Two Fine Rabbis; Two Different Fates

After a funeral I recently conducted in Congregation Beth Israel’s cemetery in Hartford, I was struck by something I had seen many times but that had never struck me before.

To my right was the grave of Rabbi Abraham J. Feldman who served Beth Israel for 43 years. He was a Hartford legend who received almost every accolade a rabbi can garner.

On my left were the remains of my friend and classmate, Rabbi David Mark Sobel. After his ordination Rabbi Sobel enlisted as a chaplain in the United States Air Force. Less than a year later he died in Bangkok in an automobile crash.

The two graves lie almost equidistant from the cemetery’s exit.

 David was funny, creative, smart, intense and a fine athlete. We played basketball and tennis with each other in the summer of 1968 when we both studied at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

I asked out loud, “Why was Rabbi Feldman allowed to live out his years and be crowned with honor and glory? And why was it David’s fate to die as a young man with almost all of his dreams unfulfilled?”

Life is strange sometimes. Perhaps cruel is a better word.

Rabbi Feldman’s story is familiar and accessible to all who want to read it, but David’s story is also well worth knowing. I am grateful to the late late Mort Glotzer who remembered David as a boy and shared these memories with me:

“David was a fine athlete. I believe that he wrestled in high school and college. He worked as a construction laborer during summer vacations. He worked in the engine room of a freighter ship on his trip home.

After his ordination, David served as a chaplain in the United States Air Force.

We were stunned…The chief Chaplain from the Air Force preached at his funeral. There was a military honor guard but his mother, Bea, declined a rifle salute. It wasn’t the kind of honor that was appropriate for a Rabbi.

In another memorial tribute to David, navy chaplain Rabbi John J. Rosenblatt wrote:

“To know David Sobel … was to feel life and to sense an unusual creative ability. No one who met David was ever unaware of his presence. His keenness, his sensitivity, and his reverence for life were part of his being that made you aware that life was doing something for others.

David Sobel was a young man in his middle twenties who made those around him feel as young and as important as one could be. He was completely genuine, utterly sincere, and …His quick response was like a new beat to life’s call to action…

David felt that he was in God’s service to bring spiritual comfort where it was most needed. Individuals were his congregation. Open fields were his synagogue.”

Seeing David’s tombstone again today reminded me how fragile life is. It is a gift we can lose in an instant. Each visit to his grave is another reminder to try to make each minute of each hour of each day count for something meaningful and purposeful. We never know when our time is up.

“Alas for those who die with their songs still in them!” (Paraphrase of quotation by Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Homes, 1809-1894)

I see David now with the eye of memory … slashing toward the basket … going for broke by trying for an improbable winner on the tennis court … playing his guitar … speaking in the short clipped tones I remember, a kinetic, energetic force, small in stature, strong of body, persistent of mind.

His energy was so palpable that it is hard for me to imagine him gone even though he died more than 40 years ago. We played together. We learned together. Now he is gone, and I am still here.

“Why?” I ask, but the question brings no answer.

“Repent one day before your death,” Rabbi Eliezer taught. But how do we know when we shall die, a student asked?

“We do not,” answered the Sage, “so we had better repent today, for none of us has a guarantee on tomorrow (B. Shabbat 153A).”

Before I left the cemetery, I cleaned the mud from David’s tombstone. It was the least I could do—and sadly, the most I could do—for my old friend.

 

 

 

I Didn’t Deserve It

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

What a thrill it was for me to be awarded the prize for the “Best Sermon Preached in the College Chapel” during graduation exercises at Hebrew Union college in Los Angeles long ago. My joy was dampened just a bit when a professor shared with me, “I thought you and Jerry Winston should have shared the prize.”

“But you were not even there the day I spoke,” I answered. “How can you tell?”

“I read your sermon so I have a very good idea how it sounded.”

“No, you don’t,” I said to myself, very glad I had won the prize … outright.

Jerry Winston was unique in those days, a man in his forties who decided to be a rabbi after a successful career as a writer in Hollywood. He was gentle and kind. He is gone now, but I will never forget him or his sermon.

He addressed…

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A Purim Message from Bad Segeberg in 1936

Purim in Bad Segeberg, 1936.png

In little more than a month, Purim will be here again. In addition to masks, groggers, and fun-filled Purim spiels, I hope part of our preparation focuses on the vital messages this festival and the Book of Esther, the text that underlies it, send to us today

The faces in the photo that hangs in the new synagogue in Bad Segeberg haunt me. They seared themselves into my brain the first time I saw it, and they do not let go.

