Rabbi Yehiel Poupko

His memory is a blessing

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

In the Jewish tradition, when we say, “May his memory be a blessing,” we intend something specific. When a person has lived well and righteously, his life conduct and behavior is instructive and inspiring.

How much more so when that person has devoted his life to teaching? Mere mention of their name floods us with waves of wisdom that we who know the person recall. The deceased continues to teach, whether by their formal teaching in life or by the example of their pathways.

These days, we have too many textbooks and not enough text-people. Father Thomas Baima was a text-person. His very life is a text that instructs.

At the simplest level he was a fastidious, disciplined and organized person possessed of a near-sacrificial work ethic and oceans of kindness and warmth. His way of commitment, consistency, focus and dedication revealed something about his inner life with the Catholic Church, with humanity and with God. His everyday behaviors are a lesson in the goodness that comes from the thoughtful life.

However, it was not just Tom’s life that taught. Tom was a consummate teacher. Not only did he possess vast bodies of information, knowledge and wisdom about Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Chicago, he also knew how to teach all that. He was a master teacher. He had a profound understanding of Catholicism.

He brought the same level of profundity to his understanding of the church’s relations to Judaism, the Jewish people and the Jewish community. Tom, as a faithful Catholic, observed and studied Judaism and the Jewish people from an intimate distance. He stood apart from us; after all, he was not Jewish. Yet he was intimate with us.

Tom once said or rather taught, “You know the difference between Judaism and Christianity? The sequence for a faithful Jew is: I belong, I do, I believe. For a Christian it is the opposite, I believe, I belong, I do.” In this neat distillation he got to the very heart of the respective features unique to Judaism and to Christianity. 

What he taught was true. Judaism, as the Torah makes clear, is a family that became a faith and remained a family. Christianity seeks to expand and universalize the family of the people of God. The Jewish person of faith begins with the affirmation that he or she is a child of Abraham and Sarah. From that sense of family comes obedience to the Commandments. From obeying the Commandments, one learns to believe.

For a Christian, one enters the family of the people of God through belief, which brings to doing, which then brings to belonging to the people of God.

Tom and I, on occasion, had to deal with some complex matters that affected both the Jewish community and the Catholic Church. For example, here is but one.

Some years ago, a faithful Jew and a faithful Catholic who engaged in significant commercial partnerships presented a difficult question. Without realizing it, they had established a significant position in a large European conglomerate that was founded earlier in the 20th century, and which played a significant role in the enslavement and murder of the Jewish people. The conglomerate was now managed by the grandchildren of the founders.

These two partners wanted to know if the sins and crimes of the present-day owner’s grandparents attached to the business, and if so, were they transmitted from generation to generation. With the help of a young Catholic moral philosopher, Melanie Barrett, Tom and I were able to approach this problem from both a Jewish and Catholic perspective. In the process, we came to the same conclusion.

Last year, on May 14, I was on a phone call with Tom. He sounded happy and joyful. He told me he was celebrating the 40th anniversary of his ordination. So, I noted in a congratulatory letter that only at the age of 80 was Moses given his assignment by God to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt and to Mount Sinai and from there to the Land of Promise. 

I wrote to Tom, “You are way ahead of Moses. I can’t wait to congratulate you on the 80th anniversary. In case I am not available at that time, I have deposited a letter wishing you well on the second 40th anniversary of your ordination.”

Sadly, this blessing went unheard. A few weeks later, on June 16, Tom and I were meeting in my home to discuss a complicated theological matter with possible negative consequences for both our communities. I prepared a frightfully long document. He was surprisingly and painfully, not as keenly focused as always. He looked exhausted.

I told him, “You’ve got to see a doctor. You don’t look well.” He told me, “No, I am just tired.” Not too long thereafter he took ill. I went to be with him several times in the hospital. A few days after Christmas, I was able to have lunch with Tom. We had the first long and thoughtful conversation since he took ill. In that conversation he was as faithful and sharp and resolute as we all knew him.

Whenever his name will be mentioned it will be a blessing because the name Father Tom Baima brings with it waves of wisdom and inspiration.





  • father thomas baima
  • interfaith