Bar Mitzvah Bookends

Parashat Behukotai, the final Torah portion of the Book of Leviticus, was the portion from the Torah read by my first ever Bar Mitzvah student, Jeff Sovelove, 45 years ago.

I love the opening verses of this portion because they contain words that represent our highest hope as Jews and as human beings: V’ain Mahreed, “None shall cause fear,” or, more popularly: “None shall make them afraid.” (Leviticus 26:6)

The verse appears 11 times in the Hebrew Bible, most famously as the climatic line of Micah’s famous prophecy, “Everyone shall sit under their vine and under their fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

We dream of, and hopefully, we work for a world where people have no reason to fear.

I had not seen Jeff since we left Columbia, MD in 1986, but miraculously we reconnected in 1999, and to my delight he appeared at HUC in New York when I received my honorary DD degree that year.

I have not seen him since that day, but I think of him often.

He worked so hard to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah. I was and am so proud of him.

I thought of Jeff a lot during the six months I worked with Ben Uslan, my most recent Bar Mitzvah candidate. Ben lives in North Carolina and is the grandson of two of our current congregants in Sanibel, Florida.  After visiting last year, Ben and his parents asked if was possible to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah with us. 

Ben too worked hard, learned much, and I am equally proud of him.

He is likely, (given the demographics of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands, a congregation consisting largely of retirees that I now serve) the last thirteen-year-old Bar Mitzvah candidate I shall see for a while. I think of him and Jeff, therefore, as my “Bookend B’nai Mitzvah Students.”

In between them I have tried to nurture a love for our tradition in hundreds of pre-adolescents entrusted to my care.

By no means have I always been successful but I always gave each student my best effort to help him or her have the most meaningful experience possible.

For me, “meaningful” does not equate to the number of verses the student prepares or how beautifully he or she chants from the Torah or leads the service.

Many students – Ben and Jeff included – preferred to read with expression and feeling rather than chant.  I always felt and I still believe that what a child learns and retains about the content and meaning of her or his Torah and Haftarah portion is MUCH more significant than the manner in which he or she presents it on one special day.

As my students know I expect them to remember forever the content and even some of the key vocabulary of their portions. I am gratified that many do. I am glad too, that many still connect with me on Facebook and share with me lessons from their Torah portions when I wish them a happy birthday. 

I hope some who are in the area will attend on November 1 when I speak at Temple Isaiah, my first congregation, as part of their fiftieth anniversary celebration. It will mean so much to me to see any of them who will come.

When Jeff became a Bar Mitzvah, Vickie and I were a young couple, and we had not yet had children. As Ben read from the Torah our older children were already choosing dates and planning details of their first child’s Bar Mitzvah.

How did the years pass so quickly?

As for our grandchildren, Vickie and I pray that when each one comes to the Torah, he or she will look at the day as more than another milestone. Rather we hope they see it as the beginning of a life long encounter with our venerable tradition that will inspire each of them – in his or her own way – to work for a world in which V’ain mahreed, a world in which no one any where shall cause any one else to be afraid.

In Response to the NYT Magazine Article on Rising Anti-Semitism in Germany

When it comes to the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, the first observation is: “It’s complicated.”

Vickie and I are spending five weeks there speaking about the Shoah and reconciliation in several schools. In addition I am teaching with that end in mind to interfaith groups in synagogues and preaching in Christian churches encouraging them to learn from the past in order to create a better future.

Because we are here, it did not surprise me when several people from back home, including my daughter Sarah Jenny and the president of our Congregation, Bat Yam Temple of the Islands sent me the disturbing articles about the new anti Semitism in Germany by James Angelos in the May 21 Sunday New York Times Magazine.

https://apple.news/A4jkD2RV9Qs–ZXdJXlh1OA

For many years I have characterized anti-Semitism as a chronic condition, like arthritis. You can try to keep it under control, but you cannot cure it.

