Eulogy Richard Kavalsky
November 6, 2011
Delivered by Rabbi Susan Grossman
Beth Shalom Congregation
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to tell the story of a little seven year old boy and his family who was about to leave their native Poland. The day before their planned departure, the family traveled to the town where their Rebbe lived, so he could receive the Rebbe’s blessings. They remained overnight in the home of the Rebbe and the little boy slept in the Rebbe’s study. Staring at all the books, the little boy felt so intimidated he could not sleep. In the middle of the night, he saw the Rebbe quietly enter the room, the boy pretended to be asleep. The Rebbe whispered, “sweet child.” Thinking the child might be cold, the Rebbe took off his coat and placed it lovingly over the child.
As the boy grew into a man and throughout his long life, through great challenges and many difficulties, he was able to survive and to thrive. When asked why, he explained, that he was still kept warm from that coat.
Rich Kavalsky spread just such a coat over each and every one of us.
Rich saw the best in every person he met. I think this is what made him such an effective tutor. He could see the goodness and potential in every student and help that student find the confidence to show how good he or she really was. He did that with the hundreds of students with whom he worked.
Rich didn’t start out as a tutor. Before that he was a regular Torah reader at Beth Israel and other area synagogues. And before that he really wasn’t very engaged in his Judaism. It was his beloved wife of so many years, Darlene, who encouraged Rich to get more engaged with their own son Brian’s Bar Mitzvah. So Rich eventually learned how to read Torah. It was Darlene who encouraged Rich to share his passion for Torah with others as a tutor. It was Darlene who encouraged Rich to follow his passion for teaching to leave his successful career in men’s clothing to become the education director of our relatively new Religious School at Beth Shalom Congregation.
Mr. Rich had a degree in special education from Towson University. He got it while working full time and studying full time. He was never a slacker for work. He had taught some in his younger life. But he was a relative unknown when it came to leading a Religious School. But we took a chance because we could see that, besides having management experience, Rich was passionate about God, passionate about Judaism, passionate about teaching, and passionate about living a life of integrity, generosity, and kindness.
Mr. Rich, as the kids knew him, made Beth Shalom the school that was fun to go to. He loved the school and he especially loved his kids, those in school and those he tutored. He got such nachas each week watching them shine on the bimah during their Bnai Mitzvah. So often we would sit together in my office talking about the kids he was concerned about. He understood every student was different and we would figure out together how that student could shine rather than flounder. He gave his kids not just lessons in Judaism but lessons in life, how to overcome anxiety, distraction or embarrassment by compartmentalizing and looking forward not back. He especially got nachas when they agreed to read again from the Torah or Haftorah after their Bnai Mitzvah year was over.
Always Darlene was at his side, ordering pencils or hot cups for the school, doing what she could to support his passion. The two of them were so in love. They were childhood sweethearts since she was 15 and he 17. Their son Brian remembers his friends telling him how their parents spoke about their love story as if it was already part of Jewish Baltimore lore. It was so hard on Rich when Darlene became ill with cancer. He promised her he would take her to every treatment, and he did, all except once and it almost broke his heart when he to go to his own treatment for he, too, had contracted cancer after her own cancer returned.
Rich and Darlene were blessed with congregants who did so much for them, bringing up food, planting a garden so Darlene could see the flowers, arranging for rides. But even more, they were blessed with dedicated and loving Baltimore family who cared for them, together, and after Darlene’s passing, continued to care for Rich: Darlene’s brother Sheldon and his wife Lynne, who was like a sister to Rich in caring for him too, and especially his sister Dena, who was Rich’s main caregiver day in and day out as Rich’s condition worsened. She was helped so much by her husband, Tom, who also cared so for Rich. When I would ask Rich if he needed anything, he would always say he had it covered, because Dena and the family had it covered. He loved you all so much.
Rich grew up in Baltimore with his sisters Sherri, Dena, and Bonnie, under the loving care of their mom Bertha and dad Bernie. Life was difficult financially. Rich would get up at 3 am in the morning on Sundays to deliver newspapers when he was young. When the family did not have enough to pay for a 14th birthday party for Dena, Rich paid for it out of his newspaper delivery earnings. Rich also tried to help his eldest sister Sherri as much as he could.
Life also carried with it its tragedies: his youngest sister, Bonnie, had special needs and died after several seizures. Yet she left an indelible mark on Rich, honing his empathy for others and his special concern for special needs kids. There were many Sabbaths with not a dry eye in the house when students, otherwise considered special needs, celebrated with dignity and skills their Bnai Mitzvah. That was the gift Bonnie left him with and which he passed on to others.
Rich and Darlene were also blessed with a son, Brian, of whom they were so proud. Rich was a loving and attentive father. He coached every one of Brian’s little league teams. They only lost one game and that was because Rich missed the game when he couldn’t get out of work one day. That’s how great a manager he was of the kids under his care. Rich attended all of Brian’s soccer games, even though he didn’t even like soccer. But he was there to support his son. Brian in turn attended all his dad’s basketball games. Yes, Rich played a mean game of basketball and Brian would run up and down the court when he was little, cheering his dad on.
Rich tried to provide Brian what he didn’t have, so Brian didn’t have to worry about working his way through college. Most importantly, he instilled in Brian his work ethic that has keep Brian in good stead and helped him succeed in his own career.
Rich was so proud of Brian’s accomplishments, even if it meant Brian lived far away. Rich so looked forward to his trips to Florida to see Brian and spend time together. These visits were special treats for Rich, especially these past few years.
Everywhere Rich went, he left an indelible memory. Even the people at the local Cariboo coffee shop fell in love with him. With his smile, kindness, and concern for others, Rich left a warm coat where ever he went.
It was my privilege to know Rich, to work with him, partner with him in building our congregational school, watch him tutor my own son, Yoni, for his Bar Mitzvah, and be his friend. Rich was everyone’s friend. He had a smile and a good word for everyone. He had a wise insight for the toughest situation, an honest courage for dealing with the greatest difficulties, and an incredible integrity for acting in a way consistent with his beliefs.
When he retired as Education Director at Beth Shalom, he continued to do everything he could to help the school and the new directors because he cared so much about the success of the school and its students. He’d always say, “Whatever you need, Rabbi.” And whatever we needed he was always there. He was one of those rare individuals who had a clear sense of self without the ego that so often gets in the way. In this way Rich was the consummate teacher and friend of us all.
These last few months and these last few weeks, in particular, were very difficult for Rich. He did not want to have to suffer through another year of constant pain with no hope for a cure. So God took him quickly and gently on the Sabbath – the day reserved for the righteous to make the transition from this world to the next, where he could be reunited with the love of his life, Darlene, and the rest of his family who had preceded him to the next world. No longer limited by the frailties of his body, Rich is now free to watch over all his kids, wherever they are celebrating their Bnai Mitzvah, reading Torah, or just making good decisions, just as he will watch over his family, and all of us.
When we lose someone like this, someone who meant so much to us, someone from whom we learned so much, we may wonder how will we continue, what will we do now? But we need not be left behind desolate.
We, too, can still find warmth in the coat Rich spread over us. Rich we will miss you, but we know your words are still with us, your advice is still part of us, your love still supports us, the Torah and Torah reading your taught so many of us still inspires us. Your spirit is still with us. From your coat we are still warm. May your memory continue as a blessing for all of us, and let us say, Amen.