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Our Sanctuary in America

Mount+Carmel+Cemetery+Vandalism

Hundreds of headstones vandalized in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in the Wissinoming section of Philadelphia.

This coming Shabbat is “Shabbat Across America.” Every year the National Jewish Outreach Program assigns the first Shabbat in March as “Shabbat Across America.” The idea is to encourage all the Jews in our country to symbolically join hands and celebrate Shabbat together, at least on this one Shabbat during the year.

This year the notion of joining hands with our Jewish sisters and brothers seems particularly critical, in light of the recent upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in the country – something we thought we had long left behind. In recent weeks, Jewish community centers all across our country, including a number in New York and New Jersey, have received bomb threats, striking fear in the hearts of all those who have had to evacuate these centers at a moment’s notice. In addition, swastikas have been spray-painted on Jewish property and in Jewish neighborhoods, including Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and just this week, a fence in South Mountain Reservation in West Orange, NJ, in the neighborhood where Steve and I lived for several years when Steve was at B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. All this, of course, is in addition to the cowardly and hateful desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, just in the past week. And in Evansville, IN, my colleague Rabbi Gary Mazo discovered a bullet hole on Monday morning in the window of a classroom at his congregation, Temple Adath B’nai Israel.

I place the blame for this at the door of the White House. The rhetoric of intolerance and hate-mongering all year long has been outrageous and out of control, and those miscreants who would be inclined to carry out hateful acts of this nature have interpreted this rhetoric as a permission slip to act upon their evil inclinations. Mr. Trump and his surrogates have been spewing forth inflammatory hate speech all year long, and it took fully six weeks into his presidency for him to denounce it, finally, in his address to Congress on Tuesday night. But it was long overdue.

The rabbinic community of Brownstone Brooklyn is in the process of formulating a response of solidarity in the near future, against these, and all acts of bigotry and threats of violence. I will keep you apprised of our progress.

In our Torah portion for this Shabbat, God instructs Moses to direct the people: “Make for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” In principle, America has stood as a sanctuary against the forces of hatred and violence that were unleashed upon Jews throughout the centuries, particularly across Europe, but elsewhere as well. While our country has not been immune from the scourge of anti-Semitism, as Americans we have tried to rise above it and purge it from our midst. Sadly, it would seem as though we still have work to do on this front. I applaud Governor Cuomo’s announcement this week of his authorization of $25 million for increased protection of religious schools and day care centers throughout New York. If indeed we are “one nation under God,” we cannot tolerate the re-emergence of such bigotry now, or ever again.

On this Shabbat Across America, we will join hands as Jewish Americans with pride, and in peace, as we reassert our American ideals and make a true sanctuary of our beloved country.

If Your Menorah Could Talk, What Would It Say?

Menorah. Courtesy Scott Ableman CC, Flickr

Menorah. Courtesy Scott Ableman CC, Flickr

I have told many of you about a close friend of mine in the Rabbinate who is a collector of antiques. Among his collection are a number of gorgeous menorot from different places and time periods. One was an 18th century German menorah. Just before the pogrom of Kristallnacht, someone who had an inkling of what was about to happen brought the beautiful menorah to the Bishop of Ulm, a German city on the Danube. The Bishop hid it in the church crypt. At the end of the war, the menorah came into the possession of Otto Frank, who survived the war, though his wife and daughters (Anna and Margot) did not. Otto Frank went on to become quite active in the Reform Movement of Europe. My friend was interning for a time in Europe and spent an evening in Frank’s home. Frank saw him staring at the menorah and understood that this was someone who appreciated the value of good art. Frank decided to give him the menorah on the condition that he would see to it that Kaddish would be recited for his daughters in the United States. My friend agreed, and the menorah found a new home.

Another piece in my friend’s menorah collection was black, fashioned out of shrapnel that was collected from one of the battlegrounds in the aftermath of the Six Day War in Israel in 1967. (“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares….”)

One Chanukah a number of years ago, I sat in my friend’s apartment in New York, along with a several other friends. The apartment was ablaze with light from the vast menorah collection. This time he focused on another incredible piece in the collection. He shook his head and opined, “If that thing could only talk!”