What were these 26 souls thinking when—in hiding–they celebrated Purim in 1936? Their eyes and their smiles betray fear as well as their resolve to celebrate the festival with joy.

There are those who demean Purim and the basis for the festival, the Book of Esther. They say:

“It is the only book in the Tanach that does not mention God!””

“The story reads a cartoon melo-drama. It is obviously a work of fiction”

“I am turned off by the excessive violence described as the Jews take their revenge.”

These criticisms notwithstanding, Esther is our prototype story of triumph over forces that have tried to destroy us.

So what if the story is fictionalized and over drawn? It is an inspiring tale of courage.

First of all there is the courage of Vashti. What a role model she is for women of today who face sexual harassment! When the King wanted her to show her beauty (in the altogether, commentators claim) to his drunken friend, she had the courage to refused. She put her dignity and self-respect above position and power.

Then there is the question of destiny. When Mordecai told Esther to tell the King she was Jewish, she replied, “I can’t” No one sees the king without an invitation, and he has not invited me for thirty days.

This is your Moment, claimed Mordecai. “Who know if you did not become queen just for this opportunity that is uniquely yours to stand up for our people?” What a powerful message.

If we look for them, we all have moments when we are in a unique position to make a positive difference. Esther seized her moment. Will we seize ours?

Certainly the Jews of Bad Segeberg seized their moment in 1936. Their celebration testified that they would not allow the Nazis to cow them.

Each time I stare at the photo I wonder: What befell these brave souls? How many—if any—survived Nazi tyranny and celebrated Purim in freedom at some later time?

Regardless, these brave celebrants are the lineal heirs of Vashti and Esther who placed pride and dignity over expediency and ease.

Few Jews remained in Bad Segeberg when the period of Nazi horror ended. The once proud synagogue in the city crumbled from disuse and was torn down in 1962.

But thanks in large measure to an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, and thanks to the skill and determination of the community’s leader Walter Blender who saw to every detail of the construction of the new building, where the 1936 a miracle occurred. Thanks are also due to the kindhearted support of the Christian community led by Pastors Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening who extended the hospitality of their church to the new Jewish community as it reformed.

Every time I climb the stairs to the sanctuary of Bad Segeberg’s Reform (and only) synagogue Mishkan HaTzafon, I look at the 26 brave faces in the photo, and I wish I could thank each and every one.

I have no doubt. Because of the courage of the Jews of Bad Segeberg in 1936 there is Jewish life-–a thriving and God willing growing Jewish life—in Bad Segeberg in 2016.

 

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is the former President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT. In 2014 and 2015 he and his wife Vickie spent ten weeks in Germany speaking in synagogues, churches, universities, the Abraham Geiger College, and high schools. He served as guest rabbi at Mishkan Ha Tzafon in Bad Segeberg for the Days of Awe and Simchat Torah last year and is scheduled to do so again during the next High Holy Day season.

Wo die Sonne nicht hinscheint…

Kurzkommentar zu Terumah, Exodus 25,1-26,19

„Mach einen Kasten aus Akazienholz… und überzieh ihn mit reinem Gold! מבית ומחוץ תצפנו (Mi-bayit u’mi-hootz ti-tzah-peh-nu.) Du sollst ihn innen und außen überziehen” (Exodus 25,10-11).

Warum wertvolles Gold verschwenden, um die Innenseite des Kastens zu überziehen, wenn es niemand je sehen wird?

Das Gold auf der Innenseite des Kastens lehrt, dass Gott will, dass nicht nur unsere Taten rein sind, sondern auch das Herz, das die Taten hervorbringt. Wie der Talmud lehrt: „Eine weise Person, deren Inneres nicht dem Äußeren entspricht, ist nicht wirklich weise.“ (B. Yoma 72b)

Als ich am berühmten Concord Hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains Tennis unterrichtete, hatte ich die Ehre Joe Frazier zu treffen, der spätere Box-Weltmeister im Schwergewicht. Er trainierte in dem Hotel für einen Kampf. Wir gingen gelegentlich spazieren oder unterhielten uns nach dem Abendessen.

Frazier hatte kein Abitur, aber eine seiner Beobachtungen ist so weise wie die der Rabbinen: „Du musst dein Ausdauertraining machen. Jeder hat solch ein Training. Für mich sind es täglich 9 km Laufen. Für einen Rechtsanwalt ist es das Lesen dieser dicken Gesetzbücher. Für einen Sekretär ist es Schreibmaschine schreiben. Jeder hat sein Ausdauertraining. Ich habe gelernt: Wenn mann es nicht macht, wenn die Sonne nicht scheint, wird es bei Tageslicht ganz sicher rauskommen.“

Zuletzt müssen wir alle dem Ewig Einen Rede und Antwort stehen.