Anti-Semitism, like the Hydra of Greek mythology is a monster with many heads. When you attack one, two more emerge. Anti-Semitism comes from the left and the right. Politics, economics, religious beliefs and racist theories all have motivated it throughout history, and each of these forces come into play when discussing its re-emergence in Germany.

Two additional realities play into German life today: 

One is that the Jewish population of 20,000 left after the Holocaust in Germany has swelled to 200,000. This increase is due in the main to an influx of immigrants and refugees from the Former Soviet Union.

The other is the inflow since 2015 of Syrian refugees who have been raised in an atmosphere where Israelis –synonymous in the minds of many, though not all, with Jews—are the enemy.

The paradox is that Russian Jews because of their native land’s long time support of the Arab war effort against Israel align themselves in Germany with the right wing AFD (Alternative for Germany) party. That party is under scrutiny for promoting neo Nazi activities. But their staunchly anti-Syrian refugee stance is what attracts many Russian Jews to them

Yes, “It’s complicated.” 

As the NYT article notes: “It can be difficult to determine the root of anti-Semitic crimes. When researchers looked at all reported anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin in 2018,they were unable to determine the ideological motivation in nearly half the cases.”

  • What is not complicated is that there has been a 20% rise in anti-Semitic crimes — to the current level of 1,799 – from 2017 to 2018.
  • What is not complicated is that 30% of those who responded to a 2015 ADL survey in Germany “hate Jews because of the way they behave.”

Felix Klein, Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany cares less about parsing the different Hydra-heads of the new anti-Semitism in Germany and more concerned with controlling it:

“The right strategy,” he notes, “is to denounce any form of anti-Semitism. I don’t want to start a discussion about which one is more problematic or dangerous than the other.”

Fortunately, in our travels, speaking and teaching in different parts of Germany, those whom Vickie and I have encountered have without exception treated us with respect and dignity as most welcome guests.

But still for us, there is a “Fear Factor.”

We are not naïve. Our minds’ eyes cannot eliminate the vision of Rottweilers and SS soldiers searching for Jews in the beautiful forests our trains pass en route to, Kiel, Neumünster, Bad Oldesloe, Hamburg, Berlin and through the Black Forest region en route to Freiburg.

Our “Fear Factor” compounds itself as we both acknowledge that what James Angelos reports about Germany is also occurring in eerily similar fashion in the United States today.

Both in Germany and in the United States, the government and educational authorities should take to heart Felix Klein’s advice:  Denounce anti-Semitism through educational forums, public service announcements and school programs like the one Vickie and I present. Every school should educate students to learn from the horrors of the past so as not to repeat them.

In addition there should be swift sanction for anti-Semitic speech and severe punishment for anti-Semitic acts of violence.

No Jew should ever fear to wear a Star of David or Kipah in public. For that matter no Christian should fear wearing a cross, no Muslim a hijab, and no Sikh a turban. Germany and all other countries should do all in their power to become safe places for people of all religions to publicly identify with their faith.

I Hope So

Below: Pastorin Britta Taddiken, who has become a dear friend to Vickie and me, helps me set up for my “Ansprache” at the Thomaskirche Motet service last Friday afternoon. (Photo: Dr. Robert George Moore)

28057440_UnknownAs I climbed the 16 steps to the “Preacher’s Perch” in the famed Thomaskirche in Leipzig at the Motet service, Friday afternoon,** many thoughts filled my head.

First and Foremost: How wonderful that the city my father left as a prisoner, welcomes me back to preach from this historic pulpit.

But nagging questions came to mind:

Knowing that none of the (according to the estimate of Pastor Martin Hunderdmark who partners with Pastor Britta Taddiken as Spiritual Leaders of theThomaskirche) 1500 people packing the Cathedral had come to hear me, what were they thinking when I was introduced? What will they think as I speak and after I finish?

I imagine some thought, “What do we need with a rabbi interrupting the beauty of the Motets by Johann Sebastian Bach, Heinrich Schütz, Claudio Monteverdi and Johann Kuhnau? Why in the midst of such beauty does he again remind us of Germany’s shame?