And so, my friends, I bring this story to you now, and hope you will take the opportunity to make it your own. If Your Menorah Could Talk, What Would It Say? Maybe it has been passed through generations of your family. Maybe it is brand new. Maybe it has a child-centered theme, or came as a gift from a special person in your life. Whatever it may be, the story of your menorah is ultimately a story about you; about you, your family, and your relationship to Jewish life.

This Sunday, during our Chanukah celebration, instead of lighting all our menorot (because it isn’t actually Chanukah yet), our menorot will tell their stories to all to come to celebrate with us. Bring your menorah, and we will provide a card and a pen for you to write your menorah’s story to share with all of us. And we look forward to sharing ours with you.

The Wandering Maggid

Elie-Wiesel

Elie Wiesel

In the communities of Eastern Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and even beyond, there were certain people who would make their way from community to community, weaving stories and teaching lessons. They were itinerant preachers, who, in some cases, rose in stature to become folk heroes. Such a person was called a Maggid. This past Shabbat, not only the Jewish world, but all of humanity, lost a great man with the death of Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom, who liked to describe himself as a “wandering Maggid.” Writing on Saturday night in The Forward shortly after Professor Wiesel’s death, Rabbi Professor Michael Beranbaum wrote of this giant:

More than any other human being I know, he was responsible for changing the status of Holocaust survivors from victims and refugees to witnesses with a moral mission not only to remember the past but to transform the future. . . . A wandering Maggid going from community to community, from venue to venue, from synagogues and universities, gatherings, demonstrations, national capitals and political forums, speaking to an ever-changing global audience. His message was: “Remember the Holocaust. Remembrance must shape our character and has the capacity to transform the future.”

There have been many tributes and eulogies since Elie Wiesel’s death on Saturday, both in conventional publications and on social media. I think we would all do well to read as many as we can. I did not have the pleasure of knowing Professor Wiesel personally, though a number of my colleagues did. Yet, I feel as though he spoke to me, and indeed, to each of us, in an extremely personal and searing way. Those of us from Union Temple who went down to Washington together in May of 2006 heard him speak at the rally that he cosponsored with numerous Jewish organizations, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, prominently among them. The rally was in support of the victims of genocide and brutality in Darfur. Professor Wiesel spoke to us calmly, and with dead seriousness. His mission, of course, was “Never Forget,” specifically with regard to the Holocaust. But he then reminded us soberly that “Never Forget” is meaningless unless we made it our business to stand up in the face of the genocide that was happening at that moment, and of all genocides wherever they happened. More than an author, a teacher, indeed, a “wandering Maggid,” he became one of the most tireless and outspoken human rights advocates of the modern era, and he touched the souls of all who ever heard him speak, or read his writing. “I’ve gone everywhere,” he said, “trying to stop so many atrocities: Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. The least I can do is show the victims that they are not alone. When I went to Cambodia, journalists asked me, “What are you doing here? This is not a Jewish tragedy.” I answered, “When I needed people to come, they didn’t. That’s why I am here.” When asked what was the most important commandment in the Bible, he responded, “Thou shalt not stand idly by.”

Some years ago I became acquainted with a rabbi from The Netherlands who was a visiting professor for a year at Adelphi University. Both the rabbi and his wife survived the Holocaust as hidden children. They had chillingly similar stories to tell, each having been hidden in a suitcase, and transported to different families. One afternoon I had the pleasure of driving the rabbi home after a conference. When he told me he knew Elie Wiesel quite well, I asked him what Wiesel was really like. I said that Wiesel seemed to me to have a rather depressive affect, and I asked the rabbi if he thought that Wiesel actually had the capacity to live a happy life. He told me that he understood my reaction to Wiesel’s affect, but that Wiesel did, indeed, enjoy great fulfillment from his wife and family, his writing, his teaching, and his work in the world.

In this light, I was particularly struck by a portion of an interview that Oprah Winfrey did with Elie Wiesel a few years ago, after Wiesel took her to Auschwitz. . . .

