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A Tribute to Bill Davidson z”l (1922-2009) Responsa in a Moment: Volume 3, Issue No. 6, March 2009

This month’s column will not be a responsum but rather a tribute to Mr. William Davidson, one of the leading Jewish philanthropists of our generation, who passed away in Detroit on March 13th at the age of 86. I had the privilege of participating in his funeral on March 17th. The following words of tribute were read at the shivah. Yehi zikhro barukh! May his memory be for a blessing!

We have gathered here today to honor the memory of a distinguished Jewish leader, a devoted American, and a beloved husband, father and grandfather.

When one reads a biography of Bill Davidson, it is hard to believe that one human being could have accomplished so much. Bill Davidson excelled in three areas: in business, in sports, and in philanthropy. His achievements in the first two categories are legendary, and I am not qualified to even summarize them.

I would, however, like to relate to Bill Davidson’s tzedakah or Jewish philanthropy, by comparing him to Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our Teacher. I make this comparison for three reasons. First, Bill Davidson’s Hebrew name was Velvel Moshe. Second, we are in the middle of a series of weekly Torah portions which tell of Moshe’s many achievements. Finally, as a major leader of the Jewish people in our generation, Bill Davidson shared some of the main characteristics of Moshe Rabeinu, our leader par excellence.

Of Moshe Rabeinu it is said when he died (Deut. 34:7): “Lo khahata eino v’lo nass leikho” — “His eye was undimmed and his vigor unabated”. I last met with Bill Davidson in his office in September. Physically, he showed some of the signs of his age, but mentally — “his eye was undimmed” — he was as sharp as ever, asking insightful questions, and figuring out in a few moments how he would continue to support the Schechter Institute and the TALI schools in Israel.

Moses gave the Torah to the Jewish people and is called Moshe Rabeinu — Moses our Teacher. Bill Davidson showed his love of Torah by following the model of Rabbi Hiyya (Bava Metzia 85b) who paid for books to be written, taught children Torah and Mishnah, and then told them to teach other children.

Bill Davidson financed the teaching of teachers — through the Davidson Institute of Science and Education at the Weizmann Institute; through the Davidson School of Education at JTS; and through the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, where some 900 Israeli teachers have received Davidson scholarships in order to study for an M.A. in Jewish Studies.

Moshe Rabeinu loved Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Indeed, the midrash tells us that he begged and cried in order to be allowed to enter the Land of Israel (Ishey Hatanakh, pp. 313-315).

Bill Davidson was devoted heart and soul to the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. He showed his devotion by supporting the Schechter Institute, the Weizmann Institute, Hadassah Hospital and the Davidson Center and Archaeological Park near the Southern Wall.

The Talmud tells us (Menahot 65a) that Moshe Rabeinu was an “oheiv Yisrael”, a lover of the Jewish people, while the Torah tells us that he helped provide them with manna and quails in the wilderness. Bill Davidson loved the Jewish people and supported them through Congregation Shaarey Zedek the Detroit Federation and many other organizations such as those I have mentioned.

Finally, of Moshe Rabeinu it is said in Numbers 12:3: “V’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od meekol ha’adam asher al pney ha’adamah” — “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on the face of the earth”. Or, as Josephus restated in his Antiquities (3.8.8): “Moses bore himself as a simple commoner, who desired in nothing to appear different from the crowd, save only in being seen to have their interests at heart”.

I had the privilege of meeting with Bill Davidson on a regular basis for the past nine years. I can safely say that he was one of the humblest people I have ever met. He never acted like he was wealthy or powerful; he acted like a Jew who was deeply concerned about Jewish education and the State of Israel and who wanted to do everything in his power to ensure the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

I would like to conclude with a midrash on this week’s Torah portion of Vayakhel:

“And the day of death is better than the day of one’s birth” (Ecclesiastes 7:1). Rabbi Levi said: To what can this be compared? To two ships laden with merchandise sailing the ocean, one coming in and the other going out, and people praised the one coming in. Some people stood there and wondered ‘Why are you praising this one and not the other?’ They replied to them: ‘We are praising the ship that came in, because we know that she went out in peace and has returned in peace. As to the one now going out, we do not know what her fate will be.’ Thus, when a man is born, we do not know what the nature of his deeds will be, but when he departs this world, we already know what his deeds were (Tanhuma Buber, Vayakhel, paragraph 1).

All who are here today, as well as many thousands of others throughout the world, know the nature of Bill Davidson’s good deeds. They will continue to influence us and reverberate for many years to come.

Yehi Zikhro baruch! May his memory be a blessing!

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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