I imagined some would laugh, at least inwardly at my horrid –despite hours of practice – German pronunciation. I cannot blame them for that. 

But my two biggest questions were:

  • Would my father approve of us coming to Germany in the first place? Would he approve of our efforts to teach and speak in schools, synagogues and churches? Despite the assurances of many that he would be pleased, I myself, remain unsure.
  • Finally, I asked myself, as I momentarily felt alone in the full cathedral, “Are you up here for an ”ego flight,” or do you really think your message will make a difference?

As I spoke I could see that people were paying attention and that clearly some resonated to my message to use the lessons of the past to shape a better future.

After the service, several people made a point of seeking me out to thank me for speaking. Pastorin Britta Taddiken told Vickie that does not usually happen at the Motet service.

That was nice to hear.

But the questions about my father and my own motivations remain: Would he really want me to be here? Am I doing this to make a difference and not just for my own ego?

I ask these questions over and over, and the best and most honest answer I can give is:

I hope so!

**May 17, 2019

From Geiger to the Thomaskirche with Joy

Crowd lined up outside Leipzig’s Thomaskirche to hear the St. Thomas Boys Choir sing the Motet service Friday afternoon. I had the honor of delivering the sermonic message at that service.

Last Friday** was one of those days I dream about but rarely experience.

In the morning, I had the joy of teaching a two and a half hour seminar on Repentance and Our Ability to Change in Jewish thought to rabbinical and Cantorial students at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin.

Then Vickie and I traveled by train to Leipzig, the city where my father grew up and was arrested on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938. There in the famed Thomaskirche, packed to the rafters because the famed St Thomas Boys Choir was singing the afternoon Motet service, I accepted the invitation of Pastorin Britta Taddiken and Pastor Martin Hunderdmark to be the main speaker in the service..

My theme was one I have touched on in many of the speeches I have given in synagogues, schools and churches during our stays the last four years in Germany:

Wir können die Vergangenheit nicht ungeschehen Machen aber wir können gemeinsam an einer besseren Zukunft arbeiten.

We cannot undo the past, but the future is ours to shape.

I spoke of the Torah potion read in synagogues that very Shabbat in synagogues around the world, a portion which contains the words inscribed on the Liberty bell in Philadelphia: 
“Proclaim Liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10).”

I noted that no country yet has achieved the type of world the Liberty Bell and the Bible urge us to create. God’s desire is for humanity to create a world of Freedom for all:

  • Freedom from hunger
  • Freedom from sexual abuse or harassment
  • Freedom from homelessness
  • Freedom from fear

And freedom from so many other things that testify to our failure to create the just, caring and compassionate society God has yearned for since the time of creation.

How grateful I am for the invitations to do these things that uplifted my spirit so.

But the next day was more sobering. I walked to the Zoo where the Nazis rounded up the 500 Jewish men they arrested that night known to the world as Kristallnachtbut in Germany as Reichspogromnacht.

There I stood at the monument where on Kristallnacht in 2014 I read a letter to the memory of my father (search for “A Letter to the Memory of My Father as I Stand at the Leipzig Zoo” on the blog). I also visited the site of Leipzig’s main synagogue, burned to the ground that fateful night. There a monument consisting of rows of empty chairs honors the memory of the 14,000 of Leipzig’s 18,000 Jews whom the Nazis murdered. I spoke there on Kristallnacht of 2014 as well (Search for “Synagogue Site Speech”) but on that night, I focused on my presentation. Today I slowly absorbed each and every word on the commemorative plaques, and I realized once again how blessed I am that my dad was rescued by political means from Dachau by his uncle and brother in the USA, which still had diplomatic relations with Germany at the time.

I also spoke at the Thomaskirche (search for “Thomaskirche Kristallnacht Speech – English Version”) that night to a much smaller crowd than attended last Friday. But that was a sorrowful commemoration. This year’s message was of aspiration and hope.

From the standpoint of emotion, speaking at these three places in 2014 exceeded the feelings of this past Friday, but the difference which made this years’ visit more exhilarating and joyful was the morning seminar at Geiger.

