It was the call I long feared and dreaded. “Dad has taken a bad turn and the doctors say it’s only a matter of hours,” my eldest sister Janie advised on that early February 2014 morning. “You need to get to Toronto as soon as possible.”

Driving home the severity of the situation, she added: “Make sure you pack your Tefillin,” the black leather phylacteries I’d need for services during the Jewish traditional seven-day mourning period following the loss of a parent.  

I was living in San Francisco at the time, and the fastest way to get to Toronto’s  Sunnybrook Hospital where my Dad was admitted was flying to Detroit, renting a car, and driving the remaining 250 miles to my hometown. I would have made it by 7 p.m. had I not hit a snowstorm.

“Where are you?” my sister called around 7:30 when I was stuck on Highway 401 about 90 miles outside Toronto. “You need to get here right away!”

Toronto’s World-Class Sunnybrook Hospital

I arrived at the hospital 90 minutes later, and as I ran full steam through the hallway, I passed the cafeteria where I saw both my sisters and their husbands eating and laughing. I just stared in disbelief.

“Dad’s doing fine,” my sister Janie said. “He started to improve about an hour ago. He wanted a bath. We are all going up when Dennis (the caregiver) is done.”

My Dad’s inexplicable recovery baffled his doctors and was a great relief to his family and friends. But it was no surprise to Rabbi Yehoshua Weber, the spiritual leader of a suburban Toronto synagogue called Clanton Park with whom my father forged a bond in the latter years of his life.

Upon receiving the doctors’ grim prognosis hours earlier, my sister called Rabbi Weber to visit my Dad to say the Viddui, a confessional bedside prayer that is recited when death is imminent. But when Rabbi Weber arrived, he refused to say the prayer despite my father having lost consciousness.

Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

“It’s not your father’s time,” Rabbi Weber said.

My sister politely noted the doctors were certain about my Dad’s imminent passing.

“I know your father, and he’s not ready to go,” Rabbi Weber insisted.

And with that, he left.

# # #

My father died five months later, and today marks the fifth anniversary of his passing. He was 91. Among my cherished memories of my father and mother are the integrous and inspiring people they attracted.

My parents’ generation weren’t subjected to the toxicity of Facebook and other social media and they forged deep relationships that many millennials and Gen Z’s will never experience or understand. Their friends were real, not virtual, and they were always there for each other. When I was growing up it was common for people to drop by unannounced and letting themselves in while bellowing, “Anybody home?” In the Toronto of my youth, people didn’t lock their doors.

My parents were among the founders of a Toronto synagogue called Shaarei Tefillah, a 1.8 mile walk from the ravine lot house they purchased in the mid-60s. They were modern Orthodox, which meant they observed traditional Jewish practices such as not driving on the Sabbath, but they were comfortable moving about in the secular world. My father attended services every Saturday, and he enjoyed the hearty walk, even in the midst of a Canadian winter.

My Father, Morris Starkman

As my father aged, the walk became more grueling, and some Saturdays he chose to go to Clanton Park, an easy 15-minute walk from his home. Clanton Park is hard core in its observance of Judaism and a substantial number of male congregants where the traditional black hats common in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and Williamsburg sections. Many of them attend services multiple times a day.

Rabbi Weber, a native of Brooklyn’s Flatbush section, became Clanton Park’s spiritual leader in 2002. My father was immediately inspired by Rabbi Weber’s sermons. He would return home and recite them almost verbatim which was especially impressive given that he was previously known for dozing off during sermons. After repeating each sermon my father would make the same comment about Rabbi Weber: “He’s a black hatter but he’s very reasonable.”

Clanton Park Synagogue

After my mother died in 2003, Rabbi Weber visited my father often and had him over for dinner on Jewish holidays. My father was a modest man and given that he was 79 and already retired for 14 years when they first met, I suspect Rabbi Weber wasn’t initially aware that he was once prominent in Toronto’s Jewish community and active in charitable causes, including serving as head of the professional division of Toronto’s United Jewish Appeal. Rabbi Weber only knew my father as an elderly man. Their common bond was humility.

I think often about Rabbi Weber’s refusal to say the confessional prayer, particularly when I’m faced with tough decisions. Most people, including me, would have taken the easy path and just deferred to the experienced doctors at a world-class regional trauma center and teaching hospital. There was no downside in saying the prayer. Even if I had the courage to act on my convictions, I would have kept calling the family every ten minutes making sure I was right. Rabbi Weber never doubted his decision.

Rabbi Weber Talking to Students

Rabbi Weber has made some other tough calls, including ending a longtime synagogue practice that made him unpopular with some members. When it comes to acting on principle and his beliefs, Rabbi Weber doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk. And so do many members of Clanton Park.

There is a Judaic obligation known as Hachasat Orchim, the welcoming of guests, particularly in a synagogue.  After recovering from his near-death experience, my Dad several weeks later attended Sabbath services at Clanton Park where he was deeply moved by the welcome he received.

“You should have seen the greeting they gave me,” my Dad said. “Everyone came up to me and asked where I’d been and wanted to know if I was okay. They didn’t treat me like I was an old man.”

It was the last time my father attended Sabbath services.