Rabbi Simcha Shafran, zt”l: A Sheloshim Reflection on His Life

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I only knew my father, hareini kapparas mishkavo, for 30-odd years.

I’m much older than that, and knew and loved him my entire life. But I only really knew him – his full life story – for three decades.

How, for instance, at the age of 14, Simcha Bunim Szafranowicz had insisted that his parents let him go to study in yeshivah – even though what would come to be known as World War II had begun mere weeks earlier, and the family was fleeing the Nazis.

How SS men who had caught up with his family and other refugees from their Polish town, Ruzhan, had killed his uncle in front of him and packed my father and hundreds of Jews into a shul, and set fire to neighboring homes. Preparing to die, the Jews were rescued by a regular German Army official who had passed by and ordered the Jews out. Eliyahu Hanavi, they suspected, in unprecedented disguise.

How the boy’s parents reluctantly gave him their brachah, and said goodbye to him for, it turned out, the last time.

That was the beginning of a journey that would take “Simcha Ruzhaner” to Siberia, and then America, where, as Rabbi Simcha Shafran, he would become a revered, beloved Rav.

He and his remarkable, beloved eishes chayil Puah had three children, my sister Rochel (Zoberman), brother Noach and me. Our dear father was niftar on 20 Kislev.

In the fall of 1939, the boy who would become our father, holding his tefillin and some apples his mother had given him, set out for the Novardoker yeshivah in Bialystok.

En route, he discovered that the Polish yeshivos had relocated to Vilna. In Bialystok, he heeded a voice in his head crying “Simcha! Get on the train!” to Vilna, and managed to pull himself onto the platform between two cars.

Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, zt”l, famously organized the relocation of yeshivos in Vilna; Novardok settled in the “Gesher Hayarok” shul, and, at the end of 1939, relocated to Birzh, where the yeshivah functioned until the Soviets took over in 1941, and demanded that all refugees become Soviet citizens.

Refusing the offer, which the talmidim did, made them foreign nationals. Those without visas to other countries were put on cattle trains and, weeks later, arrived at a Siberian work camp, where they were ordered to fell trees, chop wood, and harvest and grind grain.

My father was the youngest of the chaburah that spent the rest of the war in the frozen taiga, along with their rebbi, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Nekritz.

When working, the bachurim would review Gemara or recite Tehillim. When not, they studied the few sefarim they had with them – with a chessboard, mid-game, in front of them, in case their anti-religious overseer should stop by.

The exiles used an assortment of tricks to avoid working on Shabbos, and tried to observe Yamim Tovim, clandestinely baking matzos and using a kosher sukkah in the middle of the night.

In 1944, the group was transferred westward, and eventually smuggled into Berlin’s American zone. My father had a bullet wound scar on his arm from when a bribed guard betrayed them.

The refugees organized a yeshivah in Salzheim, near Frankfurt, and resumed their Torah studies. In June, 1947, after establishing contact with a relative in the U.S. willing to sponsor him, my father arrived at Ellis Island and joined other refugees in the reestablished Novardoker yeshivah, Beis Yosef, in Brooklyn.

With the $75 given him by a Jewish social service organization he bought a new pair of tefillin, his old ones having been weathered by Siberia. (He later discovered that his new parshios had been written by his second cousin and namesake, Simcha Bunim Szafranowicz, the Gerrer Rebbe’s personal sofer.)

Another immigrant, Rabbi Yaakov Krett, suggested a shidduch for my father, the daughter of Rav Noach Kahn, a respected Rav in Baltimore, a musmach of Rav Boruch Ber Leibovitz. The young couple had Yiddish in common, and my father, impoverished but resolute, courted my mother by taking walks with her and singing Novardoker niggunim; soon they married.

The couple moved to Baltimore and my father taught at Yeshivahs Chofetz Chaim (“Talmudical Academy”) before becoming the rov of a small shul, Adath Yeshurun – Shadover Shul.

He delivered drashos in Yiddish until more non-Yiddish-speakers joined the shul, and my mother helped him translate his speeches into English. She was a full partner in both his life and the shul, cooking for kiddushim, conducting groups for children on Shabbos afternoons, and much more.

