It may seem odd to be writing about the death of someone inspiring under the category of My Personal Bliss, but not so, when you read further. In 1997, I became aware of a man named Rabbi Joseph Gelberman who was known as a “Modern Hassidic Rabbi”. He traveled from his native Hungary to New York where, along with Swami Satchidanada and Reverend Jon Mundy, he created The New Light Temple, the seeds of which began The New Seminary, an international renown body that ordains interfaith clergy. A physically diminutive man with a larger than life presence and huge heart, Rabbi Gelberman was a charismatic figure. His religion was Love and he embraced the teachings of many faiths, eshcewing none. The motto of The New Seminary was “Never instead, always in addition.”
I had heard wonderful things about the school from friends who had attended. The idea of reaching beyond traditional boundaries of religious faith appealed to the universality of my own beliefs, but I had not felt called to ministry at the time. My husband, however, did. Michael enrolled in the two year program following a diagnosis of Hepatitis C, a potentially life threatening condition. His immersion into the course work was a comfort during his own end of life experience, although we didn’t know it at the time. I casually studied along with him, reading to him, typing his papers and quizzing him when he was unable to do those things for himself. I was unintentionally learning the course material.
When Michael entered the hospital in a coma, for the last 5 ½ weeks of his life, I faced many ‘dark nights of the soul’ and did what I referred to as “God wrestling”, saying to the One “He’s mine and you can’t have him.”, to which the Creator replied, “He’s mine and he’s on loan to you, like everyone else.” One bright light during that painful time, was a call I received through which a comforting voice asked how I was faring. He reassured me that it wasn’t Michael’s time, and “God wasn’t ready for him yet”, since he “had more ‘verk to do.”, uttered in his charmingly thick as honey on toast Hungarian accent. I smiled through my tears, figuring that The Rebbe had a direct line to The Divine and he just KNEW. A few weeks later when life support was suspended and Michael took his final breath, on December 21, 1998, I heard what I describe as The Voice which invited me to “Call the seminary and ask to finish what Michael started.” A few days following his Christmas Eve funeral, I did indeed make the call and was warmly welcomed into the program with the notice that I needed to do the first year’s work and second back to back to graduate with Michael’s class or wait until the next year. I chose to condense both year’s work into a 5 month period and in June of 1999, I walked down the aisle of The Cathedral of St. John The Divine in NYC, carrying Michael’s photo which was placed on the altar so that his spirit was ordained along with us. That year, The Rebbe was also honored, since he was leaving The New Seminary to begin The All Faiths Seminary.
I have a warm place in my heart for this man whose vision in the 1970’s allowed me years later, to step into a robe and a role that fits me like it was custom made, that of Interfaith Minister. The chant that we were taught: “I am ready, I am ready, I am ready…” called us to service.
When Rabbi Gelberman passed on Rosh Hashanah…September 9, 2010, at 7:30 pm, he left a loving legacy that is beyond comprehension, considering all of the people his ‘verk in the world, touched and how many they touched and so the journey continues…
Go in peace, Rebbe…you were ‘ready’. Hearing you chanting with angels and sages.
For the beautiful tribute from Beliefnet columnist/editor Rev. Laurie Sue Brockway who knew Rabbi Gelberman for nearly a quarter century, go to