There I had the privilege of interacting with future rabbis and Cantors from five different countries who are there not to lament the fate of Europe’s Jews but to build the future of European Jewry.

At Geiger College last Friday, I also had the privilege of conducting the daily worship service. In it I asked the students and faculty present not just to recite the prayers but to look at just a few and ponder their meaning.

In particular I lingered over the Mah Tovu prayer at the beginning of the service (See blog post, “Before You Sing Mah Tovu Again, Please Read This.)

That prayer sits at the beginning of our service to remind us that try as they have over the centuries, no outside force can destroy us. Only we —through apathy and ignorance of our Jewish heritage – can destroy ourselves.

For me teaching at Geiger College and speaking as a rabbi in the city where the Nazis arrested my father is my pledge that I shall do what little I can to keep the flame of Jewish learning and practice aglow wherever and whenever I can.

**May 17, 2019

Exalting Our Power to Change

Below is the description of the seminar I shall offer for Rabbinical and Cantorial students at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin on May 17, 2019. I hope they find it helpful.

 

Exalting Our Power to Change

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs D.Min, DD

 

“Where repentant sinners stand, even the wholly righteous cannot stand.” (Talmud Bavli Berachot 34B)

 

תשובה – (Teshuvah) Repentance is one of the cardinal principals of Jewish thought. While our tradition calls upon Jews to be aware of our actions and regretful of our wrongdoings at all times, the Days of Awe, culminating in Yom Kippur, is a season when the primary focus of our lives shifts from day to day needs to an intense period of self-examination in which to confess our sins to the Eternal One and resolve to do better in the future.

My Ulpan (intensive Hebrew learning program) teacher in Jerusalem, Sarah Rotbard, of blessed memory once said: “It is not just a gift for Jews that we conceived of the concept of Yom Kippur, it is a gift for all humanity.”

Indeed, our power to grow through our mistakes and change for the better is one of the most hopeful and positive traits of men and women.

Together we shall explore the concept of Teshuvah through biblical narratives and rabbinic teachings. We shall then discuss how they can affect our own lives and the lives of those whom we teach and influence.

In Leipzig Once Again — 2019

 

AndOften

https://tinyurl.com/y6kl8ury

This Friday, my emotions will be high, as I climb the steep stairs of the preacher’s pulpit to speak once again in the famed Thomaskirche in Leipzig. To come as a welcome guest to speak in the city where the Nazis arrested my father on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938 is a great privilege. But being there evokes many mixed feelings.  Here is what I shall say:

Standing before you in this magnificent cathedral, I recall the Psalmists words, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:6)

I recall with sadness the weeping of Reichspogromnacht when my father Leo Fuchs was one of 500 Jewish men arrested in this city. But I savor the joy of the morning as Pfararin Taddiken welcomes me once again to this place as a gesture of friendship and hope for the future.

We cannot undo the past, but the future is ours to shape.

As I listen to the holy sounds of the beautiful Motets this afternoon, my heart turns to magnificent words on the Liberty Bell, the national symbol of American freedom, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

In July 1974 the late Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin addressed a joint session of the American Congress and eloquently described learning the words on the Liberty Bell in their original Hebrew as a small child: U’kratem dror ba-aretz l’chol yoshveha– Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all of its inhabitants (Leviticus 25:10).”

Rabin pointed out that this cardinal foundation of democracy comes form the portion of the Torah Jews around the world will read this Shabbat.

דרור (Dror) Freedom, Freiheit (?) is a very special word in Hebrew, English or German. Freedom is what God wants for everyone:

  • Freedom from poverty
  • Freedom from War
  • Freedom from violence
  • Freedom from hunger
  • Freedom from homelessness
  • Freedom from excessive cold or heat
  • Freedom from sexual abuse
  • Freedom from forced labor and exploitation
  • And the freedom to choose how we use the abilities with which God has blessed us to make a better world.

It is not God’s job to create that world of freedom. It is ours.

