JEWISH VETERANS AND VETERAN JEWS

With the observance of Veterans Day earlier this week, perhaps it’s time to ask three pertinent questions that in all likelihood should have been asked years ago:
What’s the difference between serving your country and serving your G-d? Serving your country is usually time-bound. For most, there is a tour of duty. Even those who make a career out of serving their country, there are options as well as retirement benefits. Unlike the aftermath of  Vietnam, those who serve our country, are generally looked up to and respected. Anyone in the boarding lounge of an airport is reminded that the courtesy of early boarding of the aircraft is extended to U.S. military personnel. Serving your G-d, on the other hand, is a life- long endeavor and undertaking – at least from the age of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Rather than looking forward to a pension, Jews ought to be looking forward to the challenge. Just as a well-disciplined soldier always sets self-improvement as the goal, so too ought self-improvement be the case of a well-disciplined Jew.  As Jews, there are no tours of duty. Rather than signing up, Jews are inscribed. As a result, each of us breathes our last breath, while serving our maker.

What is the difference between a decorated soldier and a decorated Jew? Succinctly stated, the difference lies in medal and mettle. A decorated soldier is one who associated with medal. The uniform says it all. Whether it be the number of stars on the epaulet or the rows of awards over the chest, a quick glimpse quickly indicates to the casual observer whether the one serving our country is a person of rank. A decorated Jew, however, is one who is associated with mettle. While bereft of any visual reminders of achievements and accomplishments, the Jew has every reason to believe that the decorations that await him or her are out of this world, in the most literal sense. Typically, the decorated Jew is one who has succeeded in braving the enemy of indifference, the adversary of assimilation and the foe of capitulation. Like the decorated soldier, the decorated Jew is constantly aware of traps and pitfalls. Like the decorated soldier, the decorated Jew is not only alert to external enemies, but to threats that come from within as well.

What is the difference between a Jewish veteran and a veteran Jew? A Jewish veteran is one who has fulfilled his or her patriotic chore in serving this country. Particularly when it comes to World War II. In actual numbers, well over half a million Jews put their lives on the line for the war effort. Given the fact that there were a little over 4 million Jews in this country at the time, we have much of which to be proud. In fact participation of Jews in the American Forces was exemplary when one takes into account pockets of anti-Semitism existent in the army, the Army Air Corps (later to be known as the USAF) and the navy at that time, especially when there were more than a few in the country filled with resentment, that this country should have to stick its neck out for Jews in Europe. A Veteran Jew on the other hand simply does not exist. It can’t. As far as Judaism is concerned, “ a Jew, even though he has sinned, is still a Jew ” (Sanhedrin 44a).

By definition, a Jew cannot abandon Judaism. Unlike the army, in Judaism, there is no highest office or status to achieve. Unlike the army, one is not honorably (or dishonorably) discharged from Judaism. Unlike the army, one does not receive a pension for the remainder of one’s life. What one does ultimately receive, however, is a heavenly reward for living a life of commitment and study which typically leads to a life of mitzvot. Rather than attaining the rank of Corporal or Sergeant or Colonel, the highest rank one can attain in Judaism is Talmid Chacham (a wise student) or Ben Torah (son of Torah).

The closest (but in no way similar) that Judaism comes to Veteran’s Day is the commemoration of a yahrzeit. Whereas Veteran’s Day reminds us that they served, a Yahrzeit reminds us that they lived. Whereas commemorating a Yahrzeit brings with it the message “May their memory be a blessing”, commemorating Veteran’s Day brings with it the message “Veterans are a blessing to this country”.

WALLS THAT ENTHRALL

Precious few in our society are aware that this Shabbat marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Jews, this event ought to resonate louder than with most other people, because, for the last two millennia, we have in many ways identified ourselves as “People of the Wall”.

It has been said that walls divide. For us as a people, walls are synonymous with unification. Nevertheless, in witnessing the building of the Berlin Wall close to six decades ago, many Jews responded in a way that was not even remotely politically oriented. Still scarred from a Berlin united under Hitler, many Jews felt that Berlin should be walled off into thousands of sectors, in that they knew only too well what a united Berlin produced. “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer” (one people, one state, one Fuhrer). Hitler’s slogan still rang loud and clear in the ears of survivors, as well as others. Because of this, a united Berlin, as well as a united Germany was not a priority for many Jews on November 9, 1989.