Kiruv’ wasn’t a catchword back then, but that was what my parents were doing, and they raised the commitment to Yiddishkeit of untold numbers of people then and for the rest of their lives.

The shul paid little and somehow, even with the counseling, chasunos and hospital visits, my father found the time to attend night school to study accounting. In addition to his rabbinic responsibilities, he became an auditor for the city of Baltimore. He took his obligations seriously and his co-workers were impressed by his integrity. They said they could set their watches by when he left for lunch break (when he would take walks to keep in good health) and when he returned to his desk.

In the 1970s, a minyan near his office in downtown Baltimore wouldn’t hew to my father’s polite request of a mechitza to accommodate a woman who attended davening, so he started a second minyan. Someone who was there at the time recounts that my father was “the rav, the gabbai, the posek, and often the shliach tzibur” as well as “a role model for how a frum person should conduct himself… [and] interact with all of one’s diverse co-workers, creating a true kiddush HaShem. [He] foster[ed] respect towards Jewish people from everyone he encountered.” Days after his petirah, the minyan, which continues to this day, was formally named “The Rabbi Simcha Shafran Downtown Mincha Minyan.”

Throughout his more than 60 years as a Rav, my father made deep impressions on young and old, seekers and scoffers, intellectual and spiritual sorts alike. There wasn’t any trick. With his radiant smile, he just presented himself, and Torah, honestly, without pretensions. Someone once remarked that he had always assumed that, to be a successful Rav in America, a man had to be tall and sophisticated, speak the Queen’s English and hold himself aloof – until he met my father.

When, after more than 40 years of marriage, my mother was nifteres, in 1989, my father was devastated. But the inner strength that saw him through so much emerged with time and he resumed his life with vigor, even marrying again. His second wife, the former Ethel Bagry (Mendlowitz), was beloved to my wife and me, and everything a Bubby could be to our children. My father and “Bobby Ethel” exulted in each other’s families’ simchos for 20 years, and my father cared for her, as he did for my mother, during her final illness.

The neighborhood where my father’s shul existed for many years changed and so, in his 80s, he moved to the Greenspring area of Baltimore County. He built a beis medrash in his new home’s basement, and established a Shabbos minyan. A dedicated group of mispallelim considered it their shul; and my father, their life guide.

He learned and taught Torah, and served as the mazkir of the Baltimore Bais Din. His “vacations” were trips to celebrate the simchos of his children, grandchildren and step-progeny.

He would also yearly address a Ner Yisroel high school Holocaust Studies class (taught by my brother, a rebbi), sharing his wartime experiences with that, and other, rapt audiences.

He walked three miles daily, well into his upper 80s. Only a brain tumor slowed him down. When it became necessary for him to have 24-hour care, he moved in with my brother and his eishes chayil Shalvah, both of whom were deeply dedicated to him. Two days before his petirah, my father was able, with Baltimore Hatzalah’s help, to attend the chasunah of one of their daughters. He gave and received brachos from many of the hundreds in attendance, gave the kallah a special brachah before the chuppah, and one to the new couple afterward.

The morning of his petirah, he made a final request. It wasn’t clear what he sought but his daughter-in-law thought she heard him say “tefillin.” When she asked him if that was what he wanted, he nodded yes, and my brother put tefillin on him. Shortly thereafter, Hakodosh Baruch Hu welcomed my father to his eternal reward.

The final day of shivah, a baby boy was born to my and my wife’s son Mordechai and his eishes chayil Leah Gittel. At the bris, a new Simcha Bunim Shafran was introduced to the world.

Zeh hakatan gadol yihyeh. May he prove a worthy bearer of his name.

(Rabbi Simcha Shafran’s memoir, “Fire, Ice, Air: A Polish Jew’s Memoir of Yeshivah, Siberia, America,” is available from Amazon.)

 © Hamodia 2017

Much Ado About an Embassy

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It was back in 1995 that the 104th Congress passed an act that mandated the move of our country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim. Although the United States as a country has withheld official recognition of the city as Israel’s capital, the legislative branch has long made its sentiments clear.