“You can’t hear Elie’s story without wondering: ‘Can he live through that kind of hate and not become a hater? Can he still be capable of love? Can he find any reason to be grateful?’ When I talk with Elie about these things, he tells me that he has few answers and many, many questions – yet even in his questions I hear hope that the human spirit can survive anything. Anything.”

Of all that Elie Wiesel taught us in his words and in his deeds, perhaps it was his bearing witness to the human capacity to love, and to hope, that was the most important of all. Zecher Tzaddik Liv’rachah – may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea

Interior of one of the barracks at Atlit containing original artifacts of refugees.
The ship at Atlit which offers an experiential visit simulating a sea voyage and that demonstrates the hardships endured by the immigrants on their way to the Land of Israel.
This week is the moment of truth for our ancestors at the Sea of Reeds. They could not return to Egypt, where the harshness and cruelty of their bondage had become unbearable. And, they really had no way of knowing exactly where they were going – they themselves had no familiarity with a “promised land,” which to them was probably little more than a pipe dream. They were trapped, as the expression goes, between the devil and the deep blue sea. But miraculously, according to our text, the Sea split apart, and with the triumphal Song of the Sea that is the centerpiece of our Torah portion, Moses and Miriam lead the Israelites in a paean of praise to God as they crossed through on dry land, emerging safely on the other side.

Time and time again in our history, we have relived that experience in one form or another, as we have fled from oppressive regimes and dangerous environments, often literally into the seas and the oceans. Our only hope was to find refuge in some far off place. As the Second World War loomed larger over Europe, and the Nazi concentration camps became the most feared places on Earth, our people looked for any way they could find to escape the threat that hung over them in Europe. Even after the War itself was over, our people were herded into DP camps, still hoping to find refuge and breathe the air of freedom.

Those of us who traveled to Israel together last May visited the grounds of Atlit, some 15 km south of Haifa. Atlit was a British detention camp, where Jewish refugees and survivors were interned during the years between 1940 and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. One year before the camp was opened, the British published a “White Paper” which limited the number of the Jewish immigrants allowed to enter Palestine to 75,000 over 5 years: 25,000 immediately and 10,000 for each of the following 5 years. Those caught trying to enter the country illegally were captured and interned at Atlit.

One of many period photos in a display at Atlit.
The disinfecting showers at the Atlit detention camp.
The illegal activities increased exponentially after 1945 when the Palmach commandeered a number of ships of refugees now interned in Displaced Person camps, particularly on the Island of Cyprus. The ship that we know as “The Exodus” was only one of dozens of such ships bearing human cargo that had lost everything they had. It should be noted as well that many refugees came in ships from Italy and North Africa, and a number of Arabic countries as well. The journeys were dangerous and punishing. Many did not survive. Many who did were re-deported to Cyprus by the British. Those who were caught were sent to Atlit, where the men and women were separated and sent to showers. We can only the imagine the paralyzing horror they felt as survivors of Nazi death camps when they entered the rooms with the showers. With barbed wire and guard towers, Atlit bore many resemblances to the camps the Jews had managed to survive. But, in fact, the British were NOT Nazis, and the showers really were – showers.

Atlit is an interesting place and an important piece of pre-State history. But it also is a stark reminder of the desperate plight of refugees, particularly as they travel the seas, searching for safety and security. While I’m sure many of our people on those refugee ships were hoping for a repeat performance of the splitting of the Sea, ultimately they had to rely on the courage and compassion of human beings. The message for us today is painfully clear. “You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Over and over again our Torah reminds us of the compassion that is required of us.

The Greatness of Yiddish, and A Few Rotten Words

Di-Goldene-Kale

Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride)

Thanks to the efforts of our wonderful congregant Peter Gomori, a group of us will soon treat ourselves to a performance of Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. It is being presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and is one in a series of performances this week in Lower Manhattan celebrating Yiddish song, dance, theater, culture, history, food, neighborhood tours, and more, called YIDDUSH NEW YORK (click for schedule of events). For at least fifteen years, there was a huge gathering during this particular holiday week called “KlezKamp” at a hotel up in the Catskills. Of course, it was a play on the word “Klezmer,” the name for the type of music characteristic of the street musicians of Eastern Europe, and has become such a beloved medium, both within the Jewish community and out in general culture as well. (The word “Klezmer” is actually an amalgamated pronunciation of “Klei Zemer,” “instruments of song.”) But this year, the gathering upstate has moved its format and venue to Lower Manhattan, which of course has been the seething hub of Yiddish culture from the time it arrived here with the massive Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century.

