By DEAN M. SHAPIRO
Family members and friends gathered at the Btesh Family Chabad House, adjacent to the Tulane University campus, on the evening of May 24 to honor the memory of the late Chabad shaliach (emissary), David Kaufmann, Ph.D., who passed away in Houston on March 1.
Kaufmann, a Tulane professor, scholar, emissary to the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson and a leader in the local Chabad Lubavitch community, was well-loved and respected by his family, his students and the many friends he made over his four decades of service. One of his signature and long-lasting accomplishments was the spearheading of the annual Chanukah menorah-lighting ceremony at the Riverwalk which began in the late 1980s.
On hand to hear the tributes were Kaufmann’s wife, Nechama Kaufmann, and two of his daughters. Delivering accolades to Kaufmann were half a dozen speakers, including two of his former students at Tulane. Rabbi Mendel Rivkin, program director for the Chabad House, was the moderator.
In addition to the speakers, letters were read from two prominent individuals in the local Jewish community – attorney Morris “Buddy” Bart and former New Orleans City Councilman-at-large and incoming Jewish Federation of New Orleans CEO and executive director Arnie Fielkow.
Rabbi Rivkin began the program by stating, “In the Chabad chassidic tradition, we can feel the pain of loss but, at the same time, we can translate that into something positive; something that’s going to make a difference and bring (comfort) to Nechama and that’s certainly our intention here tonight with this event.”
After acknowledging Nechama Kaufmann and the couple’s daughters in the audience, Rivkin continued, “The Talmud tells us that when a member of the group passes away, the entire group must be moved. Dr. Kaufmann was a member of many groups, first and foremost, his family; a member of the New Orleans Jewish community going back many, many years.
“All of us who are members of these groups – and some of us are members of more than one group – need to be moved by this event,” Rivkin added. “And we need to move in a positive way and resolve to improve our lives – to live more Jewish lives and engage ourselves more because that is the legacy that David leaves to us.”
Next to speak was Rivkin’s father, Rabbi Zelig Rivkin, Chabad’s co-director, Louisiana’s first shaliach to Rebbe Schneerson, and a longtime friend of Kaufmann’s. The elder Rivkin recounted how, shortly after his arrival in New Orleans in November of 1975, he met Kaufmann and was immediately impressed by him and his background.
“There was one thing I learned very quickly about David,” Zelig Rivkin said, “He has a lot of integrity. He is a person who is easy to accept something which he believes is true. He didn’t have the hesitancy to make changes in his thinking or in his life when he decided this made sense to him.”
The senior rabbi also recalled his long discussions on a wide variety of subjects with Kaufmann and how he performed the wedding for the Kaufmanns at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter after the couple met while both were working in Florida.
“I feel that Chabad had a great benefit by David’s presence here,” Zelig Rivkin concluded. “He was a person I was proud to have met and inspired in some way or another. I wish for everybody to take their memories of David and bring them to life and put them into practice.”
Next on the podium was Bill Norman, another longtime friend of Kaufmann’s, with whom he did Torah study. Norman, a Reform Jew, noted that Kaufmann “was not judgmental of those of us who, in my case, were strong Reform Jews, active on the national level. I would tell him, ‘Well, I don’t keep kosher’ and he’d say, ‘Not yet.’”
Norman acknowledged that, through his longtime association with Kaufmann, “I am now more traditional than I was when I met him. Some of the things I learned were outside of his direct influence, but some of the questions I had that other people answered were those that were raised in my sessions with David.”
Rabbi Zelig Rivkin’s wife and Chabad’s co-director, Bluma Rivkin, read the letters from Fielkow and Bart. In his letter, written from Chicago where he will be living until relocating here next month, Fielkow said, “David was a beautiful human being and someone I truly loved. I will forever miss him.” The incoming Federation director recalled his friendship with Kaufmann which dated back to when their sons were growing up and on the same baseball team at Carrollton Playground. Fielkow, the team coach, appointed Kaufmann as the team’s assistant coach and statistician.
“If ever there was a person who defined the word ‘mensch,’ it was David,” Fielkow concluded. “May your family and friends be ever comforted by the treasured life you led.”
Bart, in his letter, called Kaufmann “a gifted teacher [who] also had an inquisitive mind and always asked very probing questions. He wanted to learn just as much as he wanted to impart knowledge.”
Bart recalled the role he played in helping Kaufmann and Nechama achieve their “lifelong dream” of visiting Israel. He expressed his gratitude for the mezuzah the Kaufmanns bought there and gave to Bart and his wife Cathy which still graces the doorway of their home. “I will miss my friend greatly. May his memory be a blessing,” the letter ended.
Following the letter readings, the next speaker, Jeff Kaston, spoke about his 20-year friendship with Kaufmann. “I never stopped learning from David. His inclusiveness toward me and my family was heartfelt and unwavering,” Kaston said, noting that Kaufmann chose his wife, Betsy, to be the emcee for the Riverwalk menorah lighting ceremony.
“My friend, David, you will never be forgotten,” Kaston said, concluding his brief remarks.
Next up to the dais were two of Kaufmann’s former students at Tulane, Jonathan Harris and Andrea Merlin. Harris, a 40-year-old Chicagoan, eulogized Kaufmann by saying, “In our time on this planet we are blessed to come across people who have such a profound impact on our lives that it actually changes the path and the trajectory of your life. People who, if you didn’t know them, your life would be completely different from what it is now. David Kaufmann fills that role.
“The most important thing we can do is to keep the present tense when speaking of him,” Harris said. “Hashem has decided that the physical form that allowed him to do his duties here had done its work, but thank God his Nechama is still very with us. Thank you to Hashem for giving you to us in our lives.”
Merlin related her experiences of enjoying many Shabbat dinners at the Kaufmanns’ house and noted that “He really embodied the concept of welcoming the stranger. Those dinners at their home were such warm experiences. They gave me my first glimpse of full-out chassidic Judaism. One thing I can see is that Hassidism brings great enthusiasm for learning and inexplicable joy during holidays and celebrations.”
Discussions of Torah and Talmud with Kaufmann at his home “gave more depth of understanding than what was discussed in class,” Merlin added. “We experienced the communal and spiritual side of all those scholarly lectures I got in my classes. We were getting the history in school and the heart and soul of Judaism at David and Nechama’s house. I feel his greatest accomplishment was to share his life with others.”
The evening’s final speaker was L. J. Goldstein, a Tulane Law School graduate and founder of the Mardi Gras parade group, Krewe du Jieux. Goldstein recalled that Kaufmann was open-minded about the krewe’s “shtick and concepts,” which good-naturedly parody Jewish stereotypes.
“New Orleans is a very blue dot in an otherwise very red state,” Goldstein said. “I think of David as a blue dot in an otherwise very red Chabad. He wasn’t born into this. He made a conscious choice to put on the black hat and all that stuff and bring it into his life. That’s a bold thing to do. You have to see a pathway through life to do that because that’s a lot of stuff and he made me comfortable in my own skin as a Jewish person. He had this glint in his eye of what it means to really love what you’re doing.”
Following the testimonials, there was a 10-minute visual presentation of photos of Kaufmann from various times in his life. Over the last few minutes of the visuals, one of Kaufmann’s sons, Saadya, delivered a narration about why his newborn son will be named after their grandfather.
“It says in the Talmud that when a son is born during a year of mourning for a parent it brings great blessing to the family and it’s known that the Jewish name is a reflection of a person’s essence,” the narration begins. It concludes by expressing the wish that the newborn son grows up to be “God-fearing and a Torah scholar” like his late grandfather.
Concluding the evening’s presentations, Mendel Rivkin, said, “Every gathering of the Jewish people, especially a gathering in a Chabad House and especially for a shaliach, should have some practical application and, as we gather to remember, in Judaism remembering is not enough. We also have to fill the void that was left by the person who accomplished and did so much. That void has to be filled by each and every one of us. And the way we do that is by resolving to do good things in the area of Torah and Torah study, tefilla, prayer and charity. I encourage all of you to strengthen all of these areas of your life.”
To view the full video of the evening’s presentations, visit the Chabad Lubavitch of Louisiana’s Facebook page.