Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778

Shanah Tovah.

It’s really good that we can simply be together after what we have experienced. And although we have been relatively unscathed here, we were exposed to aspects of our vulnerability that we don’t usually face and don’t want to face. For many, the exercise of getting ready for a possibly catastrophic storm was exhausting. For many, the peak moments of the storm were frightening. And for many, the days after Hurricane Irma were filled with hard work and a sense of “My God, what we could have experienced!” And, then there was the cleanup and this massive effort to help those who were damaged and left homeless and in certain cases, even without water.

So we are lucky. And now we sit in a sanctuary, a beautiful sanctuary and we can appreciate this moment. We must realize the importance of community and human connection. I need to say thank you for all the support you give each other and have given to others.

Those of you who have been coming to this particular service over the years know that I like to take an experience or tell a story about someone I met over the previous year. I share about a life and allow that life to speak about the meaning of this day.

I want to confess. This year was different. I didn’t have such an experience that I wanted to share. And then as last Shabbat was coming to an end, we were in the chapel before the Slichot service. There were a few people who don’t usually come to mincha and Havdalah.

That night we sang Havdalah with a certain fervor. It may have had to do with the end of that very difficult week. It may have had to do with the fact that this was the last Shabbat of the year.

There was a beautiful elderly woman here. A woman with large lovely eyes and an elegant appearance. She was crying. I went over to her, introduced myself and asked her if she needed anything. I also asked her to tell me her story.

This is the story I will share.

Her name is Basya McDonnel. She stood there crying at that moment because she had the feeling that she had finally come home. Her life had been a life of confusion as to where she belonged. She was challenged for a lifetime. What God would she worship? Where could she turn. Although born into a Jewish family, but in her earliest years she was raised Catholic.

So here’s her story; and I will obviously only tell you a small piece of what I learned and a tiny piece of its reality. Basya came to my office the next day. Basya was born in Krakow Poland in 1938 to a very comfortable family. Krakow was an outstanding city. Jewish life there was full and it was diverse. And Jews were well integrated and successful. In 1941 the Nazis moved the Jews from various places in the city and its environs and created that now infamous ghetto. Conditions for the Jews got worse and worse and worse. Deportations to work camps and concentration camps actually began in June 1940 when 5000 Jews were sent to Belsec, a death camp in October. 6000 more were deported on March 13 and 14, 1943. The final liquidation of the ghetto was carried out – 8000 Jews were transported to the Plaszow labor camp, and at the same time 2000 Jews were killed in the streets. In October of that year all children were taken. When the call came, Basya’s father rushed from the home and hid her under his coat. They escaped through a sewer system and landed in the city of Wileczka. Her mother was caught and sent to a death camp. Basya’s father brought her to a Catholic family, the Stefanic’s; I assumed they knew each other. Basya was told that they were her grandparents. She recalls crying terribly when he left her there.

She adjusted to this family. She recalls praying with them twice a day to a statue of Jesus. There were crosses above her bed and Jesus and Mother Mary became her protectors. They cared for her. The Stefanic’s often hid her during the day behind their stove, and at night she spent time in the family’s prayer room. And they gave her a powerful indoctrination into Catholicism. I believe that she went to school at the church of the Priest who would become Pope John Paul.

One day she was coughing terribly. She was ill and was placed in the garden for fresh air. A neighbor walking by identified her as being a Jewish girl, because of her large eyes. Basya still has those beautiful large eyes. They were reported to the SS. During that night the Stefanic’s wrapped her in a bed comforter and brought her to the woods where she was hidden – now as a 6-year-old amongst the Polish partisans.

The war came to an end and she was found by her father and then her mother joined the family. The mother survived Mauthausen.

The family tried to reestablish life in Poland, but there was a realization that it became too dangerous. As you know, the Poles tried to finish the work of the Nazis even after the war. Although they had rid themselves of almost any connection to having been Jewish, they were at risk of being killed; They escaped to Italy and then right after the Independence of the new State of Israel they made it to Israel.

As you know, life was really difficult there too, But Basya and her family had a particular resilience. Throughout this all, they still could not identify with a Jewish God or Jewish tradition. When things were tough, Basya found herself, crossing herself and praying to Jesus.

She married an Israeli, Menachem, and they had three children…They lived as normally as possible, always feeling challenged by life and being followed by the shadows of the war. They lived on Kibbutz Afiken.

The story doesn’t end there. In 1987 Basya’s husband Menachem was critically injured in a terrorist attack. He lost both legs and eventually lost his desire for life. After his passing Basya came to America.

She worked in a small coffee shop in Manhattan and met a well to do American business man, named Mr. McDonnel. They moved to Westchester and amongst other things joined the Westchester CC. Mr. McDonnell, a devoted Catholic man, he himself requested that Basya keep her “Jewish identity” secret. No Jews allowed in the Westchester CC or invited into high society, even then!

After a few decades they retired here to the Boca area. New challenges arose. And that had to do with Basya confronting Jewish people and Judaism. Her identity was completely bifurcated and confused. And she began to feel McDonnel’s resentment of her Jewish search and identity. In fact, she experienced her husband’s antisemitism. They amiably decided to split, each going their own way.

And then Basya began to visit synagogues. She had a wonderful Shabbat dinner experience at a neighbor’s home and she somehow came to us, to B’nai Torah.

Here, she sat and found something. As she explained it, it had to do with Cantor Boaz Davidoff, and the congregation. Friendly people, singing their hearts out…the words of our prayers, the melodies, the beauty of an authentic connected community, and her spirit was lifted by Boaz’s voice and his kavvanah. And she had begun to experience the truest most palpable t’shuvah. It was a return that was beyond her. She was coming home.

There remained some uncertainty of faith, and then Saturday night came, we did Havdalah. As I mentioned it was a particularly beautiful Havdalah. Our voices were strong, we had our arms around each other. It was one of those soulful special moments. That moment was a moment of separation…literally for the community and the Jewish people…but for Basya too. She was sure she had returned home.

She joined B’nai Torah the next day.

And in spite of her past, she has confidently cast her lot with the Jewish people. She has experienced the beauty and the love, and the music and the connection to us and to our people. We are her people – The pantele yid – deep in her heart woke up.

Basya is our newest member.

She went to New York for Rosh Hashanah but she will be back for Yom Kippur. And so I wonder, if Basya could turn, return a few steps, a few miles, into something eternal…can we not also? Find a deeper place to turn.
For here we will find that connection, a more beautiful expression and open hearts in our learning and prayer. We sing,
Basya has come home.

And so have we all.

Shanah Tovah dear Basya.
Shanah Tovah U’metukH…. God willing a sweet year to all of you!