November 29, 2017
Five years ago today, Dr Lars Svensson of the Cleveland Clinic and his surgical team sawed open my chest, and performed two operations at the same time. They repaired what would have become a life-threatening aortic aneurysm, and replaced the mechanical aortic valve, which had ceased to function optimally with a bovine tissue valve.
Six weeks earlier, as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I conducted worship for Yom Kippur at the Reform synagogue in Prague. Later that evening, as my soul glowed from my efforts on that marathon day of prayer and teaching, the World Union Board Chair called to fire me.
Although the call was not a surprise, I was devastated. For eighteen months I had traveled the world speaking and teaching on behalf of the World Union. I had never worked so hard in my life.
At the time of my surgery I was at low ebb. I was weak as a kitten I did not know whether I would live or what I would do if I did.
Vickie, of course, came with me to Cleveland along with my three children, Leo and Sarah from San Francisco and Ben from West Hartford. Their presence gave me an incalculable measure of comfort and strength.
The operation was a tricky one.
My Connecticut cardiologist, the late Dr. Robert Chamberlain, whom I respected and revered, told me, “ This is a complex procedure, and you need to have it done in a major center where they do many of these operations.”
When after some internet research, I asked about the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Chamberlain replied, “Excellent choice!”
He then did research of his own and suggested Dr Lars Svensson. Dr. Svensson had repaired the aortic aneurysm of Boston Celtics forward Jeff Green who returned to professional basketball the following year.
I figured, that if Dr. Svensson was good enough for the Celtics, he was good enough for me though my surgery was more complex.
It was a tough go. My recovery was slow and painful. We had the great blessing, though of Jordan and Jeannie Tobin. They had been friends since we all lived in Columbia, Maryland. Jordan is a physician to whom I would always turn for information about the medical condition of people I visited who were ill. Jeannie had been president of our synagogue in Maryland, and subsequently has been president of both the JCC and their synagogue in Cleveland. They invited Vickie and me to stay with them at their home in Cleveland for as long as we wished after my release from the hospital. What a blessing that was!
My family, Jordan and Jeannie, their daughter Cyndi, her husband Robert, their three delightful children, an uplifting visit from a former student, Jodie Urban Amiot, who drove 100 miles to see me, and Facebook messages of encouragement from around the world and every period of my life all gave me strength.
Even after we returned to Connecticut the road was difficult. Several visits to a wonderful psychologist helped me immensely. I had a chance to share my feelings and begin to set a course for my future.
I resolved that I would finally publish the book that had been percolating in my mind for nearly forty years. I began to work in earnest on What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.
Then a great opportunity surfaced. David Ross, President of the Reform congregation in Milan, Italy, who had heard me speak at the European Union for Progressive Judaism convention in Amsterdam the previous March, invited me to be guest rabbi in Milan for three months the following year. It was a wonderful experience.
At this time two amazing women entered my life, Pastor Ursula Sieg and Susan Marie Shuman.
Ursula visited us in Milan and invited us to come to Germany the following year. Susan, a professional writer, took interest in my work and midwifed my book into print.
What has occurred subsequently is, in my rudimentary German, wie ein Traum, like a dream.
Vickie and I spent ten weeks for three years in Germany. There, thanks to Pastor Sieg and her husband, Pastor Martin Pommerening, I have had unbelievable opportunities teaching about the Shoah in high schools with Vickie and speaking and teaching in synagogues and some two-dozen Christian churches and teaching rabbinical students at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin. I also taught a seminar on Psalms to Christian and Muslim Religious Education students.
I have had the privilege of speaking on the anniversary of Kristallnacht in Leipzig, the city where my late father was arrested and imprisoned that fateful night in 1938. I conducted the first Jewish service in the city of Friedrichsstadt since World War II, and spoke words of reconciliation in a church once pastored by a man who became a Nazi officer who was tried and convicted at Nuremburg for the murder of thousands of Jews. Thanks to Pastor Sieg and her publishing company, mutualblessing edition, What’s in it for Me? is now available in German, Russian and Spanish. She also conceived and made real ToraHighlights, containing short commentaries in English and German on each weekly Torah portion. Beautiful photographs by Lena Stein from Beth Israel, the congregation of which I am Rabbi Emeritus in West Hartford Connecticut adorn the book.
