Last week two major announcements came to my inbox: City Councilwoman Laura Padgett would not seek another term, and Rabbi Robert Waxman retired from B’nai Israel Synagogue on June 7. On the surface these events might seem unrelated, but taken together they had me ruminating on longevity, community, commitment, and legacy. That’s a pretty heavy combination, isn’t it?
Let me introduce you to these two:
Laura Padgett won her city council seat in the 1993 election. For over two decades, she has served our city diligently while working full time, raising a family and facing an organ transplant. Dedication does not begin to describe her: She is calm, soft spoken but firm, and incredibly perceptive. I probably have a slightly different perspective than many people because she was my next-door neighbor for 14 years of my youth (which means she witnessed all those things I would much rather forget about my highly awkward coming of age process). I worked on her early campaigns, canvasing neighborhoods and Riverfests and even got sent home from school to change clothes one year because I wore her campaign T-shirt to New Hanover High School—which meant I was inside the “no electioneering beyond this point” circumference while wearing a political slogan. Though I supported her work out of admiration and proximity as a teenager, as an adult I came to really respected her work on the council. I won’t say we always came down on the same side of every issue—it would be frightening to think there is anyone in the world one can agree with completely. (Before anyone asks, especially Jock, I would hate to live with someone I couldn’t argue with.) Even when we disagreed, I have held her in great respect and known she arrived at her decision based upon actual research and reasoning. Though Ms. Padgett cites transportation as her pet issue, I would say D.A.R.E.—the Downtown Area Revitalization Effort that became Wilmington Downtown Inc.—historic preservation, and sustainable growth for the city and its environs also have been high on her list (at least from an observer’s standpoint).
Rabbi Waxman came to B’nai Israel Synagogue in 1981. His bride, Dr. Barbara Waxman, taught at UNCW in the English Department. Together they raised a family here, and Rabbi Waxman devoted himself to his pulpit—which, to hold one pulpit for 34 years, is quite an achievement. Synagogue politics aren’t that different from church politics, so let’s say that raising a family in a fish bowl and navigating the waters takes a lot of strength and calm.
Multiple generations of children have grown up here, all of whom recall Rabbi Waxman coming to play guitar and sing with them, and explain a little about Judasim (probably around Hanukkah). He’s been a wonderful ambassador for Jewish culture in our community.
I first met Rabbi Waxman when I was 7 and our family briefly joined B’nai Israel. The Waxman’s daughter is about my age, and she is responsible for loaning me her copy of “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” by Judy Blume (Dina, I am forever in your debt). As my mother said many times, “The Waxmans went out of their way to make us feel welcome.” Quite a true statement. Hospitality, generosity and concern have been hallmarks of Rabbi Waxman’s Rabbinate. In the last few years, his interest in Full Belly Project and efforts to pair up his congregants, burdened with too much free time and useable skills with needs that Jock has in the Full Belly shop, has been admirable.
I have watched many waves of newcomers who arrive in town and immediately position themselves publically as having all the answers for what is wrong with our community and the ways they are going to change it. Usually, one of two things happen: They wear out their welcome and move on to another town, or they find a new hobby other than complaining about their new home. But here’s my answer to that phenomenon, according to one James Baldwin: “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.”
That’s what Councilwoman Padgett and Rabbi Waxman are to me: People who do what must be done and don’t necessarily spend a lot of time talking about it. What does the community need? What is on the horizon? Public service is not as glamourous as many people probably think. It is a lot of long hours, a lot of homework, and making appearances at events and meetings when you would much rather be home with your family. Likewise, as any member of a minister’s family will tell you: Religious leaders are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Pastoral care, funerals, crisis counseling—there is no way to plan for those events, but they cannot be ignored. That can take a toll on family and personal life. But commitment is not about giving up when something is inconvenient or unpleasant. It’s about persevering, even when it feels like your contribution is too small to make a difference. Because pieces add up together to make something greater than the whole, it’s not something that’s about egos or taking credit, but rather about contributing to a greater good and a lasting legacy.
Outside of my very personal views of both personalities, I see strong contributions not just to the short-term hpoes for our community but long-term dreams: decades of work to see a bigger picture come to fruition. We are very lucky to have had them both and many more people like them.
In knowing Padgett and Rabbi Waxman, what both would rather have us talk about is what needs to be done next. Where are we going to be in the next five years? The next 10 years? A community looks to its leaders, but what makes it thrive are not the names in the paper but the collective work (frequently unsung) of the many.
I guess it’s been on my mind this week as I watch things change and move in my own little orbit and find myself reminded that character isn’t what you do when people are watching; it’s choices you make when no one is watching. I have been very fortunate to be raised by this collective village here. What we are looking at is a changing of the guard: not a loss, but rather a chance to acknowledge how far we have come and how much more we still have to do.
B’nai Israel is very excited to have hired a woman as the new rabbi, Julie Kozlow. As for our city, it would take far more space than the pages of encore to detail the accomplishments of the last 20 years and the list of work still to do. As each successive generation picks up the baton to run with it, we have a chance to be reminded that this game of life really is a team sport: a community endeavor.
Thank you, Councilwoman Padgett and Rabbi Waxman for a lifetime of inspiration and guidance. I am so grateful for you both. I hope we continue to make you both proud.
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