Throughout our history, walls evoked other associations. Perhaps the first walls, that our biblical ancestors confronted were the walls of Jericho. Not long after the mantle of leadership was passed from Moshe to Yehoshua, the nascent Israelite army operating in the Promised Land, was confronted with the taking of the city of Jericho. Yehoshua proved to be a brilliant tactician. Dispatching two spies on a covert reconnaissance mission, contact was made, and support was assured by a sympathetic “saloon hostess” in that city. After the Israelite army marched around the walled city of Jericho, the Israelite army scored a brilliant victory in its first military campaign. Equally, if not even more important, with the fall of the wall, our ancestors were solidly united behind their new leader.

For the Jew, the word “ghetto” has a negative connotation and smacks of Europe. Regardless of its origins, the ghetto connotes a geographic area where Jews lived or were forced to live by the non-Jew. During the first half of the 1940s, ghetto evoked the penultimate stage prior to transport to final destinations such as Treblinka. Yet, there is a totally different ghetto in the annals of our people. That ghetto is often associated with the American Jewish experience, particularly in this country. To a large extent, many of these ghettos still exist. Some are referred to by deliberately mispronouncing the name of the neighborhood. For example, St. Louis Park, a heavily Jewishly populated suburb of Minneapolis, has been called “St. Jewish Park. Much less flattering, I once heard Pikesville, a heavily Jewishly populated suburb of Baltimore being derogatorily referred to as “Kikesville”. These ghettos are gilded ghettos. These ghettos are typically areas in cities with sizeable Jewish populations, where Jews settled by choice. Jews did so because they wished to live among their own. Living in gilded ghettos provided Jews with proximity to Kosher products, Kosher restaurants, Judaica shops, etc. Even though no physical walls are demarcating these gilded ghettos, the gilded ghettos of this country have to a large degree succeeded in insulating and protecting its dwellers from the outside world.

A little over a half-century ago, Jewish life around the world and in Israel in particular, was inexorably changed when the Kotel or Western Wall became part of the Jewish State for the first time in 2000 years. Unsurprisingly, the Wall in Jerusalem has had an effect on the Jewish people that is without equal. At the risk of borrowing a term from Christianity, I truly feel that it is the Kotel and not any Church, that is deserving of the term “Terra Sancta”. Aside from being the sole remnant of the Beit HaMikdash or holy Temple, the Kotel is holy because it is a wall that unites Jews aside from their commitment to or belief in Judaism. At the Kotel, a Jew is a Jew. Period.

Join me, if you will, in wishing Germany well, as it celebrates 30 years of reunification. Join me, I pray, in realizing that whether built or dismantled, real or imaginary, walls have served to unite our people behind a leader (Yehoshua), walls have served to unite our people as a religious entity and/or an ethnic group, walls have served to unite our people as a nation. Good walls make for a strong Judaism.

Triggers and Twisters

Earlier this week, the first anniversary of the catastrophe of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 innocent lives were snuffed out and 7 sustained injuries ought to have resonated more deeply with Jews of Dallas than with Jews anywhere else in this world. With last week’s tornado touching down and wreaking havoc in various neighborhoods in the city, particularly the neighborhood surrounding Tiferet, those who witnessed devastation and those who suffered devastation would do well to consider the following.

The catastrophe at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year occurred because the assailant specifically targeted Jews. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle and three handguns, Robert Bowers set out to murder Jews. Neither worshipers at any church or the faithful at any mosque were in his cross hairs. It’s highly doubtful, that it would have mattered to the murderer, if the site he chose to attack was a Reform Temple, a Conservative Synagogue, an Orthodox Shul or a Chabad House. Unlike so many of us, anti-Semites rarely distinguish or differentiate. In their eyes, one Jew is as worthless and as expendable as another.

Not so, last week’s tornado. Other than zeroing in on specific neighborhoods, it made no difference to the tornado, whether its victims were Jew or Christian,  Hindu or Moslem or any other group. Similarly, it mattered not to the tornado whether it destroyed a business or a private home, a nursery school or a senior living residence. One could perhaps even argue that not only were neighborhoods chosen at random, but homes and buildings were either hit or missed in the most haphazard of ways. One house sustained severe damage, while the house right next to it, was minimally affected. Put differently, the destruction in Pittsburgh came about, because they were Jews; the destruction in Dallas came about, (thankfully and miraculously) just because.