Ursula and Martin also travelled to Nashville to attend the dinner at which I received the award as Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Distinguished Alumnus of the year for 2017.
Susan Shuman not only is responsible for the publication of What’s in it for Me? She lovingly and creatively tends my website (www.rabbifuchs.com) and has compiled and edited my last three books, Why the Kof?, Why Triple Chai?, and my forthcoming volume, Who Created God?
In great measure, due to Susan and Ursula “my cup runneth over.” That is why I shall dedicate Who Created God? to them.
“How long O Eternal One?” The plaintive cry is (at least) as old as the Bible, but we ask it again in the wake of the recent tragedy in El Arish, Egypt.
I spent a night in El Arish in 1981. There when peace seemed possible in the Middle East I frolicked in the surf on a beautiful beach with Palestinians named Mahmoud and Fawzi. Today I wonder if Mahmoud, Fawzi, their wives, children and grandchildren were among those the terrorists murdered?
What kind of savages meticulously plan and carry out an attack on people worshipping in a mosque that kills more than 300 people?
God has made us (Psalm 8) “Little lower than the angels” and given us enormous power. With this power we can wage war on cancer, blindness, ALS and other devastating diseases.
With this power we can fly from one place to another and put knowledge at our fingertips with speed unimaginable only a generation ago.
But with this power we can also build assault rifles and other instruments of death to snuff out lives, hopes and dreams in an instant.
The Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 37A) teaches that one who destroys a single life destroys an entire world. How many worlds died in the Sufi mosque in the Sinai?
The God I worship weeps at the savagery perpetrated in the name of the Eternal One in El Arish.
Some surely ask: Why didn’t God prevent this slaughter?
The answer is God gave us free will. We can choose to use our talents—however great or small they are—for good or evil.
God implores us to choose good. But terrorists continue to choose evil. So good people, who truly represent God’s desire for humanity, must fight them in every way that we can.
We must fight those who wantonly deal death and destruction in the same way that researchers fight against cancer, blindness and ALS.
And, even though it seems that the forces of evil grow stronger by the day, we must never give up hope.
We must continue to hope and work to make real the prophets’ vision–nearly 3000 years old– a time when, “they shall not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain …” (Isaiah 11:9) “And all shall sit under their vines and fig trees with none to make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)
Everything the Torah shares with us about Jacob’s youth is negative.**
He takes advantage of his brother’s hunger to extort the family birthright from him. The birthright is defined as the double share of the family inheritance given the eldest son in those days. If one of my children did what Jacob did to Esau to his or her sibling, we would have had a long talk about how unacceptable his or her behavior was, and I hope Vickie and I would impose an appropriately instructive punishment.
Later at his mother’s urging, Jacob stood before his blind father, dressed in Esau’s clothes, lied twice through his teeth when he swore to Isaac, “I am Esau your first born.”
The purpose of this horrible charade was to obtain his father’s blessing that designated him as the spiritual heir to the Covenant God first made with Abraham to (ironically considering what Jacob did) make the world a better place.
Esau is furious, and Rebecca prudently advises Jacob to lay low for a while and sends him off to her home in Haran to live with her brother Laban.
Despite being designated as the principal heir to the family fortune and spiritual partner of the Eternal One, Jacob flees his home as a penniless refugee.
But on his first night away from home Jacob’s life and it direction change forever.
He encounters a God in a dream and awakes to a realization that there is a purpose to his life beyond his own selfish interests. “Surely,” he exclaims, “the Eternal One is here, but I had no clue. How awesome is this place!”
“This place” was neither the Garden of Eden or nor some magnificent edifice. “This place” was a barren desert stopping point where Jacob lay down with a rock for his pillow.
Jacob’s transformation was not instantaneous.
It would take twenty years of hard living and being tricked and cheated by Laban just as Jacob had tricked and cheated his father and brother.
But after those twenty years, we see a much different Jacob then the boy who left home.
- Twenty years later we see Jacob eager to return the value of what he stole to his brother and then some.
- Twenty years later we see Jacob, “the supplanter” fully embrace his destiny as Covenantal partner with the Eternal One
What does this mean to us?
God can appear in our lives anywhere and at any time, but like Jacob, we must be receptive to the encounter.