The reason the law Congress passed has never been implemented is because Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all viewed it as a Congressional infringement on the executive branch’s constitutional authority over foreign policy. Each invoked the presidential waiver on national security interests as justification for keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv.

President-elect Trump, however, has declared that he will not follow suit, creating excitement in parts of the American and Israeli Jewish publics; and, in other parts, grave concerns about what such a move might portend.

Some feel that the Palestinian leadership, and the Palestinian street that leads the leadership, need to experience an unapologetic and determined American action in recognition of Israel’s legitimacy, in order to “get real” and accept the facts of history. Others, more concerned about the apparent Arab cultural proclivity to violence, see an embassy move as courting danger.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Mr. Trump’s plan to relocate the embassy is “great.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent a letter to Mr. Trump predicting that a move of the embassy to Yerushalayim “will have destructive consequences on the peace process, the two-state solution and the safety and security of the region.” P.A. “Chief Islamic Justice” Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Habbash sermonized that if the new U.S. administration carries out its embassy relocation plan, it would constitute “a declaration of war against all Muslims.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to concur, telling an interviewer that relocating the embassy would cause “an explosion, an absolute explosion in the region, not just in the West Bank, and perhaps [not] even [just] in Israel itself, but throughout the region.”

Former Israeli National Security Advisor Major General Yaakov Amidror was more sanguine, saying that an embassy move “for us [is] very important,” and any Arab protests would “be very minor.”

An intriguing idea for honoring the Trump pledge while limiting the likelihood of a Palestinian meltdown emerged from an Israeli news organization, which cited “senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials” as contending that David Friedman, the next American ambassador to Israel, might work from an office in Yerushalayim, while the U.S. embassy proper would remain in Tel Aviv.

Surprisingly, Martin Indyk, who served as ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration and as a special envoy to the region in the Obama administration, endorsed Mr. Trump’s plan. Sort of.

He said it was a good idea, but only if it were married to a broader proposal: making Yerushalayim the shared capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state, with Jewish suburbs under Israeli sovereignty and Arab ones under Palestinian sovereignty – an idea advanced both by President Bill Clinton in his last days in office and by Mr. Kerry in his recent speech; and placing the Old City under a special administration charged with maintaining the religious status quo and ensuring that the three religious authorities continued to administer their respective holy sites. That idea was supported by President George W. Bush during negotiations between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas.

If a clear and unfettered move of the embassy to Yerushalayim in fact takes place, many Jews and others will rejoice. If it doesn’t, though, or one of the alternate plans is chosen, there will be broad disappointment.

Either way, though, something demands our reflection here: Whether or not Yerushalayim will host the American embassy, or some semblance of an official American presence, is not ultimately important. The source of the city’s kedushah, the Har HaBayis, remains “occupied territory” (even if Israel has a degree of security-related control over it). And “East Jerusalem,” whoever polices it, is a de facto Arab city.

The only embassy, in the end, that we rightly pine for is the Divine one, the Shechina for whose return to Tzion we pray daily.

Convincing the world to accept that Yerushalayim is the eternal Jewish capital is not our ultimate goal. The nations’ refusal to understand that truth is an outrage, yes. But, more trenchant, it’s a symptom – of our not yet having merited a third Beis Hamikdash on the site of its predecessors.

And it’s always imperative to address not the symptom but the sickness.

© Hamodia 2017

Hypocritic Oath

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A nineteen-year-old Israeli citizen of Arab ethnicity was among the 39 people killed in the recent attack of an Istanbul club, for which the terrorist group Islamic State claimed pride of ownership.

Lian Zaher Nasser was from the Israeli Arab city of Tira, and, since she had no travel insurance, her family asked the local municipality for help in bringing her remains home. The municipality turned to the Israeli government, and the Interior Ministry immediately agreed to fund the return of the body and made the necessary arrangements. ZAKA coordinated the logistics and transportation.

The young woman’s funeral took place in her home town. Among the speakers was Israeli-Arab Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi (Joint Arab List). In his eulogy, he said that the Islamic State terror group “is not Islam, and most of the victims of its crimes are Muslims…” The entire Arab public, he added, “is shocked and feels great sadness and anger” over the attack, which he rightly called “loathsome.”

Dr. Tibi, a doctor who trained at Hebrew University, is often described as “witty” and “charming.” A vocal Palestinian nationalist, he opposes Islamism and, as per his funeral comments, the terrorism it embraces.

He is also a hypocrite.

At a Palestinian Authority event on September 1, 2011, which was broadcast by Palestinian Authority television, Mr. Tibi, who served for several years as a political advisor to Yasser Arafat and wearing an Arafat-style keffiyeh slung over his neck, told his audience: “Nothing is more exalted than those whom Israel dubs Terrorists-Shahids.”

Shahid” is usually translated by media as “martyr.” The English word, however, bespeaks a passive death, and its wide use by both “Palestinian nationalists” and Islamists like Islamic State alike includes people who are dispatched in the process of trying to kill others in the name of either ideology. In the Arab world, suicide bombings are popularly called amaliyat istishadiah, or “acts through which one became a shahid.”

Mr. Tibi, at that same event, explained that “The shahid is the trailblazer, drawing with his blood the path to freedom and liberation.” And he offered his blessings “to the thousands of shahids in the homeland and abroad, and… to our shahids and yours, inside the green line, those the occupier wants to dub terrorists, while we say there is nothing more exalted than those who died for the homeland.” Deaths, that is, resultant from the act of murder. After all, despite all the Arab propaganda, Palestinians are not killed for passive resistance. And, as was seen in recent days, in the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who illegally dispatched a terrorist whose absence from the world left it a better place, when an Israeli soldier, in a rare occurrence, uses lethal force where it wasn’t necessary, he is put on trial and convicted.

This past July, Mr. Tibi paid a visit to the Hadarim prison, to pay his respects to Marwan Barghouti, the terrorist responsible for a number of terrorists attacks in 2002, including one at a gas station in Givat Ze’ev, in which 45-year-old woman was murdered, one in Ma’aleh Adumim and another one at the Seafood Market restaurant. He was acquitted for 33 other murders of which he was accused; there was insufficient evidence of his direct involvement.

Currently serving several consecutive life sentences, he continues to regularly incite violence against Israel from his prison cell.

Ahmed Tibi’s visiting a convicted and unrepentant terrorist dovetails (if any word with “dove” in it might be appropriate here) well with his words at the 2011 gathering. He is a wolf in doctor’s white coat (or Knesset attire). He likely has some high-minded response to the question of how he can loudly and harshly condemn the killing of civilians by Islamic State but celebrate the killing of civilians by Palestinian “trailblazers.”

Maybe he would try to make some distinction between religiously-fueled murder and politically-fueled murder.

Maybe he would describe Palestinians’ aching for a homeland (other than Jordan, Syria and Gaza) as something that justifies wanton mayhem.

But, were he an honest man, not just a charming one, he might just admit that the key to his distinction lies not in such philosophical assertions but rather in the very words he used during his eulogy for Miss Nasser – his reference to the fact that “most of the victims” of Islamic State’s “crimes are Muslims” and the fact that most of the victims, and all of the targets, of Palestinian “freedom fighters” are Jews.

© 2017 Hamodia

I Abstain from the Outrage

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True or False?

  • The U.S. abstention to the recent U.N. resolution was the first time an American administration declined to veto a Security Council resolution critical of Israel and opposed by her.
  • The resolution is groundbreaking, and pledges the territory captured by Israel in 1967 to a Palestinian state.
  • It would remove Yerushalayim and the Kosel Maaravi from Israeli sovereignty.
  • It is one-sided, placing the blame for the stagnated peace process squarely on Israel.
  • President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have sold Israel out.

The first four are demonstrably false.  The fifth, too.