Pittsburgh was yet another example of human cruelty. One can argue whether such attacks are perpetrated as copycat crimes; one can take a stance either for or against gun control. All will agree however, that what took place in Pittsburgh was the result of man’s inhumanity against man.  Driven by unrestrained hatred anger and intolerance, the assailant in his twisted mind, made a concerted effort to improve society by snuffing out the lives of Jews, whose only “crime” was attending Shabbat services at a synagogue.

The Dallas tornado was the exact opposite. I believe that the insurance companies are spot on when they categorize tornadoes and hurricanes, floods and wildfires as acts of G-d. With Yom Kippur a mere three weeks behind us, let us recall a medieval acrostic (among the many ark openings prior to Kedusha) where each stanza begins with the words “Ma’aseh Elohim” or “it is the work of HaShem.” A tornado is no different. It too, is Ma’aseh Elohim. As such, tornadoes not only defy understanding and explanation as to why they occurred, but they serve as reminders that human ingenuity and strength are laughable, or perhaps better stated lamentable.

Last but in no way least,  our response to Pittsburgh and our response to the tornado revealed a great deal about us. From coast to coast, synagogues as well as other Jewish buildings in this country have adopted strict security measures. The synagogue I attended last week had a parked police vehicle replete with flashing lights, two uniformed officers, as well as plain clothed security, standing at the door of the building. Congregants insisted on feeling secure and knowing that they are secure as they offered up prayers that pretty much indicated that they placed their faith in HaShem.

Human response to last week’s tornado, as well as other acts of G-d, evokes a far different response. We rebuild and continue as before, with an implicit resolve that no act of G-d is going to change or interrupt the way we live. Perhaps, we humans have greater faith in HaShem than in our fellow man; perhaps we humans fear our fellow man more than we fear HaShem. Perhaps the words of the prayer prior to removing the Torah from the ark say it best: “Not in any human do I put trust … only in the G-d of heaven.” Something to think about.

THE JOY OF THE TORAH

Jewish terms and names are notorious for being misnomers. Shemini Atzeret, is case in point. Simchat Torah is a combination of two words, which ought to be separated by a comma, in that those two words embody two different phrases (on the eighth – Shemini,  an Atzeret – a stoppage, should be unto you). Similarly, Chanukah is a shortened version of Chanukat Habayit, the dedication of the “House” or holy Temple. Why, even Tiferet is a misnomer, in that Tiferet means “Glory of!” Simchat Torah however, takes the cake. Simchat means “the joy of.” As such, rather than “rejoicing with the Torah,” Simchat Torah means “the joy of the Torah.” Rather than serving as the object, the Torah is the subject!

Over time, the Torah has been the object of wrath. It has served as a convenient avenue for expressing hatred towards the Jews. In their quest to inflict pain and sorrow, anti-Semites over the ages, have been known to desecrate and destroy Torah scrolls. So much so, our rabbinic sages felt compelled to provide a way of responding for distraught and devastated Jews. Accordingly, they handed down a halacha or ruling that dealt with how Jews are to mourn such a travesty. Rather than place one tear in our garments, as we are required to do when confronted by the loss of a family member, our sages ruled that we (the community) are to place two tears in our garments. One tear is to mourn the destruction of the script of the Torah; one tear is  to mourn the destruction of the parchment of the Torah. At the risk of personifying Torah scrolls, perhaps it can be said that grateful that no travesty has befallen them, the Torah Scrolls set aside one day a year to express joy that they are intact and unmarred.

We at Tiferet are blessed. Unlike other congregations that make do with two or even one Torah scroll throughout the year, we at Tiferet have ample scrolls. There is however a downside. Whether it be size or accessibility, typically the same two Torah scrolls are read from throughout the year, leaving the other Torah scroll as place markers. Rarely, if ever, throughout much of the year are those Torah scrolls removed from the ark, much less read from. Simchat Torah is different. Not only are all (or most) Torah scrolls removed from the ark, but they are carried down from the bimah, as congregants participate in hakafot (circuits) and are danced with. From the point of view of the Torah, Simchat Torah is the festival of equality. All Torah scroll are treated the same. Because of this, all Torah scrolls have good reason to rejoice. Afterall, the word of HaShem remains the same, regardless of the age of the Torah, the size of the Torah or the accessibility of the Torah.

