Editor’s Note: Daniel B. Syme, a member of The PuLSE Institute, is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth El, the oldest Jewish congregation in Michigan. He was once voted by Lifestyle Magazine as one of 18 North American Jews “who will be most influential in shaping the future of the Jewish community in the 21st century.” For submission inquiries contact the Institute’s editor-in-chief Bankole Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Rabbi Daniel B. Syme
A few years ago, I learned that a teacher who had touched my childhood profoundly was critically ill. I called her family and asked for permission to visit her. As I walked into her hospital room, she raised her head and asked, “Danny, why are you here?” I looked into her eyes and said softly, “I just wanted to tell you that you made a difference in my life.”
If we are lucky, each of us has such teachers, whether in the classroom, or in the course of our daily existence.
For me, federal Judge Damon Keith was just such an individual. I met Judge Keith when I was 17 years old at my home in Detroit. He was a friend of my father, Rabbi M. Robert Syme, and I still remember my father’s admonition to me, “Danny, meet judge Damon Keith. He is going to change America.” Later that day, dad shared Judge Keith’s story. He was the grandson of slaves, the youngest of six children, a young man who worked as a janitor as he prepared to apply to law school, the first member of his family ever to attend college.
Over the years, I watched as this Judge, small in size, but great in stature, rose in the ranks of the judiciary, until he was named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 1977. Whenever I visited Detroit, I tried to call him, and he was always kind and gracious. But I always knew that when it came to justice, Judge Keith had a will of steel. This giant of a man had a career that spanned 10 U.S. Presidents, without any compromise of his values or his integrity. As one colleague put it, “Judge Keith has never played it safe.”
How badly we need Judge Keith’s voice today. In an America where the barriers between law and politics are clouded and blurred, Judge Keith’s words echo clearly: “Democracies die behind closed doors.” And as importantly today, Judge Keith said, “Voting rights are the most important rights in the country, and men and women died for this precious right.”
In 2016, a documentary was released on Judge Keith’s life, and I was asked to be part of the program following the screening. Near the end of the evening, I approached Judge Keith. He smiled and greeted me warmly. I said simply, “I needed to be here tonight, Judge Keith, to tell you that you made a difference in my life.”
A great man has joined God in heaven.
Rest in peace, my friend.