One of the most famous stories in the Christian Bible is how Jesus fed 5000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish.

The pastor of the Church, which houses our Jewish congregation in Sanibel, Dr. John Danner, suggests a different reading of the story. Perhaps, says Dr. Danner, Jesus encouraged everyone in the crowd to share just a little of what he or she had with others around them, and in that way there was enough food for all.

Each person could give only a little, but their collective contributions accomplished much.

Today, no country, not the United States not Israel and not Germany has yet achieved the freedom God wants all of us to enjoy. But we must never cease to try. As Rabbi Tarfon taught in the second century CE: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirke Avot 2:21)

From the time of creation, God has wished for us to create a just, caring and compassionate society on earth. It is easy to state that goal but difficult to achieve it.

It is easy to give in to despair and anguish when we look at the world around us. Many do.

But isn’t it a better choice for each of us to do something—however small–to move the world closer to the day of which Isaiah dreamed when, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain (Isaiah 11:9).”

Can we not all make some effort to bring closer the time of which the Prophet Micah dreamed when:

“Each person will sit under his or her vine and fig tree with no one to make them afraid?” (Micah 4:4)

We cannot do everything, but we each can do something.

We might not cure cancer but we can give food or serve a meal to the hungry. We might not make peace in the world, but we can make peace in our homes.

We might not transform the quality of education around the world, but we can help a child learn to read. Possibilities abound.

Not being able to do everything is no excuse for doing nothing.

As we listen with awe and delight to the sounds of holiness and peace in this famed Cathedral, and as Jews prepare to welcome a Shabbat of peace and joy into our lives, let us all – each in our own way — think of how we might bring peace and joy into the lives of others.

 

May Peace Burst Forth Like Sunshine

Pastor John Danner and I comparing our prayers to place on the “Path to Peace” wall separating Israel from Gaza.

At 8 PM on the eve of Israel’s Day of Remembrance, a siren sounds, and the entire country stands still.

The siren sounds again at 11 AM and once again the entire nation pauses in its tracks to honor the memories of her soldiers killed in defense of the State.

It is a moving and necessary commemoration.

It is moving because Israel is a small country — small enough that there is not a family who has either lost someone dear or is closely connected to others who have. It is necessary because each of those privileged to live in this tiny land needs to acknowledge at what great cost Israel has thwarted the concerted attempts of its enemies — enemies that surround it on every border — to destroy it.

Hopefully too this solemn day reminds us of the horrible cost of all war. War has no victors, only victims.

As an ancient people and as a modern nation, Israel takes no delight in the death of its enemies.

  • There is empathic pity in the Book of Judges for the sorrow of the mother of Sisera, the fearsome Canaanite chieftain dispatched by Yael in (chapter 4 in the Book of Judges).
  • At our Passover Seders we diminish our joy by taking a drop of wine (wine in Jewish ritual is a symbol of joy. It never symbolizes blood) out of our cups for each of the ten plagues Egypt suffered.
  • The Talmud recounts that after the Egyptians were drowned in the sea, the angels began to sing praises to God. God silenced them saying it is not right to sing praises when “My creatures” are drowning. (B. Sanhedrin 79b)

Memorial Day in Israel also adds urgency to the quest for peace.

One of the most touching stops on our visit was to Netiv Ha-Asara, a settlement that sits on the edge of the Gaza Strip. A day earlier our visit to that place had been cancelled because Hamas shot hundreds of rockets at Israel over the  weekend. But with the signing of a cease fire and a return to quiet on the border, we could thankfully reschedule our visit.

There we learned firsthand of the pressure under which the residents live. They never know when with only seconds of warning they must stop what they are doing and scurry to the bomb shelters which are part of the construction of every  home, school and building in the area.

Still the residents insist on living normal lives.

Tsameret, a graphic artist in the area has initiated a remarkable project, Path to Peace. She is decorating the ugly separation wall, so necessary to protect Israel from infiltration by terrorists, with messages of peace and hope. She invites visitors like us to write our prayers and hopes for peace on tiles she has decorated with symbols and messages of peace. The peace messages are visible to those on both sides of the wall.