Please don’t read further if you are not willing to consider a perspective different from the one you expect from this rightly respected newspaper and other “pro-Israel” news sources and organizations, including the wonderful one that employs me, Agudath Israel of America, which, like many other Jewish groups, condemned the U.S. abstention.  I am resolutely pro-Israel but not necessarily in agreement with every Israeli administration’s positions.  And, as I have pointed out on several occasions, while I proudly represent Agudath Israel, and convey its stances to the public and media, I exist as an individual too, and I write in these pages and in others from my own personal perspective.

Still here?  Good.

Since the Six-Day War in 1967, there have been 42 U.S. vetoes of Israel-critical resolutions – but, over the course of eight U.S. administrations, including the Reagan and George W. Bush years, more than 70 “yes” votes or abstentions. The recent Security Council abstention was noteworthy, though: it was the Obama administration’s first non-veto of a critical-of-Israel resolution in its eight years, the lowest count of any president since 1967.

The recent resolution has no practical effect and takes no position that has not already been taken by the Security Council (and most of the world’s governments).  It does not determine borders; it only reiterates the tired truism that Yehudah and Shomron are “occupied” territory.  Technically, that is not entirely accurate, since the land was not under any state’s legitimate sovereignty before its capture, but it is true that, of all the captured territory, only Yerushalayim was annexed by Israel.

And Yerushalayim’s status, although not recognized at present by the U.N., will not change in negotiations, should the peace process ever resume.  As Secretary of State Kerry said in his detailed post-vote speech, there must be “freedom of access to the holy sites consistent with the established status quo.” He reiterated that point, too, a moment later, declaring that “the established status quo” at religious sites must be “maintained.”

U.N. resolutions concerning Israel have long been consistently, notoriously and laughably one-sided.  This one, though, as it happens, while calling on Israel to stop building in settlements, calls too on Palestinians to take “immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror” and to “to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism.”  That, at least for the U.N., is in fact groundbreaking.

As to Messrs. Obama and Kerry, consider a thought experiment.  Imagine – just as a theoretical possibility – that they both actually care deeply about Israel.  In fact, over his nearly 30 years in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Kerry was a reliable, stalwart and unapologetic defender of Israel.  Pretend that Mr. Obama is of similar mindset.  (Which he is, but if you’re convinced otherwise, just pretend.)  And that they both believe, honestly and deeply, that (whatever you or I may hold to be true) only a two-state solution can ensure Israel’s security and integrity, and that continued settlement-building gives the Palestinians an excuse (unjustified, but still) to not engage in peace negotiations.

What would the two men then rightly do, with only days left for their administration, if a resolution reiterating the world’s objection to that building activity and calling for negotiations were put on the Security Council table?  Veto it, against their convictions about Israel’s wellbeing?  Or try to send a message, as they prepare to leave the world stage, about what they feel is best for Israel?

They might be entirely wrong about that (although they might be right).  And, yes, the overwhelming blame for the lack of peace is unarguably on the Palestinian leadership and populace.  And yes, all of Eretz Yisrael is bequeathed to the Jewish People.

Still and all, the American leaders’ determination to issue a final, passive call for what they believe is in Israel’s best interest does not bespeak disdain for Israel, but precisely the opposite.

Which is why all the shouts of “betrayal!” and “traitors!” and “complicit!” are so very wrong and so very sad.  This is an administration that has stood by Israel time and time again for eight years, and that mere months ago forged a 10-year, $38 billion military aid package for Israel, the largest for any U.S. ally ever.

One can consider Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry (and most Israelis, as it happens, because a clear majority are in favor of a negotiated two-state resolution) misguided, if one must.  But one cannot slander them as Israel-betrayers.  Must everyone be either “with us” or “against us,” “friend” or “enemy”?  Can no one be with us and a friend but with a different perspective than our own?

What the outgoing U.S. administration wants from Israel isn’t capitulation to her enemies.  What it has always sought is a sign of willingness on the current Israeli government’s part to simply act decisively on its declared commitment to a peace process aimed at a two-state solution.  To be sure, even a restarted peace process is far from assured of success; there are many issues that could prove intractable.  And yes, there have been moratoriums on “disputed territories” building in the past, to no avail.  But an acceptance of yet another one, instead of a continuation of the recently accelerated pace of building, will put the ball again in the Palestinian court, and offer something to an angry world.