Unlike all other ark openings throughout the year, the ark opening on Simchat Torah, is preceded by an additional 10 verses. Among them, we ask that HaShem neither leaves us nor abandons us( I Kings 8:57). An excellent case could be made that those very same sentiments could also be expressed by the Torah! Throughout our history, the Torah has been set aside and forgotten by our people. And even when the Torah was read from on an ongoing basis, its teachings were either conveniently overlooked or forgotten. The very fact that a synagogue service is set aside to mark the completion of the Book of Deuteronomy as well as the beginning of the Book of Genesis is ample reason for the Torah to express joy.

Why not set aside Monday evening, October 21 and Tuesday morning, October 22? Why not join us here at Tiferet to celebrate a festival with a misrepresented and perhaps even a misunderstood name. Join us as we witness the “joy of intact and unmarred Torah scrolls. Join us as we make a point of treating all Torah scrolls the same so that no Torah scroll is overlooked  because of age, size or accessibility. Join us the Torah scrolls at Tiferet are reminded that they are neither neglected nor abandoned. Join us as we share in the joy of our sacred Torah scrolls.

A meaningful Simchat Torah to all!

ARRIVING ON COLUMBUS DAY

Columbus Day ought to take on far greater significance this year. Coinciding with the first day of the festival of Sukkot, Columbus Day ought to bring with it the poignant message, that our celebration Sukkot this second Monday of October, marks more than the arrival of Columbus in America. When all is said and done, Sukkot 5780 has every right to serve as a reminder that when it comes to this country, we Jews have arrived as well.

I think that it is fair to say, that for the last two decades or so, there has been an increase in the building of sukkahs by Jews of all branches of Judaism. How ironic, that those very same coreligionists who feel no compulsion to participate in other aspects of Jewish life, find the time, expend the energy and come up with the necessary funds to construct a Sukkah. I extend a heartfelt Yasher Koach and look forward to seeing more and more sukkahs being put up with the passage of each year. Many of us can well remember that sukkahs were an anomaly in the vast majority of Jewish neighborhoods in this country. Now sukkahs are quite commonplace in American  cities with sizeable Jewish populations.

Back in the day, it was not at all unusual for Jews living in New York as well as in other cities and towns in the northeast, to go to the “mountains” for Pesach. Either because of family dynamics or time constraints, many a Jew would travel up to a kosher hotel in the Catskills for the duration of the festival. My mother’s aunt was typical. Upon reaching her golden years, it was quite evident that there would be neither a  seder nor a kosher for Passover kitchen in the Bronx homes of her three sons and their wives. She, therefore  made alternate arrangements at a nondescript kosher hotel in Sullivan  County, New York.  Nowadays, it’s not only Passover, when Jews uproot themselves. Nor is their destination the Catskills. Nowadays, observant Jews travel to Resort Hotels, located  both in this country as well as abroad (including Israel) for a Sukkot experience. Please know, that the mitzvah is dwelling in a Sukkah, not constructing one, or using one of the outside walls of your home to serve as part of the Sukkah. The mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah can be fulfilled anywhere, including Resort Hotels. And the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah at a Resort Hotel or similar is currently being fulfilled by many observant Jews who have “arrived.”

Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it”. So adjured Yehudah Leib Gordon, a poster child of the Jewish Enlightenment. While it is true that the vast majority of American Jews never knew or heard of Yehudah Leib Gordon, they lived their lives as though they were his illustrious students. For decades, Judaism in this country was practiced privately and quietly. For decades, it was unthinkable for any Jew to be seen on the streets wearing a yarmulke. Judaism was not to be advertised. Previous generations defined themselves as “Americans of the Jewish faith.”

