Jun 2011

We Shook Hands

Jan Uhrbach is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, Class X.  She is the founding Rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in Sag Harbor, a member of the Wexner Heritage faculty, and a renowned teacher of Torah in NYC.  She was a member of the editorial committee for Machzor Lev Shalem (Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, 2010), and currently works as an associate editor on the RA's upcoming Shabbat and festival siddur.  She can be reached at januhrbach@gmail.com.

As a young lawyer, I was blessed with a mentor, Robert Callagy, z”l, the head of our Park Avenue law firm.  But for his influence I would not likely be a Rabbi today.

I remember one moment at the conclusion of a lengthy jury trial, throughout which (we felt) the judge had treated us unfairly and even abusively.  When we reached a settlement, the judge was furious (with us!), and his fury focused on the parties’ refusal to reveal the settlement amount.  “How can I dismiss this jury,” he fumed, “when you don’t have anything in writing?  How do I know the deal won’t fall through?”  Bob calmly responded, “That’s not a problem, your Honor.  Plaintiff’s counsel and I shook hands.”

Jaws literally dropped in shocked silence.  A New York lawyer in a multi-million dollar case, trusting his adversary’s handshake?

For my part, I was awed by Bob’s ability to respond to mistreatment and abuse of power with honor, by his affirmation of the trustworthiness of others though himself treated with suspicion.  I was stunned by the power of one small act of quiet dignity to change the atmosphere, and operative values, of an entire room. 

Over the years, Bob taught me innumerable lessons about values-based, mission-based leadership.  That day, he taught me that you don’t have to be “in charge” to lead.  And he taught me that title and position can’t hold a candle to the moral authority derived from living one’s values.