Yes, that world is unreasonable, obnoxious and ugly.  Not to mention ridiculously hyper-focused on Israel, when so many truly unspeakable true human tragedies exist elsewhere, ignored.

So why, so many ask, should its opinion matter to us?  That sentiment is what Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed when he said, in the wake of the Security Council vote, that “Israelis do not need to be lectured of the importance of peace by foreign leaders” and that “Israel is a country with national pride, and we don’t turn the other cheek” and that he has had “enough of this exile mentality.”

And it is what he expressed, too, by summoning ambassadors of countries who voted for the resolution, and the American ambassador as well, to reprimand them, on the day that Christians consider the holiest on their calendar.  “What would they have said in Jerusalem,” an unnamed Western diplomat later fumed, “if we summoned the Israeli ambassador on Yom Kippur?” Think hard about that.

It may feel gratifying to snub one’s nose at real or perceived enemies. Personally, though, I am a talmid, so to speak, of Rav Elchonon Wasserman and Rav Reuvein Grozovsky, zecher tzaddikim liv’racha, not of Reb Bibi Netanyahu.  I believe that we are indeed in exile, in galus; that “secular Jewish nationalism” is wrong and dangerous; and that a modicum of modesty is demanded of all Jews, especially those who claim to represent other Jews.  I believe that humility, not arrogance (and certainly not “kochi v’otzem yadi”) should be the operative principle of Klal Yisrael, and of anyone who deigns to lead a “Jewish state.”

Maybe, with the help of the Trump administration, Israel will be able to cow the 2.8 million Palestinians in “the territories” into submission.  And maybe Hamas will not be able to seize whatever peace-seeking Palestinian hearts and minds are left.  Maybe all will be well, Israelis will sleep safely and the fears of the Obama administration will prove to have been without warrant.

Maybe.

But whatever may happen in the future, what the present requires of us, al pi mesoraseinu, I believe, is hatznea leches and hakaras hatov, not snubbing, sneering or insults.

© Hamodia 2017

 

Loss and Legacy

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Like so many of his generation in Europe, he had an all too short childhood.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, when he was 14, he found himself, along with his family and others from the small Polish shtetl of Ruzhan, fleeing the Nazi invaders with only what they could carry on their backs. Soon enough, the refugees were apprehended and locked in a shul, with a neighboring home set ablaze and the flames growing closer. The din, he recalled, was deafening. People were shouting out the Shema with all their might, crying bitterly, saying Viduy. Then they were suddenly, miraculously saved before the flames reached the shul, by, they suspected, Eliyahu Hanavi, in the guise of a high-ranking German officer.

Then, in a miracle of will, the boy decided to leave his parents to journey to Bialystok, to join the Novardoker yeshivah, a dream he had been promised, before the war, he would be able to fulfill.

The yeshivah, though, wasn’t there anymore, and so the boy jumped onto a train to Vilna, where many Polish yeshivos had relocated. Lithuania was still independent.

It wasn’t long, though, before the Soviets took over, and he and his chaverim and rebbe were sent to Siberia, where they spent the war years, enduring long 40 degrees below zero winters.

He once came close to death there. One of the other young men even trudged for kilometers through the snow on a mission, the trudger thought, to bury the boy, who was rumored to have succumbed.

At war’s end, the group made its way to Germany, were smuggled into Berlin’s American sector and set up a yeshivah in a town called Salzheim. Eventually, the boy, now a young man, was able to sail to America, where he married a respected Baltimore Rav’s daughter, who taught him English and helped him pursue his career, first as a rebbe in Baltimore’sYeshivas Chofetz Chaim and then as a shul Rav, a position he held for some 60 years. They had three children.

He was my father, hareni kapporas mishkavo. And his actual kevurah did not happen until more than 70 years had passed since that day his friend expected to inter him. It took place just before the start of Chanukah.

For all who knew and loved my father – and it is a very large group – his petirah was a wrenching personal loss. But it represented a tragedy for Klal Yisrael, too, and not just in the sense that an oved Hashem and marbitz Torah left this world.

It was a national tragedy for another reason, too, because, among all the many men and women whose lives my father touched and who came to the shivah house or called or emailed their nechamos – a group that included an astonishingly diverse spectrum of Yidden, from talmidei chachamim to the not-yet-frum – not a single one was from my father’s European chevrah.

That dearth, of course, was not unexpected. But it was an unhappy reminder, all the same, that the generation that witnessed the Jewish Europe that once was, and the horror and hashgacha of the Holocaust years, the generation that was our living link to that place and those days, is ebbing.

The only member, in fact, of my father’s Novardok chaburah in Siberia still alive is Reb Herschel Nudel, may he have a refuah shleimah, the man who endured that long, frigid walk to “bury” my father so many decades ago. Considering his astounding chessed, his arichas yamim, isn’t surprising.

And yet, the scene at my father’s levayah that most vividly remains with me was when the announcement was made that grandsons and great-grandsons of the niftar should come forward to carry the aron to begin its journey to the beis olam, where my mother, grandmother, uncles and aunts, my Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, and my rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zecher kulam livrachah, all lie, awaiting techiyas hameisim.

Those summoned came forth, but it took a while before the aron could be lifted. Not that it was heavy. My father wasn’t a physically large man. But it was a challenge for the many young men, all yirei Shamayim, who had heeded the call to find an empty spot to put their hands.

It was an aron, not a shulchan. But the words “Banecha kish’silei zeisim saviv lishulchanecha,” “Your sons, like olive shoots, all around your table” (Tehillim 128:3), even at that agonizing moment, rang like a melodic bell in my mind.

© Hamodia 2017

A Window into the Past

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It’s barely visible. Taped to the inside of the front bay window of a neat, modest house on a nondescript street in Toronto is a photocopy of a spoon.

The window, off the living room, is dominated by two large, healthy banana plants that have thrived there for many years. But if you look closely at the window of the house near Eglington Avenue, where my dear in-laws live, you’ll see the reproduction of the spoon, and might wonder why it’s there.

The answer to that question has to do with my father-in-law, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well, an alumnus of a number of World War II concentration camps. And with Chanukah, too.

The spoon that was photocopied was one of the items he smuggled out of Auschwitz, when the Nazis moved him into “Camp Number Eight” – a quarantine camp, for those suspected of carrying typhus.

There were no labor details in that new camp, but the inmates were ordered to help in its construction, which was still underway. Having had some experience in the Lodz ghetto as a mechanic, my father-in-law helped the electrical technician install the camp’s lighting.

With his new access to tools, he brought his spoon to work and filed down its handle, making it into a sharp knife, which he used both to eat his soup ration and to cut the chunk of bread he and others were allotted and had to cut evenly to apportion it fairly. My father-in-law became the go-to person to wield his spoon-knife to help avoid disputes and maintain relative peace among the prisoners.

When winter came, he was transferred to “Camp Number Four” in Kaufering, a camp more similar to Auschwitz. Despite the terrible hardships the prisoners suffered daily, however, my father-in-law, a Gerer chassid, and other G-d-fearing Jews in the camp tried whenever possible to do what mitzvos they could, despite all the dangers that involved.

My father-in-law always kept mental track of the calendar, and he knew when Chanukah had arrived. During a few minutes’ rest break, he and a group of inmates began to reminisce about how, back home before the war, their fathers would light their menorahs with such fervor and joy. They remembered how they could never get their fill of watching the flames sparkling like stars, and basked in their warm, special glow.

And they spoke of the war of the Chashmonaim against their Seleucid Greek tormentors, who were intent on erasing Judaism from Jewish hearts. And how Hashem helped them resist and rout their enemy, enabling Jews to freely observe the Torah and mitzvos once again.

If only, they mused, if only they could light Chanukah candles.