All that has changed and the reasons for that change, can be debated and discussed. For the most part, it is fair to say that Jews are much more comfortable and much more open about their Judaism. As praiseworthy as it is to see the increase in number of sukkahs being put up throughout this country, it is at the same time noteworthy, that Jews have no qualms whatsoever of inviting non-Jewish friends and neighbors to join them in the sukkah for a festival meal. Half a century ago, such an invitation would have been unfathomable. Half a century ago, American Jews had not yet “arrived.”

As we dwell in our sukkah this coming Monday, let us be aware that is Columbus Day as well. Let us be sensitive to the fact that over five centuries since Columbus arrived and that over these last five decades, so too did a good many American Jews.

WHISTLE BLOWER

A week ago, there was much ado in our national news about the Whistle Blower. Americans were reminded, yet again, of how divided this country has become. Regardless of how you feel about events last week, I sincerely hope that there is not just agreement, but unity as well, among our people when we bring to mind a “whistle blower” of a totally different nature. The “whistle blower” who appeared before our people this past Monday and Tuesday, typically during synagogue services, is accorded the honorific title of Ba’al Tokea. Unlike the Washington Whistle Blower, our Ba’al Tokea does not make national news, nor does our Ba’al Tokea provide fodder for talk show hosts.

Our “Whistle Blower” is positioned for all to see and for all to hear. There is nothing secretive or furtive about him. More important, however, our “whistle Blower” succeeds in uniting the masses rather than dividing them. However well intentioned, many a rabbi has been known to create acrimony among congregants because of his sermons. However well thought out, many a rabbi has been known to take on the role of Hypnos, the Greek deity of sleep, because of his sermon. But the Ba’al Tokea? Before even setting his lips to the shofar, the Ba’al Tokea has created an aura of riveting silence, as those assembled wait to hear those age-old notes that speak volumes.

Unlike the “Whistle Blower” who divulges, the Ba’al Tokea indulges. Hearing those holy sounds emanating from a hollowed horn,  HaShem is both figuratively and literally, in seventh heaven.

There are no doubt those who will insist that the “Whistle Blower” betrayed a confidence. Others will argue the exact opposite. In contradistinction to whether or not a confidence was in fact betrayed, suffice it to say that all who heard the shofar being sounded Monday and Tuesday, will agree that the Ba’al Tokea displayed confidence. Because the T’kiah, Shvarim and Truah flowing from the shofar are both age-old and time-tested, the Ba’al Tokea has every reason to feel confident that the holy sounds will be a resounding success, as they find their way to the very soul of the Master of the Universe. As powerful and moving as the High Holy day liturgy is, it can be said that the wordless prayer offered by the Shofar speaks to our creator, in ways that defy our imagination.

Unlike the “Whistle Blower,” it is  highly doubtful any Ba’al Tokea makes headlines in the press. Nor is this the purpose of any Ba’al Tokea. Rather than make any headline, the goal of the Ba’al Tokea is to make a beeline to the depths of the soul – both human and divine. Most of us would agree, that the sound of the shofar is spine chilling. However true that may be, the sound of the shofar ought to be soul stirring as well. Let those who hear that haunting inter-generational sound of the shofar, realize what a potential source of naches we are to the Creator of the Universe, as the Ba’al Tokea communicates with Him through the horn of a descendant of the ram caught in the thicket on Mount Moriah. Conversely, let the Creator of the Universe be reminded through the horn of a descendant of the ram caught in the thicket on Mount Moriah, that He is a unique source of naches to His people as well.

Headline or a beeline, betraying a confidence or displaying confidence, dividing or uniting, the  Ba’al Tokea is the antithesis to the “Whistle Blower.”

Let’s leave “whistleblowing” – necessary or unnecessary – to those who believe that they have an obligation to society. Let’s approach the Ba’al Tokea – a master of the skill or not – with a belief that he has an obligation to his people. Just as HaShem breathed the breath of life into the ground on the first Rosh Hashana of creation, so too does the Ba’al Tokea breathe a breath of life toward heaven on every Rosh Hashana thereafter of celebration.

Ask Not What Your Congregation Can Do for You

“After all, a true patriot, is willing to make some sacrifice, to give up some personal or policy goal, in the national interest.” So wrote a columnist with whom I vehemently disagree on just about everything. By substituting the term “tried and true congregant” for “true patriot,” I realized that the columnist was on to something that has been gnawing at the vast majority of synagogues for decades.