I believe I encountered God during the first night I was at Eisner Camp at age twelve. I could not sleep at all, and I watched the full moon move across the sky. When it disappeared completely behind a cloud, I thought I had seen its last, but it emerged to illumine the night once again. As the moon continued its journey in and out of darkness, a clear message embedded itself in my heart, a message I have called to mind often in the ensuing years:
“There will be clouds in your life. There will be things that disappoint you and darken your days. But keep moving forward. Keep trying your best, and, like the moon, your light will shine again.”
Now some will think it foolish that a twelve-year-old boy interpreted this ordinary experience as an encounter with the Eternal One, but I cling to my belief that it was. It changed the direction of my life.
The change at that moment was barely perceptible, as was the change in Jacob’s life after his dream. For me as well, the change from self-centered boy to (I hope) responsible and caring though, (like Jacob) still flawed adult took many years.
But I learned that first night at camp to open myself to the possibility that any time and any place God may be trying to tell me something or give me an opportunity to make a positive change in my life or do something good for someone.
Many will scoff at my “foolish naïveté,” but there is one thing I know for sure.
If we are all on the alert for moments when God is offering us insight as to how we can live more meaningful purposeful lives, the world in which we live would become a much better place.
For the God I worship, making the world better is the highest goal of all.
(Jewish folklore andMidrashic literature take the opposite view of Jacob’s character. I discuss these themes and how the story of Jacob can instruct our lives in the chapter, “Jacob: Is this the One to Inherit the Covenant,” in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.)
Recently our younger son Ben celebrated his 35th birthday. I am thrilled that he is at a very good place in life with a wonderful wife, two beautiful children and a fulfilling career.
Ben is my youngest child, and I was my father’s. I rejoice that I have lived to see my son celebrate his 35th birthday, and I don’t want to stop there. But my father died when I was 24.
He never saw me become a rabbi, and he never met Vickie nor, of course, our children and grandchildren.
I am grateful, though that my father saw me conduct one service and deliver one sermon the year before he died. It was in the summer after my first year in rabbinical school, and I was asked to fill in for vacationing Rabbi Charles Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, in my home congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, NJ.
My dad was already very sick, but he arranged for special treatment including a blood transfusion that day just so that he could be there. It was a Herculean effort on his part, and I will always treasure the memory of that night.
The service went well, and my father was jubilant. When a friend asked him how he felt, his reply still reverberates in my heart: “With medicine like that, how can I not feel wonderful?”
Later he shared with my mother, “Now I can die in peace because I know my son has the talent to succeed in the career he has chosen. What I worry about is how will he deal with the criticism both warranted and unwarranted that a rabbi must endure.”
Dad, you were right to worry!
I have learned so much over the years from constructive criticism that I have received from teachers, friends and even casual observers.
But to this day, unthinking, harsh personal comments cut into my soul like a sharp knife.
The fact that I have learned that such attacks “come with the territory” and are the “price of doing business” a rabbi pays for putting him or herself out there in a public or semi public way does not diminish the pain.
On a trip to Israel during the intifada our small group met Israel’s former Prime Minister and later President, the late Shimon Peres. After his talk to us, I asked him how he deals with the vicious criticism people have hurled at him during his long career.
He replied, “If I believe that what I am doing is right, it does not bother me.”
I wish I had his fortitude.
It is nearly fifty years since I began to prepare to become a rabbi. I am still working on dealing with gratuitous criticism. To be honest, I still have a long way to go.
Almost daily the beautiful choir of Ibis (above) visits our front lawn here in Sanibel. They are magnificent in their beauty, and I marvel at their stately grace as they high step through the neighborhood
The group consists of about eight white birds, and one of color. The bird of color is neither the leader of the group nor its servant . . . just one of them. He or she suffers no discrimination.
The white birds completely accept the bird of color as a fellow Ibis.
When I was a small child my mother gave me a record called, Little Songs on Big Subjects. One of my favorite lyrics is,
”As the peach pit said to the Apple core, the color of the skin doesn’t matter any more …”
Clearly, our Ibis choir has learned this vital lesson.
When will we humans?
(I have learned, thanks to my wonderful friend and bird expert, Caren Schoen, that the Ibis of Color is really a baby that will look before long like the rest of the flock. I hope that in this case science does not diminish the message of the essay.)
