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.