Our prayer is that Tsameret’s vision will one day become a reality, and we will see a time when Jews and Arabs live in peace, harmony and mutual cooperation. It seems a Quixotic vision.

But then again, it is no more Quixotic than Theodor Herzl’s vision of a Jewish State seemed in 1897 when he proclaimed prophetically, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

May peace burst forth like sunshine!

Vickie putting her prayer tile on the Path to Peace wall.

We Go Together in Israel

xNCTouR7QfqQSsMjqmk5LgAt the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

As Christians and Jews we are on this journey together.

In the best of all worlds, I would not have chosen for us to travel to Bethlehem on Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Nor would I have picked that day to walk the Via Dolorosa and visit the Stations of the Cross where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus stopped before his crucifixion.

Although I would have chosen another day, those are vital spots for us all to visit. 

The next day we did what I would have wanted to do on Yom Ha-Shoah, visit Yad Va-Shem, Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.  On Yom Ha-Shoah I am sure Yad Va-Shem was overrun with visitors. And the day after when we visited, it was very crowded too.

In Bethlehem I recalled the memory of my 1975 attendance at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (See my essay, “Andrea”) and my last tour of the Via Dolorosa in 1996.

I had a special reason to hire a Palestinian Christian guide to take me on a personal tour of Via Dolorosa that year. My good friend and tennis partner Rev. Steve Hancock had invited me to speak from his pulpit at the Second Presbyterian Church on Good Friday.

Now, Rabbis being invited to preach in churches is not unusual, but in those days a rabbi speaking in a Church on Good Friday was all but unheard of.

Why? Good Friday is the day the most anti-Jewish passages from the Gospel of John are read in churches. Historically Good Friday was the day when Christian preachers incited the population to pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe and other places.

Good Friday was a day when Jews hid in fear of their lives.

It was not a day when Jews were welcomed to deliver sermons in Christian pulpits. It was also not a day when Christian Pastors followed their own worship by attending Passover Seders as Rev. Dr. John Danner and Rev. Deborah Kunkel of our partner church, Sanibel Congregational UCC did as most welcome guests this year.

How glad I am that we live in these days and not those.

But no one should ignore the ominous events of recent days. The shooting in Poway, California at a Chabad synagogue came six months after the horrible attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Ours and many other congregations hire off duty police as a security detail during our worship services.

A few days ago, the International Edition of the New York Times published the most blatantly anti-Semitic cartoon one could ever imagine.

It depicted a blind President Trump with a kipah on his head led by a dog with a Jewish star around its neck, a dog with the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

That the New York Times published such a thing is an abomination. Their apology and their withdrawal of the cartoon do not undo the damage. These gestures are too little and too late.

But the trip shared by Bat Yam Temple of the Islands and Sanibel Congregational UCC is right on the money.

We know that anti-Semitism in particular and hatred in general are on the rise around the world.

We also know that our job is to understand, respect and affirm our legitimate differences.

But we also have the sacred obligation to forge our shared values into a force — greater than the sum of its parts — that works to build a better world for our children, grandchildren and all the generations to follow.

Safe In Israel II: The Attorney Saves the Rabbi

We enjoy a wonderful dinner at Asian restaurant as our group looks forward to its firs full day of touring tomorrow.

 

My lost luggage has been found, so all’s well that ends well on that score!

But it is a miracle that I got here at all.

The miracle worker was Attorney Barry Roth, who has spent more hours than anyone can imagine working out the logistics of our trip!

Barry graciously offered to drive me from Sanibel to Miami because he, his partner Ying and I were all on the same flights … or so we thought. But the absent minded rabbi failed to notice that his flight was leaving several hours earlier than Barry’s.

I realized my mistake when at a rest stop along Alligator Alley, I got a text saying my flight leaves in two hours.

It was then that Barry turned into a skilled race car driver.

He covered the distance to the airport in world record time, jumped out of the car, helped me curbside check my bag and because of him without a moment to spare I made my plane.