During the Holocaust, some 80% of the Yiddish speaking population of Europe was brutally murdered by the Nazis. And, truth be told, the first generations American Jews made every effort to learn English, speak it with their children, and cast aside the Yiddish language and culture of their parents and grandparents, along with the baggage of ostracism and persecution in the Old World. In the years after the establishment of the State of Israel as well, the early generations of Israelis also rejected Yiddish as the language that was spoken on the way to the gas chambers. Nevertheless, history is like a pendulum in a number of respects, particularly as it has swung back and forth through successive generations of Jewish life. In the case of Yiddish, it has been the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Yiddish speakers, whether here, in Europe, or in Israel, who have virtually jumped onto the pendulum themselves and swung it with determination back to reclaim the treasures of an almost vanquished world. And, they have succeeded. The revival of the language, music, literature, politics, and cultural activity of this world, has been nothing less than miraculous.

As we know, Yiddish has a particular “ta’am” – a flavor, if you will, that is hard to duplicate exactly in translation. And we in New York particularly are fortunate that Yiddish language and culture still float in our air, if you will, to a much larger extent than elsewhere. Yiddish words and expressions have found their way into common parlance here in a way that most of us, whether Jewish or not, have come to take for granted.

In light of this, I must ask for a moment, my friends, to register my deep resentment at the crass remarks coming from Donald Trump this week, even though he is by no means the first in this regard. Politicians in past campaigns have also used such words through the years. I understand that Yiddish slang, particularly in its colorful array of words referring to male body parts, seems to punctuate certain conversations more satisfyingly than ordinary English vocabulary. Nevertheless, when this slang is used in public settings by those running for public office – President of the United States, no less – it takes on an even more offensive cast. Yes, Mr. Trump is from New York, and I’m sure he has come to think of Yiddish slang as nothing unusual. But in fact, there is a serious problem with it in my view. First, it is indeed crass language, and someone aspiring to hold the most powerful position on the world stage needs to figure out a more respectful and dignified way of expressing himself. But in addition, it smacks of an abuse of the richness and creativity of Yiddish language and culture itself; an abuse which portrays this culture with the vulgarity that has all too often been ascribed to Jewish people for over a thousand years now. (Not to mention the disrespect of these remarks to women AND to men.) In short, it is completely repulsive and unacceptable, and Mr. Trump, and anyone else who abuses their public notoriety in this way, should be roundly called into account.

With this said, I will now redirect our attention away from the crassness of Mr. Trump and others, to the more constructive and sophisticated activities going on in New York this week, and to the importance of kindling and rekindling our interest in the richness and vibrancy of Yiddish. Indeed, it is our rightful inheritance. And thus I say to one and all, Sholom Aleichem, and Aleichem Sholom!

 

Be A Human Being

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey from Egypt; how he cut down the stragglers in your rear; those who were famished an weary; and he did not fear God. . . Therefore it shall be that when Adonai your God has given you rest from your enemies round about you, in the Land that is to be your inheritance. . . that you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget.” (from Deuteronomy 24.17-19)

These verses conclude our Torah portion for this week, Ki Teitzei.

Schindler,_Oskar

Oskar Schindler

During the time that we are in Israel I prefer to bring you vignettes about people and events there that are significant to me in some way. Though we have been home for over a week now, I still would like to tell you about a particularly moving experience that Steve and I had last month – something that had never occurred to us to do before, in all the time we have spent in Jerusalem over the years. With a free morning to ourselves at one point, we decided to take a drive around to the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion, and visit the grave of Oskar Schindler. Since the area is quite steep, the cemetery is terraced on a number of levels, with steps leading from one level to the next. Except for a small sign on the front gate, there are really no other signs or tourist markers pointing the way to the grave. You just walk down the various levels, and eventually, you come to it. But as soon as you reach that level, it’s clear which grave is Schindler’s. It is covered with small stones, placed there according to Jewish custom upon visiting a cemetery. The grave itself is rather simple – just a horizontal slab, similar to many other graves in Israel. On the top is written “R.I.P.” Then there is a cross, and then his name and dates (1908-1974). And then, two inscriptions. The first, in Hebrew, reads: “Righteous Gentile.” The other, in German, reads: “Unforgettable lifesaver of 1,200 persecuted Jews.”

675px-Schindlergrave2010

Oskar Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem.

Steve and I happened to strike a quiet moment when no one else was there, so we had a very peaceful opportunity to pay our respects, and place a stone on the grave. I have spoken about Oskar Schindler on previous occasions, so I won’t repeat much of it now. We simply recalled to each other that he was, in a number of ways, a rather unsavory character, who originally saw his munitions factory as nothing more than a money-making opportunity. But at a certain point, most probably as he witnessed the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, he experienced an “epiphany” of sorts, and realized that he needed to step outside of himself at that moment, in pursuit of simple human compassion. Of the 1,200 “Schindlerjuden,” there are now some 7,000 descendants who are alive today. A very ordinary individual did an extraordinary thing, beyond what anyone might have expected of him, and what he ever could have expected of himself.

We read in the Mishnah: In a place devoid of humanity, be a human being.

Oskar Schindler was surrounded by Amalakites, and he even walked among them for a little while. Then, he became a human being. Zichrono Liv’rachah, may his memory be for a blessing. Rest in peace, Oskar Schindler.

L’zecher Anna Frank

torah-cover-frank-edit-wNothing could be sweeter than Shabbat in Jerusalem, and this day was no exception. Earlier this morning (and last night as well) Steve and I attended services at Kehilat Har El, the first Reform synagogue in Israel, founded in 1958. The congregation is masterfully led by my good friend Rabbi Ada Zavidov. Har El’s congregants include both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and count among their founding members a number of German immigrants, mostly survivors of the Shoah.

During the service today, Rabbi Zavidov called our attention to the crown and breastplate adorning the Torah scroll. They are beautiful silver ornaments, and, like most people and things in Israel, bear a remarkable history. Otto Frank, z”l, was a leader in the Reform Movement in Europe after the War. After losing his whole family, he remarried after the war, and he and his wife (a former neighbor in Amsterdam) moved to Switzerland. During a trip to Israel in 1963, Otto Frank visited Kehilat Har El, and gave the congregation a generous gift. With this gift, the congregation commissioned the artist David Heinz Gumpel to create these beautiful Torah ornaments. They are inscribed with the words, “L’zecher Anna Frank,” “In memory of Anna Frank.” Anna, of course, was Otto’s younger daughter, author of the diary which she wrote during their family’s years of hiding in a factory attic in Amsterdam. I have inserted a photo of the ornaments below.

This week we will read a double Torah portion, MatotMas’ei, as we conclude the Book of Numbers. Our ancestors have come to the end of their long years of wandering in the Wilderness, and are about to enter Eretz Yisrael, the Land that God has promised to them and their descendants. In seeing these beautiful Torah ornaments I contemplated the sufferings of our people throughout history. And then I reveled in the sweetness of Shabbat among our people, in the midst of this wonderful congregation, speaking Hebrew, singing together, celebrating with a Bar Mitzvah and his family. In passing the Torah to his family and then to him, Rabbi Zavidov described him as “the newest link in the chain of tradition.” It was the Torah, of course, with these beautiful ornaments in tribute to Anne Frank. That one moment was an extraordinary confluence of painful memory, a moment of joy, and a future of hope. Then, amid the gleaming stones, and beautiful flowers, and shining sun of Jerusalem, we chanted kiddush and shared some challah. . .

Granted, it is not yet a perfect world, and our people still have very real issues to work on, both from within and without. Nevertheless, it was palpably clear in that moment that, in a very profound way, we have, indeed, closed the book on our wanderings. Our people are home.