Mychal Springer Remembers Rabbi Neil Gillman (z”l)

Posted on Nov 29, 2017

I am honored to have the opportunity to share notes from my eulogy for my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman. But the eulogy lived in the moment of loss, so the best I can do here is to capture it partially.  Readers will have to fill in the rest from what you knew of Neil. I hope that I evoke the power of his life and teaching sufficiently to do him justice.

I am proud to be a student of Neil Gillman’s. Many of us in this room are students of Neil’s, and many of us could be speaking about the amazing experience of being Neil’s student.

I learned from Neil in three places:

His dining room table.

His classroom.

His office.

Neil’s Dining Room Table

Neil’s daughter Abby brought me home in the fall of 1984. And then she kept bringing me home, for Shabbat and haggim. Sitting around the dining room table was full of magic. Neil, Sarah, Abby, and Debby created a space rich with a love of Jewish living and profound intellectual and religious engagement. My soul felt nourished. I met so many beautiful people around the Gillman’s table. I especially loved seder at the Gillman’s, as Neil chanted the entire Haggadah, and the conversation riveted me. These meals shaped the rest of my life. They taught me how to live and engage Jewishly. Around the Gillman table I was introduced to the amazing world of JTS.

Neil’s Office

Neil was always available. I know he must have been busy, but I never felt that way. I went to his office regularly, and there he would ask me about my thoughts, my feelings, my whole life. It all mattered. He wasn’t afraid when I entered a faith crisis. He helped me engage my struggles, and I’ll always be unspeakably grateful for that. He gave me a place. He conveyed to me that I mattered.

Secretly I wondered if Neil treated me with so much kindness and was so available to me because I was Abby’s friend. But when I came back to JTS fifteen years ago I heard many students lovingly testify to endless conversations in his office, to Neil’s same passion for walking with them, helping them to work through their challenges on the way to becoming a rabbi. They were as passionate about him as their teacher as I was.

Back to Neil’s Classroom

A source of great joy for me was when Neil and I began co-teaching in a new sort of classroom. After I’d been back at JTS for a couple of years Neil noticed that the students were speaking a lot about how their experiences visiting people in the hospital were impacting their theologies. He knew that they were in the hospital doing CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) and that this was my world, so he wondered how he might get involved. We decided to create a post-CPE theology seminar that we co-led. Teaming up with Neil in this precious teaching was an incredible experience for me. He asked fabulous questions of the students, of course, and they loved the chance to integrate their clinical learning with their beloved JTS professor.

Back to Neil’s Dining Room Table

Over the years of Neil’s illness he spent a lot of time sitting at his dining room table. When Rabbi Danny Nevins asked me to teach a theology seminar, four years ago, I immediately went to Neil and asked for his help developing the syllabus. I was so happy to be involved in the students’ learning, even from a distance.

I put a lot of Gillman on the syllabus, and the students loved engaging with his ideas. I would sit with Neil around his dining room table and tell him about their reactions. It made him so happy that his legacy was continuing in that way in the halls of JTS.

When I think about my life, my rabbinate, my soul, my theology, my teaching, and the way that I live my Judaism–they have all been enriched immeasurably by Neil Gillman. I will be eternally grateful.

Tehei nishmato tzerurah bi’tzeror hayamim.  


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