| | | | | | | | | |

Risks I Took

Share our stories on social media:

It was not until my senior years that I realized that I was a risk taker. I had never thought of myself as such. But once I discovered this new character trait, I have been probing my memory for all the risks I took during my adult life.

I first called myself a risk taker while talking to my daughter-in-law about a menu we were planning. I wanted to try out a new recipe, and she could not understand how I would take such a chance.

“You should never use a new recipe when you are expecting guests! What if it does not work out?” she asked.

“Well, it will be fine; I am a risk taker.” I responded.

Following this mundane conversation, I started to think and realized that I had taken two big risks that changed my life forever.

The first big one was getting married. I was 19 years old, had fallen head over heels in love just after a couple of dates. All I knew was I just wanted to get married. We had no rational, serious conversation exploring and comparing our values; very little discussion about our future. I cared about nothing and was willing to accept almost anything to be his wife.

Howard and I had come from very different backgrounds. He was an American-born chaplain in the US Army stationed in Germany. I was a child survivor of the Holocaust, still living with my parents. He was an orthodox Rabbi, and even though my family was very Zionistic, we were really secular Jews. We attended services on the High Holidays, and even then, drove to shul.

The only religious concession was that my mother decided to kasher our kitchen as my brother was preparing for his Bar-Mitzvah and had recently discovered religion. We dined out and only observed kashrut inside the house.

My father warned me:

 “I know you are in love; this is your first serious relationship. He is nine years older, comes from a different background and does not understand where you are coming from. You’ve only known him for a few months and are being overwhelmed by your emotions. First love is like a fire burning in a dry wheat field. Right now, you are willing to take on an orthodox lifestyle, to transform yourself from a young unsophisticated woman into a rabbi’s wife with all its responsibilities. Orthodox life is not easy. It requires many sacrifices. Will you be able to maintain these changes in your life 20 years from now when the fires have been extinguished?”

My mother was also very anxious:

“You will be going far away to America, joining a large new family with different values and ideas. Will you be able to adapt to this whole new world? He intends to make the Army his career. How will you deal with army life without our support?”

Nothing my parents said would sway my determination. As I was underage, I needed my parents’ signature to get married, but they were dragging their feet, kept postponing and postponing signing until I finally said:

“If you do not sign, I will wait until I am 21 and marry him then with or without your permission.”

My parents finally gave in, signed the required paper and we got married. That was 64 years ago. We have traveled a long journey together. I adjusted to my new life, despite all the obstacles. Howard, in turn had to adapt to the changes that I went through from being an obedient wife of the ’50s into a liberated woman of the ’80s.

The second time I took a big risk was in 1965. We were living in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Howard had just returned from a short but very stressful stint in the Dominican Republic where President Johnson had sent troops to defeat rebels trying to overthrow the government.

It was a Sunday; we were relaxing in the living room when the phone rang.

“Can I please speak to Rabbi Graber?”

My husband was always addressed as Chaplain, not Rabbi! What was this all about?

After a brief conversation, Howard told me that he was just offered a possible position as a pulpit rabbi in a small town, Council Bluff, Iowa. He jotted down some information but did not intend on following through.

For me, it was a sign from heaven:

We had to leave the Army! I knew instinctively that we had to change our lives for the sake of our family. Army life is not suited to a stable, secure family life. I urged Howard to go to New York, to speak to the Rabbinical Council and to his family. He did. And when he came back, he was determined not to make any career moves.

He told me:

“I am staying in the Army. I was advised by the Rabbinical placement director that life in the civilian rabbinate is rough. It is dog eat dog out there. I have already eight years in the Army, in another 12 years I will have a nice pension. My mother also urged me to stay in, ‘You have a steady job, a secure income and pension. Don’t throw it all away!’”

But I was resolute. He had to look for a civilian position, if not far-away Council Bluff, then there must be other small towns looking for a spiritual leader.

 “I know you can make it,” I said. “You were thinking of going back to school and getting a PhD in Jewish education. With the GI bill available, this is your chance!”

While I sounded so confident, I was terrified. What if this didn’t work out? Will he blame me? In 12 years, he will get a pension. How would he react when that time came and there were no secure position? I would be held accountable.

Things did work out. He got a pulpit in a small town in Pennsylvania, where we stayed for three years while he was commuting to the University of Pittsburgh and working on his advanced degree. His professor then offered him a job as assistant dean of the city’s College of Jewish Studies. He was on his way to a successful career in Jewish Education. In 1977, when his Army pension would have kicked in, he did not even think about what he had left behind. And I breathed a sigh of relief.

My risk-taking did work out for the better. We had a great life, and I profited from the GI Bill too. There was enough money for me to get back to school, and earned my BA and MA and teacher certificate.

I retired in 1996, and Howard in 1997.

In 2012, as we were in the midst of our golden years, I realized that we had to move to Baltimore to be near our son and his family. Again, I was the force behind our move, and I found a very willing partner this time around.

The red-hot fire my father warned me about did calm down, but was not extinguished. Instead, it turned into a steady low flame that has lasted for 64 years and is still burning brightly, hopefully for many more years.

Please leave your comments below. 

Read more by Felicia Graber.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *