As I was thinking about how to organize this sermon, I realized that the perfect introduction was not mine but that of my JTS teacher and now one of America’s most famous rabbis, David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Years ago he received a cancer diagnosis, went through treatment and is thank God doing just fine. The High Holy Days after this ordeal he began his sermon something like this. In a dramatic, very serious voice he said: “As the IV went into my arm to begin delivering the chemotherapy that would either heal me or kill me, one thought flashed through my mind. Which was dear God, please let me get at least one sermon out of this experience.”
I had a similar thought last winter. Our daughter Yaffa, now a college freshman, if you were at her baby naming I’m sorry for how old that makes you feel – had signed up to go on the March of the Living, the excellent two week Poland and Israel experience that our community has long supported. I contacted the director and said look if you need me to go as a rabbi I will because it would be nice to experience this with Yaffa but she wasn’t insisting I go and I didn’t want to impose myself. And the director said well you can come if you want but we don’t need you. We have another Conservative rabbi from Texas who we like a lot and he’s already signed up. Ok, no problem, I don’t need to go.
Fast forward – phone rings – director and assistant director both on the line. Um, so, the rabbi from Texas pulled out. Any chance you can still go? Two weeks of no sleep, the unparalleled sadness and tragedy of touring the death camps, guiding 160 local teens through the trauma of remembering and absorbing this brutal chapter in our recent history, all with bad food, inevitable colds and coughs, and guaranteed tons of teen and staff drama? Sure, I’ll go. And my thought at JFK on the way to Warsaw, already hungry and tired was: Dear God, please let me get at least one sermon out of this experience.
This year I bring back many, many stories and experiences, some of which I have drawn on so far. Most did not make the final cut for this sermon – the hall of names in Auschwitz where huge tomes hold the name of every known victim, millions of them, including seemingly unending Englanders and probably whatever your family name is too. The night in the Cracow square, so serene, so European, as our kids searched for pirogis or pizza, which was also the site of roundups and executions not so long ago. Our visit to Beit Elezrakhi, which takes care of kids whose parents could not take care of them, and the inspiring words from their visionary leader Yehuda Kohn with whom this community has close ties. The great day we had with our sister city Zichron Ya’akov, we should go there together soon. So no those stories are not included in this sermon…but I’ve saved you a few. I’m speaking of each of them today not just to share something I found memorable or even meaningful, but for the lessons that reverberate far beyond my individual experience with the hopes they might inspire us to deeper thought, and maybe also action.
The first is a fenced off area in a clearing in the Buczyna forest, in southeast Poland, just 100 miles north of the modern border with Slovakia. We held off on telling the kids what we would see there until we approached. From 1942 to 1943 about 10,000 Jews were killed in that clearing, many of them from the liquidated Tarnow ghetto which was nearby. This particular pit, fenced off by bars painted blue, held the remains of almost 800 children, whom we thought of in those somber moments. I was fortunate to be able to give my own daughter a really long hug off to the side of that horrific site. Other students were hugging each other. it is a devastating vision among many devastating sites that an appropriately mournful Poland trip will include.
So if there are so many why mention that one? On the way back to the bus, I found myself next to one of our very thoughtful teens. She said I don’t understand. Don’t understand what, man’s inhumanity to man, how children could be victims of such a horrific crime against humanity, maybe where God was as these murders were perpetrated? I don’t have answers but maybe we can talk about the question? She said no, that’s not it. I don’t understand how they are here and we are leaving. In some way, and I know we can’t, but in some way shouldn’t we always stay? Have a kind of standing guard here at least spiritually? Don’t we owe them that much?
As a practical idea given the number of killing fields – in the Holocaust and throughout Jewish history – that idea would require us to provide standing guards in staggering numbers and is truly impractical. But God bless her for sensing that instinct, that there is something completely unexplainable for how they are there and we are here, how we bear the responsibility for their memoires and serve, each one of us, as their honor guard and their memorial – as Jack Rosenbaum teaches, as their matzeiva, their tombstone – each one of us, for every one of them. They didn’t and we don’t choose the generation or circumstances into which we are born, but we do choose individually and collectively how to live in part because they did not have the chance. That is an aspect of Jewish responsibility that, March or not, is an irreplaceable part of our collective consciousness. And this sanctuary is one of the places where their memory is carried forward and they are not forgotten. Lesson one is memory.
We bear that burden of memory, but it is not our only motivation to build Jewish communities. Nowhere was that message more poignant than it was at a later stop, a lovely dinner which because of our large number was spread between three different rooms at the still new looking Cracow Jewish Community Center. Did you say Cracow Jewish Community Center? I thought Cracow was a medieval and pre-modern hub of Jewish activity, but its population was almost entirely destroyed in the Shoah. So what is this JCC, a museum probably? Some of you know that since 2007 the JCC in this former focal point of Jewish life, the work of whose rabbis we still study and teach, has been growing thanks to outside support and internal energy. Much of which is supplied by its dynamic director Jonathan Ornstein with whom we met. His message sticks with me. It is summarized on their own website and says succinctly: We cannot change the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. We can however affect the number of Jews lost to the Jewish World due to the Holocaust. And that, in essence, is our mission at JCC Cracow.
Communicating this message to visitors and there are thousands of them he is swimming against the current and admits it. You come to Poland and you see tragedy. But some Jews still live in Poland, and we are rebuilding our communities including this one. Why should the Nazis have the last word on Jewish life in Poland? He is even more righteously incredulous about that notion than the young woman was about leaving those children alone in their forest grave. We cannot, he said, allow ourselves to be defined by tragedy. Poland is once again a place for Jewish life and it speaks to the strength and resilience of the Jewish people. He said: I’ve come to understand that I’m Jewish despite Auschwitz, not because of Auschwitz. We build our identity in how we respond to tragedy. Lesson two is resilience.
While Jonathan was speaking of communal life it is equally true and compelling in in our individual lives. We try, we may fail, but we try to get back up again – we can’t do it alone, and neither can he. The Jewish story is one of carrying past destruction with us and of not ever fully leaving it behind. And it is also the story of not being defined by devastation, instead building lives, homes, and communities of meaning, sometimes in Boca Raton, and sometimes out of the very ashes of past injury and loss. I can’t point to exactly where that resilience – that need to resuscitate and rebuild – where it comes from, how it is stronger than any destructive force that has come our way and there have been many. But I do know that without both strong forces – remembering the destruction and the even stronger need to rebuild and then keep building knowing that the future may not be even as good as the present – is something we have to pass along if we have any hope of retaining our identity. And I have a lot of hope.
The last story and memory is this: I mentioned earlier the Tarnow Ghetto, one of hundreds into which Jews were crammed and from which they were ultimately taken to their deaths, none larger or more well-known than the Warsaw Ghetto, which at its height imprisoned over 400,000 Jews. Nearly that many from the ghetto eventually died from disease or starvation or by bullet or gas in Treblinka. On our one Shabbat in Poland we did something our region had never done before. We walked a good part of the length of the ghetto, stopping at a memorial, a mass grave, where a rabbinic colleague spoke movingly of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the martyred rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto. Even though they never met, he considers Rabbi Shapira to be his personal rabbi. He sensitively and lovingly showed our kids the way the generations can inspire each other through the power of learning and personal example.
Then we kept walking and we eventually wound up at the still relatively new Museum of the History of Polish Jews which is built in the former ghetto, just opposite the famous memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and Mordechai Anelewicz. We would return to the museum the next day. That Shabbat we were the guests of our friends at Chabad, who had invited us – all of us, nearly 200 strong – for the third meal of Shabbat, se’udah shlisheet. How they did it I have no idea – I say that with admiration about a lot that goes on at Chabad. But there it was, a giant white tent with more than enough room, and pretty good food – for everyone. After some Chabad style motivational speeches, we had havdallah. And we were invited to stay for a concert they were holding for the community and we figured we would keep the kids, probably against their will, for maybe 15 minutes and then politely head out to our plans to tour modern downtown Warsaw and give them some needed free time in small groups.
Then the music started. It was upbeat, Jewy Rock ‘n Roll, in Hebrew, Yiddish, Heblish, English, even some Russian and it was loud. And the kids, these American, tech-obsessed, fans of rap with lyrics I would be embarrassed to hear if I could understand them – they danced. They jumped. They ran around with each other and with the Chabad kids who had come with their parents to staff the Chabad tent. In Poland. They grabbed hands and in that distinctly Jewish dance move they whirled around in big circles until it was all a blur. We stayed more than 15 minutes. We stayed more than two hours. In the ghetto, in Warsaw, the kids danced so much they sweated through their March of the Living t-shirts and loved every second of it.
For a moment they brought life back not only to Warsaw but got a jolt of Jewish identity and pride – not fully understanding and certainly unable to name that force that led them to feel so connected, so joyful, so energized even though they were also exhausted. What caused them to feel so connected to the Jews in the room – in the tent – and more deeply connected to their own souls and the souls of those who had been concentrated into tiny dirty and diseased spaces just decades earlier. They channeled and they danced with them too. Their souls for a few moments were all reignited, and it is something our kids, in addition to the memory of the six million, will never forget. When is the last time your soul was kindled to a degree that you lit up inside and out? We can think back to those moments when there was clearly something greater going on in our lives than we could identify or quantify. And that is the feeling of being blessed with life, hope, and a taste of eternity in a brief earthly journey. The third lesson is the God-given gift that allows that feeling to register – and that word is soul. Yours, mine, and theirs, for all generations and all those we anticipate will come after us.
While your soul is housed by your body it can be a glowing source of energy and dedication – or it can be denied the oxygen it needs of friendship, community, love, and purpose. In Warsaw and throughout this two-week experience, our souls were challenged and confronted with the gravest inhumanity, but they were also nourished by the experience of learning, being together, and at long last, of being in Israel. We came back with a greater sense of confidence in the Jewish future and each of our roles in making it happen.
The March of the Living is a short-term experience with lasting implications. No memorial to a tragedy, and no single dance in Warsaw, will motivate a life of meaningful Jewish commitment. So what will? The sense that each of these kids and each one of us is part of a family that will celebrate together often and mourn together when necessary. That we will be there for each other with words of encouragement and acts of kindness. That B’nai Torah or any other synagogue that they seek out stands ready to welcome and embrace them. That we and hopefully they too will always strive to fill our lives with soul-enhancing conversations, caring outreach, and Jewish ritual that is unique to our unique people. Three words: memory, resilience, and soul. May each resonate in their lives and in ours, in this new year and each new year we are privileged to begin together.
May it be a blessed one for you, our families, the people of Israel, and the world. Shanah Tovah.