Arriving at a realization, that the three most important components of a synagogue of are congregants, congregants, and congregants, leadership, both religious and lay, miserably misunderstood and misinterpreted this reality. As a result, the typical congregation of this country works under the premise, that congregants must be attracted at all costs. Because of this misunderstanding and misinterpretation, synagogues attempt to be all things to all congregants.

It was less than six decades ago, when a newly elected President of this country exhorted Americans with the following: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. Just as a new breed of Americans have been raised with a false sense of entitlement when it comes to government, so too has a new breed of American Jews been raised with a sense of entitlement when it comes to the synagogue.

Congregants are the prerequisite of the synagogue… as far as participation. On any given Shabbat morning, I cannot help but feel that looking at those who participate at services at Tiferet, many other congregations in Dallas have every right to be green with envy. The dedication of Tiferet’s faithful is second to none. Unlike other congregations, we at Tiferet do not “suffer” from dog days of summer. Instead, we at Tiferet, implicitly understand that neither Shabbat nor HaShem go on vacation.

Congregants are the lifeblood of the synagogue. A synagogue is in fact a “House of G-d,” yet neither the repairs nor the budget is taken care of by any “divine budget.” No different than all other houses of worship, synagogues operate under the implicit understanding, first put forth in Psalm 115: “The heavens are HaShem’s, but the earth was given to mankind.” As such, the longstanding  partnership between heaven and earth is, that the former is responsible for the spiritual while the latter is responsible for the material. If congregants want to feel proud of their house of worship, if congregants want to feel comfortable – both literally as well as figuratively – about their house of worship, then in addition to membership dues, congregants must be prepared to do their part in absorbing the costs that are inevitably part and parcel of the daily functioning of their religious home.

I am no sociologist. Experience has taught me however, that unless a new synagogue is built in a new housing development, new membership in a longstanding congregation, rarely comes about because of a disaffected member of another congregation. Furthermore, new membership in a longstanding congregation practically never comes about from the non-affiliated. New membership does come about, however, through parents of young children (a good many congregations require five years of Hebrew school, which also translates into five years of membership) or because of friendships. Because of the social aspect of the American synagogue, there are those who will affiliate simply because of the cajoling of friends. If a congregant has reason to believe that the synagogue more than fulfills his/her needs and has so much more to offer, then wouldn’t it make sense for  that congregant to “talk up” his/her synagogue and invite friends to become part of it? After all, congregants are the sine qua non of a synagogue.

With Rosh Hashana soon upon us, let us do our share to strengthen Tiferet,  a congregation worth believing in?

Ribbon Cutting

Once upon a time, I was fairly involved in the Dallas Holocaust Museum. With the change of leadership, my involvement with the Holocaust Museum also changed. And that was perfectly fine. I would even say propitious . Two major changes were about to occur with which I could not concur. The first change was that it would no longer solely serve as a museum of the Holocaust. It would morph into a Museum of Human rights, as well. Please understand. I will be the first to espouse human rights. I will, however, be the first to espouse that the Holocaust must stand alone – in that no catastrophe ought to be placed alongside the Holocaust. For example, I would, without any hesitation whatsoever, give my time, energy, and money to work with Ukrainians to put up a museum to commemorate the systematic starvation of close to 4 million of their people, between 1931 and 1934, by Joseph Stalin. But in no way, would I wish to have their heart wrenching story be part of a museum that depicts the annihilation of  6 million Jews by Hitler. Like the Jews, Ukrainians deserve their own space to tell their own story of man’s inhumanity to man. The second change was yesterday’s opening of their $74 million, 55,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, copper-wrapped masterpiece in Dallas’s West End. While I possess no powers to foresee the future, I cannot feel but feel that the current, ever so strong, interest in Holocaust Museums across the continent and throughout the world, is destined to run its course, whether it be within the next decade, or sooner. Accordingly, I would have earmarked those same funds for other pursuits, that would have carried a message to the 6 million, that while their physical existence went up in smoke, our memory of them will continue to burn brightly, as it lives on in our hearts and in our souls.

As I watched the dignitaries cut the ribbon to dedicate the new building on Tuesday, I fervently prayed that they did not cut the apron strings. As Jews, we have every right – nay, we have the sacred duty to be possessive when it comes to the Holocaust. With exception of the Roma (Gypsies), anyone else who was murdered by the Nazis, perished because of either what they did or because of “collateral damage.” Jews (and Roma) perished because of who they were. Let us never forget, that our people, and no one else’s people were targeted by Hitler and his war machine. The Third Reich devised no other “rein” (clean/cleansing), other than “Judenrein!”

As I watched the dignitaries cut the ribbon to dedicate the new building on Tuesday, I fervently prayed that they did not cut short. Soon after I arrived in Dallas, I was visited by President and CEO of the Holocaust Museum. It did not take long for me to realize that one of the premises behind the museum was to depict a time when an entire world stood idly by and did nothing. However true that may have been about world leaders, it was far from the truth about ordinary Christians who were responsible for extraordinary deeds of heroism. Hardly a week passes, without a Jewish website on the internet coming out with a story about a non-Jew who placed his life in peril, by providing a hiding place for a Jew. For those who argue that such select acts of humane behavior pale in comparison to the countless others who turned a blind eye, it must be pointed out, that without these acts of kindness, we might be remembering well over 6 million Jews, whose lives were snuffed out. If Yad VaShem, the World Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem recognizes the Righteous Gentile, shouldn’t individual Holocaust Museums do the same?

As I watched the dignitaries cut the ribbon to dedicate the new building on Tuesday, I fervently prayed that they did not take a cut and dried attitude. As one who has officiated at hundreds of funerals over the years, including those whose lives were cut short, there is no greater injustice one can do to the dead, than speak solely about how they died. True tribute to the deceased, is to pay tribute to how they lived. A truly touching Holocaust Museum, would be one where the lives as well as the deaths of the victims, are remembered.

We have a right to be possessive when it comes to the Holocaust. We have a task to remember the righteous gentile. We have a duty to learn about the lives of those whose memories are ensconced in the Holocaust Museum.

YOM HAZIKARON

Baruch atah … asher kiddshanu b’mitzvotav V’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Yom HaZikaron.” (Blessed…who has sanctified us through His mitzvahs and commanded us to kindle the candles of the Day of Remembrance.) So reads the blessing for the kindling of Rosh Hashana candles in Hassidic homes, as well as others who have adapted that text. “Yom HaZikaron” is another name for Rosh HaShana.

My own personal “Yom HaZikaron,” my own personal “Day of Remembrance” occurred earlier this week, as I witnessed the dismantling of the contents of the house I grew up in. True, I had only lived in that house for 10 years, but those 10 years were years of my childhood; those 10 years were my formative years. As the disposal companies carried away the bed I slept in, the desk that I all too often left hopelessly cluttered and the bookshelf that held the books that defined me as an individual, I watched in silence. Long before I set out for my home town this past Sunday, I knew that in all likelihood, I would not be able to bring myself to drive past 14 Coralberry once it was sold. It would be much too painful.

But the memories will not only remain within the walls of that three-bedroom structure with its “L shaped” living room and dining room. The memories will be shared with siblings and family members; the memories will be passed along to my grandsons, although I find it difficult to believe that they will have any interest to hear about squeezed joint mortar which, short of a major remodeling by the new owners, will remain in place, and the roxatone (white with gold flecks) paint that covered the used dining room set purchased at Cosman Furniture that has long been replaced. Similarly, my grandsons will in all probability roll their eyes, as I tell them about the primitive gas mower with a separate cord for starting purpose, that I all too often would have to coax to start before tending to the front and back lawn during the all too short Winnipeg summers.

Even though I am no psychologist, I cannot help but feel that memories fall into three categories:

Although it borders on an oxymoron, there are memories that, were it not for others to jog your mind, you would never have recalled the event or moment. However, once those memories are brought to mind – provided they are neither embarrassing nor painful – you are most incredulous that you could have suppressed the event or moment but are so very grateful that others reminded you of it. Thanks to their having jogged your mind, you now have yet another memory that you can fondly recall and possibly even embellish a little.

There are shared memories. These are the most common and quite often the funniest to recall. Share memories are substantiated memories. Shared memories are validated memories that reassure you that the event actually did take place and that you are not dreaming it or fabricating it. Shared memories are enriched memories. Others often tweak shared memories by contributing their own version, either real or contrived, in the hope of making the memories more special than you recall them to have been. At the very least shared memories tweaked by others add a level of  entertainment. Even if you are positive that the other person is stretching the truth, let that person remember  things that way he or she believes they actually happened. After all,  does it really matter if it was the hottest day ever or if you never said what they claim you said?

Perhaps most important of all, there are memories that are personal. Not because there is anything embarrassing, secretive or untoward about these memories. It’s simply because these memories  involve only you. And even if others were in fact part of these memories, it matters little if anything to them. Personal memories are the most special, because they are uniquely yours. And whether they bring a smile to your face or a tear to your eye, it is your smile and your tear and no one else’s. Personal memories are uniquely yours without being cast as selfish. Personal memories are the glue that holds your past, your unique past together. Now that the contents of 14 Coralberry have been disposed of and once the house is sold, it will be these personal memories that I will cherish the most.

EIGHTY

For so many in this country, this past Sunday went by largely unnoticed. Other than being part of Labor Day weekend, precious few were aware that this past Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. As Jews, we have a sacred task. Aside from continuing to serve as the moral conscience for a world that would all too willingly relegate remembering World War II to historians, we Jews must look for a deeper meaning to this 80th anniversary. The carnage that occurred between September 1, 1939 and May 8, 1945 must not be viewed solely in terms of a world war; the carnage that occurred between September 1, 1939  and May 8, 1945 must be viewed as a war that was thrust upon the Jewish world!

It was the great Talmudic sage Yehudah ben Teima who taught us that 80 is commensurate with strength. Little could he have realized just how prescient his words would prove to be. These last 80 years have been years of amassing unimaginable strength, both for Jews in Israel as well as for Jews here in these United States. During this time period (actually only 71 years, since Israel did not become a sovereign state until May 1948) Israel has succeeded in building an army that is feared by its enemies, begrudgingly respected by those who are ambivalent towards the Jewish State, and admired by her friends. From a non-military aspect, I never cease to be amazed by the non-stop construction of factories, office buildings and private homes; I continue to remain in awe at the founding of new towns and the paving of new roads. As for Jews in this country,  who could ever have dared to imagine back in 1939 that there would come a time where there would be annual Chanukah parties at 1600 Pennsylvania  Avenue? Our strength is not that there are Jews who are members of the first family, but that for the most part, American Jews are nonchalant about it. Currently, there are at least two presidential hopefuls who are either Jewish or who have Jewish spouses. Again, American Jews remain un-phased.

Centuries after Rabbi Yehudah ben Teima, lived Rabbi Chanina who was known for his wit when it came to word plays. An example his ingenuity can be found  toward the end of Shabbat services, between Ein Keloheinu and Aleinu, where he asks us to read a word as “Bonei’ich” (builders) rather than “Banei’ich” (sons). In the spirit of Rabbi Chanina, I suggest that “shmonim” the Hebrew word for “eighty” be read as “shmanim” (oils), a word that appears in the all-time Chanukah favorite “Ma’oz Tzur.” I do so, because for the better part of eighty years, we have been amassing Holocaust stories and vignettes that defied the odds and were therefore very much Chanukah in nature. With our marking the 80th anniversary or “shmonim shanah,” perhaps the time has come for us to focus on “shmanim”  or oils that are post Holocaust defying of odds, where survivors built and produced and contributed in ways that far surpass  the building, producing and contributing of those who never knew from such horrors. Not unlike Chanukah, it borders on the incredulous when one accomplishes the unimaginable during periods of darkness; not unlike Chanukah, survivor stories border on the incredulous, given what they were able to accomplish during periods of light.

On any typical weekday during Shacharit and Mincha, we implore the Guardian of Israel, “Al yovad goy echad” that the “unique nation” not be destroyed. If there were ever a time for this imploration to take on special meaning, it would be at this very moment. Numerically, “al yovad goy echad” equals 80. This nation, the Jewish nation, I believe is here to stay. Whether or not this nation remains unique is dependent upon us.

For the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II to have meaning in our lives, let us look back on these eight decades and regard them as 80 years of distinction, 80 years of defying the odds, and 80 years of strength.