Unser Leben hindurch ist es manchmal möglich, Menschen mit einer Fassade von Vertrauenswürdigkeit, Wissen und Freundlichkeit zu täuschen. Die Innenseite der Kiste lehrt uns, dass Gott von Güte als Fassade nicht beeindruckt ist. Gott sieht sehr klar – und wird von uns dafür Verantwortung fordern -, was Menschen nicht sehen.

Translation: With thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

 

“Where the Sun Don’t Shine”

Quick Comment, parashat Terumah, Exodus 25:1-26:19

“Make an ark of acacia wood… Cover it with pure gold. מבית ומחוץ תצפנו . (Mi-bayit u’mi-hootz ti-tzah-peh-nu.) You shall cover it inside and out” (Exodus 25:10-11).

Why waste precious gold to cover the inside of the ark when no one will ever see it? 

The gold on the inside of the ark teaches that God wants not only our deeds to be pure but the heart that prompts them as well. As the Talmud teaches, ”A wise person whose inside does not match his/her outside is not truly wise.” (B. Yoma 72b)

When I taught tennis at the famous Concord Hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains, I had the privilege of meeting the late, Joe Frazier, who later became heavy weight boxing champion of the world. He was training at the hotel for a fight. We sometimes took walks and talked after dinner.

Mr. Frazier never finished high school, but an observation that he made is as wise as that of any Talmudic rabbi:

“You’ve got to do your roadwork. Everybody has roadwork. For me my roadwork is to run five miles every day. If you’re a lawyer your roadwork is to read those big heavy law books. If you’re a secretary your roadwork is to practice typing. Everybody has roadwork. I’ve learned that if you don’t do your roadwork where the sun don’t shine, it’s sure to come out in the light of day.”

Eventually, all of us must answer to the Eternal One.

In life it is possible to fool people sometimes with a false façade of confidence, knowledge and kindness. The inside of the ark teaches us, that God is not impressed by a façade of goodness. God clearly sees—and will hold us accountable for–what people cannot see.

Yahrzeit in Edinburgh

St Giles photoOn Sunday, January 31, I had the privilege of being (I was told) the first rabbi to deliver a sermon at the historic St. Giles Cathedral, the Mother Church of Scotland.

I consider it more than a coincidence that event took place on the 45th anniversary of my father’s death.

The connection is particularly stark because my sermon was part of an interfaith Holocaust Memorial Service, and my father was a survivor.

He was arrested on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, and taken to Dachau where the Nazis shaved his head and beat him. But he was so very fortunate because seven out of every nine Jews who lived in his native city of Leipzig in 1935 died in the Shoah.

Because my father’s relatives in the United States had the necessary papers in order, they were able to secure his release after only a few weeks. He came to this country, met and happily married a beautiful American woman, and fathered my sister and me.

Yes he was so fortunate to escape, but I know the residual effects of his suffering contributed to his death at age 57 while his two older brothers—who left Germany earlier—lived well into their eighties.

When the Beadle of the Cathedral formally summoned me to ascend the St Giles pulpit, my mind flashed back 45 years to when I received that horrible call from my mother while I was studying in Jerusalem.

Back then an international phone call was a very big deal. If you got one, it was your birthday, some other special occasion, or something was very wrong.

When my landlady, Mrs. Daniel Auster, widow of the former Mayor of Jerusalem came into my room at 5 AM to tell me my mother was on the phone, I knew it could only be one thing. My precious father, in my mother’s words, “was gone.”

The long plane ride home—which stopped in Paris was excruciating. Sitting next to me on the first leg of the flight was an ebullient woman on her way to Paris to celebrate her daughter’s wedding.

I did not have the heart to deflate her joy by sharing the reason I was on the plane. My stomach was in knots as I listened to her.

I spent thirty days at home before returning to Jerusalem to continue my studies. They were precious days of reflection and remembrance.

They confirmed for me the wisdom of our tradition in advising us to take sufficient time to absorb the blow when a loved one dies.

I loved my father and admired him, but there are so many questions I would have liked to ask that I never did.

Why didn’t you leave Germany earlier? What was it like when you first came to the USA?

You always acted like you loved me, but why did you never tell me?

In the days following my second open-heart surgery in 2012, I found myself depressed and concerned for my future. I sought therapy and was not surprised when the doctor zeroed in on my relationship with my dad.

“You seem to have never been able to please him,” he noted.