I first found out what happened on this night in 1938 when I began my graduate studies to become a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. At the opening convocation the then dean and later President of the College, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, of blessed memory, told of how as an eight-year old child in the town of Oberwesel, he watched his grandfather wade into the river Rhine to save charred scraps of Torah scrolls thrown by the Nazis from his burning synagogue.
As my train pulled into Leipzig’s huge station, I realized that my first glimpse of the city was probably my father’s last as he traveled on a different kind of train to Dachau after his arrest on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.
I picked up a detailed city map at the information center to try to find the street and apartment where my father had grown up. I also sought the location of the city zoo.
Why the zoo? The eyewitness report on Kristallnacht by David H. Buffum, American consul in Leipzig, reveals: “Jewish dwellings were smashed into, and the contents looted… An eighteen year-old boy was hurled from a three-story window to land with both legs broken … Three synagogues were fired simultaneously by incendiary bombs, and many Jews were rounded up and thrown into the stream that flows through the city zoo. SS men commanded horrified spectators to spit, jeer, and defile them with mud.”
When I arrived at the entrance to the zoo, it was 6:45 p.m. The gatekeeper said I was too late. “The zoo closes at seven.”
“It is all right,” I answered, as I handed over the entrance fee. “I only need to go in for a few minutes.” The gatekeeper protested, but I persisted until she finally let me pass.
In a few minutes I was standing before the stream. Tears came to my eyes as I heard myself asking out loud, “Is this where they took you, Papa? Did those bastards spit on you… Did they throw mud on you?” Then, as if in retaliation, I spit into the water from a bridge that straddles the stream.
67 Jews in Leipzig **
The next morning I found the office of the Leipzig Jewish community. The elderly lady who answered the door explained that the head of the community was out but would be back later. I explained to her that my father grew up in Leipzig. She pulled down a dusty ledger and opened it to the F’s. I quickly found the family listing.
While we were talking, the leader of the community walked in. I explained who I was and why I was there. He was warm, friendly, and clearly pleased that I had come.
I asked him, “How many Jews live in Leipzig?”
“67”, he answered.
“And how many lived here,” I continued, “when the Jewish population was at its peak?”
“In 1935,” he responded, “18,000 Jews lived in Leipzig.”
“How many perished during the Holocaust?” I asked.
“14,000,” he replied.
The twelve-hour train ride to Amsterdam gave me plenty of time to digest my experiences in Leipzig. I thought, of course, of my father. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis took him to Dachau where they shaved his head, interrogated him, and abused him.
But Leo Fuchs was one of the lucky ones. Because he had relatives already in the United States, and because his visas were complete and in order, the American consulate secured his release after only a few days.
He never spoke of any of this to me, but I know the trauma’s effect never left him. In the spring of 1969 my father fell gravely ill. I flew home to New Jersey from my rabbinical studies in Los Angeles to be with him. I shall never forget my feelings of helplessness when I entered the hospital room, and my father in a semi-comatose state did not recognize me.
I stood there and shuddered as he began shouting in German — which he never spoke at home — that the guards should stop beating him! He had repressed those memories for more than 30 years.
And they were—by and large—good years! In this country my father found love and raised a family. But I –perhaps irrationally—blame the Nazis for shortening his life and depriving me of sharing my greatest joys with him: My ordination as a rabbi, my marriage to Vickie, and our children and our grandchildren.
Our children! They are our people’s answer to Hitler’s madness. For us Jews each new life represents a young sapling planted not only to bring joy to a family but also to revitalize a once verdant forest ravaged by fire, by smoke, and by gas.
The word, “Genocide,” which we throw around so loosely today, came into our vocabulary so that we could attempt to define what Hitler tried to do: to extirpate the gene pool of our people.
And so we command ourselves: זכור (Zachor) Remember! But if we only remember to wallow in our sorrow, then we waste our time and our tears. We must remember what was so that we can make what will be better.
How could God allow the Holocaust?
People ask me all the time, “How could God allow the Holocaust?” I answer that God gave human beings free will and placed us in charge of and responsible for this world. Without free will life would have no meaning. We human beings would be mere puppets on a string or actors following a script from which we could not deviate.
