” or simply “I love you” or “God bless you sweetheart.” Nothing was left unsaid and there was always a kiss on the head, the cheek or the hand. We and dad so appreciated the tender loving care and companionship of his home health aides Nancy and Jenita who lovingly called him rabbi and treated him as he had treated so many others in his life, with respect, thoughtfulness and joy. They eased his days when we daughters could not be at his side. Throughout dad’s final years, there is no doubt that the greatest mainstay and support to dad was the towering strength and loving devotion of our sister Lisa. Her love and steadfast attention whether in body or in spirit centered him, and their connection was sacred.
As an expression of love from our amazing father, the man of so many accomplishments, so much wisdom, and so much loving, we share this final story with you. When Drucy asked dad whether he was angry with God at his loss of so many capacities, he said “I have been given so much more than has been taken away from me.” So, may we live our lives to be able to enjoy a similar sense of fulfillment and blessing.
We will carry him in our hearts forever.