I credit the Eternal One and the therapist for the blessings I have enjoyed since my surgery: the three months I spent as rabbi in Milan, Ben’s marriage to Kristin, the birth of our fifth grandchild, Flora, the completion of my book, it’s translation into German, the two extended periods Vickie and I spent in Germany, the many places I have been privileged to speak, and of course, our recent trip to Scotland.

Indeed, the future about which I fretted at the time of my surgery has turned out very nicely.

I believe in the things I am doing and hope they make a small difference for good.

But I know the doctor was correct. I still want to please my father. And maybe, just maybe I am beginning to believe I am.

 

Das Saphir-Surfboard

Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabschnitt Mishpatim: Exodus 21,1 – 24,18

Worte sind das unzulängliche Werkzeug, das Menschen gebrauchen, um Unbeschreibliches zu beschreiben. Im Tora-Abschnitt dieser Woche haben Mose und die Ältesten ein spektakuläre Begegnung mit dem EwigEinen: Sie “(ויראו/ ויחזזו) sahen Gott (Exodus 24,10, 11).” Gottes Füße berühren einen Boden, der „wie mit Saphir ausgelegt war, so klar wie der Himmel“ (Exodus 24,9).

Als Michael Hyman, jetzt ein bekannter Software-Unternehmer, vor fast 40 Jahren mit mir für seine Bar Mitzwa lernte, beschrieb er die Vision so: Gott reitet mit einem „Surfboard aus Saphir“auf den Wellen des Himmels.

Unbeschadet dieser wunderbaren Beschreibung besteht die Tora darauf „Niemand kann mein (Gottes) Gesicht sehen und es überleben“ (Exodus 33,20).”

Die Vision des „Saphir-Surfboards“ gab den Ältesten einen kurzzeitigen Glaubensschub, aber das wirkte nicht lange. Denn als Mose vom Gipfel des Berges nicht so schnell wie erwartet runter kam, forderte das Volk „einen Gott, den wir sehen können“ – und Aaron machte ihnen das goldene Kalb. (Exodus 32,1-4)

Glaube entsteht nicht immer durch spektakuläre Visionen wie die des „Sapir-Surfboards“.

Elijah, der Prophet, konnte Gott weder im Donner noch im Blitz finden, aber in der „leisen Stimme“ im Innern (1. Kings 19,12).

Aber auch dieser Moment wirkte nicht lange. Als Elijah Verzweiflung und Sinnlosigkeit seiner Arbeit spürte (1. Könige 19,14), weist Gott ihn an, Elisa zu beauftragen, seine Arbeit weiter zu führen (1. Kings 19,16).

Dauerhafter Glaube ist Glaube, der andere inspiriert!

Mögen wir, wie die Ältesten Israels und Elijah, Augenblicke des Staunens erleben, die Worte nicht angemessen beschreiben können. Bevor aber die Flammen unserer Inspiration erlöschen, mögen sie Glauben in anderen entfachen, der sie inspiriert – wie immer sie können – zu arbeiten für eine gerechtere, fürsorglichere und mitfühlendere Gesellschaft auf Erden.

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sapphire Surfboard

(Quick Comment Parashat Mishpatim 21:1 – 24:18)

Words are the imperfect tools humans use to describe the indescribable. In this week’s Torah portion Moses and the elders of Israel have a spectacular encounter with the Eternal One:

They “(ויראו/ ויחזזו) saw God (Exodus 24:10, 11).

With imperfect tools—words—the Bible describes God’s feet on “a paved work like sapphire stone as clear as the heavens (Exodus 24:9).”

When Michael Hyman, now a renowned entrepreneur in the software world, studied with me for his Bar Mitzvah nearly 40 years ago, he described the vision as God riding the heavenly waves on “a sapphire surfboard.”

This awesome description notwithstanding, the Torah insists, “No one can see my (God’s) face and live (Exodus 33:20).”

The vision of the “sapphire surfboard” gave the elders a short-term shot of faith, but it did not last. When Moses did not return from the mountaintop as soon as they expected, the people demanded “a god we can see,” and Aaron made them a golden calf. (Exodus 32:1-4)

Faith does not always come from spectacular visions like “the sapphire surfboard.”

Elijah the prophet could not find God in thunder or lightning but in the “still small voice” within (I Kings 19:12).

But even that moment did not last. When Elijah felt despair and that his efforts were for naught (I Kings 19:14), God instructed him to anoint Elisha to carry on his work (I Kings 19:16).

Enduring faith is faith that inspires others!

May we, like the Elders of Israel and Elijah, experience moments of amazement that words cannot adequately describe. And before the flame of our inspiration wanes, may it kindle faith in others that inspires them to work—however they can—to create a more just, caring and compassionate society on earth.