Now we are all here and ready for our tour. While the rest of the group enjoyed a marvelous tour of the City of David excavations, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of first year American Rabbinical and Cantorial Students at Hebrew UnionCollege in Jerusalem!

We are filled with excitement as we enjoy a scrumptious dinner at a wonderful Israeli Asian restaurant.

1000 thanks to Barry Roth for getting me here and arranging a trip I am sure no one will ever forget!

A Song For David

 

Rabbi David Sobel—In Memoriam

 Walking along Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, Vickie and I met a man and his wife from Boston. As we chatted and learned we had lived in West Hartford, he asked, “Did you know David Sobel? He was a Rabbi in the Air Force and my chaplain when I served in Thailand in the 70’s.

Oh yes, I answered, I knew David.

We have learned: “He who sings, prays twice.” David Sobel’s life was a musical prayer of exquisite beauty and meaning.

Every time I visit the Congregation Beth Israel Cemetery in Hartford I stop by David’s grave. We began our studies together in the summer of 1968.  We played basketball and tennis together. He was a fine athlete.  He was a bundle of energy, and he played both games in an aggressive, take-no-prisoners style.  He loved life, and he loved music.

Mort Glotzer, of blessed memory, once shared these thoughts about David with me:

“The Sobels, Bea, Charles, Donna, David, Andy and Amy lived next door to my parents on Kirkwood in the Golf Acres section of West Hartford.  Bea was a president of the Temple Sisterhood. Charlie was active in the Brotherhood. Both Donna and David were members of the Senior Youth Group when Arline and I were the adult advisors.  The Sobel kids were among our favorites.

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 told me that he worked in the engine room of a freighter ship on his trip home after his year in Israel.  He was not afraid of hard work.

David was the student Rabbi at the Farmington Valley Jewish Center during his last year at Hebrew Union College.  One Friday afternoon, I met him on a flight that he boarded in Cincinnati.  I mentioned to a colleague of mine who sat next to him that he was a friend of mine. My colleague (a Christian) asked me if I knew that David was going to be a Rabbi and that he played in a rock band on Saturday nights.  I knew about everything except the rock band, but that didn’t surprise me.  David was a regular guy.

After his ordination, David served as a chaplain in the United States Air Force.  In a tragic accident he was killed in Bangkok.

One evening, Bea came over to my parents’ house to tell them that David had been killed in Bangkok.  We were stunned…the chief Chaplain from the Air Force preached at his funeral.  There was a military honor guard.  Bea wouldn’t allow a rifle salute.  It wasn’t the kind of honor that was appropriate for a Rabbi.”

Each time I see it David’s tombstone reminds 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.

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

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 synagogues.”

David Mark Sobel was a son of Congregation Beth Israel of which I am Rabbi Emeritus.  The atmosphere and opportunities Beth Israel afforded him helped him become the man he was. “Alas for those who die with their songs still in them.”  I see David now, 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 45 years ago. We played together.  We learned together.  Now he is gone, and I am still here.  Why?  I ask, but I know the question brings no answer.  I do know that thinking of David strengthens my resolve to use the time I have to make a difference.

When we think of those like David who died too young, we think also of the victims of last week’s tragedy in San Diego, the ones in Sri Lanka and Pittsburgh and the many that preceded them. We shudder in dreadful anticipation of next week’s tragedy. But David Sobel and all of those we have lost through war, terror or disaster, over the years can and do live on when they inspire us to be better people.

We cannot understand why they had to die, but we can honor their memories with more compassion for others, more zeal for good causes, more discipline for purposeful living and more strength to turn away from that which is foolish and vain.

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

“We do not,” answered the Sages, “so we had better repent today, for none of us has a guarantee on tomorrow.” (Pirke Avot2:10)

 Alas for those who die with their songs still in them, but happy is their fate compared to those who sing no songs at all.  So let us sing as if there were no tomorrow, and may the melodies and lyrics of our lives find favor before the throne of The Eternal One.