God yearns for us to create a world of justice and compassion, but God does not do it for us. When we fail, it is our failure, not God’s. When we fail, I believe God weeps with us and for us.
A Miraculous Vision
As I walked away from the stream that flows through the Leipzig zoo, I wandered past a den of timber wolves in a natural enclosure and beheld a truly wondrous site. A mother wolf stood stark still, while two suckling cubs nursed blissfully at her breasts.
At first, I thought it so incongruous to see such an exquisite glimpse of nature’s harmony in a place that represented to me only discord and destruction. Yet, that is the image that lingered in my mind during the long train ride back to Amsterdam. My mind’s eye kept returning from the vision of violence, hatred, and pain to the peaceful, pastoral scene of wolf cubs drawing sustenance and strength from their mother.
The Leipzig zoo will always represent for me the horrible evil of which humanity is capable. The wolves, though, will always represent harmony God wants us to create in this world.
On Yom Kippur we read in our synagogue one of the Torah’s most important texts: “See I have set before you life and goodness, death and evil.” (Dt. 30:15). The choice is ours, but God exhorts us: “Choose life that you and your offspring may live (Dt. 30:19).
No, the question is not where was God during the Holocaust. The question is, “Where was humanity?”
We cannot change the past, but the future is ours to shape.
We know too well that we can choose death, but God hopes our past will strengthen us as we face the future.
Yes, we can choose death, but God hopes:
That the pain we relive this night will give us the courage
To clothe the naked,
Feed the hungry,
Teach the unlettered,
Foster understanding among all people,
And use the vast talents—with which God has blessed us—
To choose life, and
To forge a world of justice, caring, compassion and peace!
**Today, because of immigration from the Former Soviet Union, some 1300 Jews live in Leipzig.
November 5 is a special day in my life. It is the anniversary of the day in 1955 when my sister Rochelle became the second Bat Mitzvah in the history of Temple Sharey Tefilo, East Orange, NJ, which was founded in 1875.**
It was a struggle!
Our father did not see “why girls had to do that,” but my sister really wanted to, and our mother backed her up.
To his credit, Rabbi Avraham Soltes conducted the service in the same way he conducted Bar Mitzvah ceremonies for boys. Specifically, that meant Rochelle read from the Torah on Shabbat morning. She read the troubling story of Hagar and Ishmael being sent away by Abraham at Sarah’s insistence.
Dad was very proud!
Her service, I noted, was different than the Bat Mitzvah ceremonies experienced in subsequent years by our girl cousins who grew up in a Conservative congregation in a different city. Their services were held on a Friday night, and they did not read from the Torah scroll.
I did not realize it at the time, but Rochelle’s courage in standing up to Dad and doing something he would not have chosen for her to do changed the course of my life.
For me, as a boy, Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvah studies were expectations. Frankly, Religious school became something I tried to think up excuses to avoid.
To her credit, my mother would have none of it. Her response to my latest sore throat, upset stomach or onset of pneumonia was always the same, “That’s too bad, dear. Get in the car.”
But something of Rochelle’s persistence began to play on my mind.
‘Chelle was and is rather shy. Unlike me she never craved the spotlight. She never to my knowledge starred in school plays or even desired to. She clearly did not want a Bat Mitzvah ceremony to show the world how well she could perform. She only wanted to affirm her pride in being considered a Jewish adult.
Slowly an impression formed. If Rochelle, who was the smartest person I knew, thought this “Judaism stuff” was so important that she would stand firm against Dad to affirm it, there must be something to it.
My transformation from disinterest in Jewish learning to loving embrace of it was not a sudden epiphany. It evolved over time. When people ask what made you decide to become a rabbi, I can point to several events in my life that contributed to the decision.
But as years have gone by I see that November 5, 1955, played a very important part in changing the direction of my life.
Rochelle never wanted to be a rabbi, but she wanted to marry a Jewish man and have a Jewish family. She and my brother-in-law Jack are proud parents of four daughters, each of whom celebrated her Bat Mitzvah and seven grandchildren. Six of the seven have read from the Torah as B’nai Mitzvah and the seventh is on our calendar for the fall of 2019. I am ever grateful for her example.
** Roseanne Platt, who became a well-known Jewish educator, and had it been possible then would have loved to be a rabbi, was the first. Roseanne, if you read this, I would be eager to connect with you.