One of my dearest teachers died last Thursday. His name was Bonia Shur, and he was Director of Liturgical Arts at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Bonia and Ellis Rivkin were my gurus during my five years of rabbinical school. I met both of them in Jerusalem in 1976 when I was in my first year, and studied with them every year until I graduated in 1981.
Bonia was supposed to teach me Jewish music, and though I did sing in HUC’s Jerusalem choir, that never took. He composed the score for The Russians are Coming, wrote amazing Jewish compositions for the synagogue, and did his best to teach me to appreciate music. But what he really taught me was how to be myself. Bonia was unique. From his eyebrows that seemed to have a life of his own to his Zorba-the-Greek existentialism, he challenged me to be myself in a professional setting that begged me to be someone else.
Bonia created an off-the-books course at HUC called Standing Naked on the Bima (altar). It was a blend of improvisational theater and spiritual teaching designed to teach us to read our congregations and speak to their needs. He taught us to speak truth to power, to take a prophetic approach to our rabbinic roles, and to find and articulate our most authentic selves. Only four students took the class. It was perhaps the most life–changing course I ever took.
Bonia and his equally dynamic and wonder wife, Fanchon, visited my congregation in Miami, Florida several times. Each time I tried to empress him with the music I had written. Each time I failed. He loved me, but he knew my limitations when it came to musical composition.
I loved this man, and will be forever grateful to him for having taught me how to be the rabbi I became. I wouldn’t be me if not for him.