Rabbi's Message, Rabbi Alvin Kass, June 2015
Rabbi Alvin Kass
Chief Chaplain of the NYPD
GERTRUDE SCHIMMEL (1918-2015)
Ecclesiastes muses on the ceaseless and changeless cycles of nature. The sun rises and sets; the winds go round and round, ever returning to their starting place; and the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea is never full.
Everything happened before, and will continue to happen over and over again for "there is nothing new under the sun." In the midst of these reveries, he tells us: "One generation goes and one generation comes, but the Earth is forever unchanged." (Ecc. 6:4)
Though Ecclesiastes included the succession of generations in the monotonous, unchanging rounds of nature, there are crucial generations and personalities who by their daring and courage have altered the course of history. If Moses and the Israelites had not ventured into the desert, we might still be wearing the shackles of slavery. If the chalutzim had not begun to build Palestine some 100 years ago, there might be no State of Israel today. If the American pioneers had not conquered the West, the history of our country would have been much different.
If Gertie Schimmel had not fought for women's rights, it's unlikely that the NYPD today would be blessed with the leadership of such extraordinary women as Chief Joanne Jaffe and Assistant Chief Diana Pizzuti. Gertie Schimmel demonstrated that extraneous differences like sex, religion, color and creed ought not to stand in the way of career advancement. The only legitimate criteria of promotion ought to be ability, talent, and achievement. There is an old saying that "there is no ill wind that doesn't blow someone some good." That is certainly true of the Great Depression. That horrible trauma brought many tremendously talented people into the Police Department who probably would have pursued other careers. They joined the NYPD because no other jobs were available. Gertie was a member of the Class of 1940 which has been called "the class the stars fell upon" because so many leaders of the department came out of that class. Gertie, to my knowledge, was only 1 of 3 people in the Department who at the time were members of Phi Beta Kappa. One of the other two was Dep. Chief Eli Lazarus, who went on to become a judge and was the only Jewish president in the history of the Captains Endowment Association.
Gertie was likewise a proud Jewess. She immediately joined the Shomrim Society upon entering the department. She went on the first Shomrim trip to Israel in 1972 which wasn't just a voyage for tourists.
We practiced a whole winter walking around Central Park to prepare for the "tsaada" a 28 mile march through the hills of Jerusalem. A picture of Gertie kissing the Western Wall was published in newspapers throughout the United States. She also loved Temple EmanuEl where her memorial service was held and which has become the spiritual home of the Shomrim Society, the place where our annual Memorial Service and breakfast are held. Gertie also enjoyed Shomrim's "old-timers" luncheon.
Gertie was a realist and often spoke to me about how she wanted her funeral to be handled. However, she also knew that the fact that all mortals die provides a lesson for the living. As we become conscious of the inevitable, we cannot help but repeat the words of the psalmist: "Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom." It takes great wisdom to use the days that God has granted us wisely and well. For once we let the time pass, we can never reclaim it. On the other hand, all that has happened within that time is never lost. Passing time is not only a thief; it is also a trustee. Whether we regard time as a thief or a trustee determines how we will live our lives. Clearly, Gertie treated time as a trustee.
As we bid farewell to Gertie, we feel the truth of Ecclesiastes' words. The older generation passes with her, but we feel that our lives have been enriched through knowing her and that her deeds will continue to benefit the coming generations that follow in her footsteps.