One prisoner said he had a small bit of margarine he had saved from his daily ration. That could serve as our oil. And wicks? They began to unravel threads from our uniforms…

But a menorah. They needed a menorah.

My father-in-law took out his spoon.  Within moments, the small group was lighting their Chanukah lichteleh, reciting the brachos of “Lehadlik ner”, She’asa nissim” and “Shehecheyanu.” The prisoners all stood there transfixed, immersed in their thoughts… of Chanukahs gone by.

The small flame kindled in them, too, a glimmer of hope. As they recited She’asa nissim, the bracha about the miracles Hashem had performed for our forefathers “in those days”, but also “at this time,” they understood that the only thing that could save them would be a miracle. A “nes gadol,” in fact.

Non-religious Jews, too, stood nearby and watched the luminous moment in the darkness of their concentration camp lives. Who knows what difference it may have made in their own lives.

My father-in-law today, along with his eishes chayil, are filled with gratitude for his having been graced with a personal miracle and surviving those days – a harrowing story in itself, which he chronicled in his ArtScroll/Mesorah book “Destined to Survive.”

And they thank Hashem for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren He has granted them, kein yirbu, committed to lives of Torah and mitzvos.

A more elaborate menorah than a spoon is placed at their window each Chanukah. But the spoon, or at least a photographic reproduction of it, always shares the window space, a reminder of a Chanukah many years ago in a very different place.

And, somehow, the large, thriving plants that frame the window seem appropriate too.

© 2016 Hamodia

Misguided Magical Thinking

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On June 5, 1944, Erwin Rommel, the greatest German general of World War II, left occupied France to return to Germany for his wife’s birthday the next day. He was expecting an American invasion of Northern France, but a storm in the region, and the chief German meteorologist’s prediction that the weather would not be changing soon, led him to conclude that an invasion was not imminent.

Mrs. Rommel’s birthday is, of course, more remembered by history as D-Day, when American troops landed at Normandy, the largest seaborne invasion in history and the beginning of the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control.

The following year, when U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin issued the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum calling for the Japanese to surrender, a questionable translation of a Japanese word in Japan’s response may have led to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A translator rendered mokusatsu – which literally means “kill with silence” and may have been intended to signal a simple reluctance for the moment to respond – as “reject.” President Truman took Japan’s reply as a statement of defiance, and ordered the bombings that took the lives of an estimated 200,000 people, half of them after months of agony.

More than thirty years earlier, the Titanic sunk, and more than 1500 people drowned in the North Atlantic Ocean. Ship lookout Fred Fleet, who survived the disaster, told the official inquiry into the tragedy that had he had binoculars, he would have spied the iceberg that sank the ocean liner in time to avoid it. Binoculars had in fact been on board, but were in a locked cupboard. The ship’s former Second Officer, David Blair, who had been removed from the ship before it sailed, neglected to leave the key with his replacement.

A birthday party, a mistranslated word, a missing key – each proved momentously consequential.

As did, more recently, a click on a computer keyboard. The consequences were not – at least as far as we know now – as momentous as the party, word or key. But history may have been changed by the click all the same.

Back in March, Clinton campaign chief John Podesta received an email warning, ostensibly from Google, informing him that someone “just used your password to try to sign into your Google account.” The message continued: “Google stopped this sign-in attempt. You should change your password immediately.”

An aide, suspicious of the message, sent it to a Clinton campaign computer technician to check it out.

“This is a legitimate email,” the aide, Charles Delavan, replied. “John needs to change his password immediately.”

And with a subsequent click on the “Google” message, a decade of emails that Mr. Podesta maintained in his personal account — a total of about 60,000 — were unlocked for the use of possible Russian hackers. Mr. Delavan, in an interview, said that his bad advice was a result of a typo: He knew this was a “phishing” attack, an attempt to fool the recipient into allowing access to his account. He had meant, he said, to type that it was an “illegitimate” email or that it was “not legitimate.”

Whether the pilfered emails, which included embarrassing exchanges about various people and things, played a truly pivotal role in eroding Mrs. Clinton’s apparent lead during the weeks before the election cannot be known. But that they drew great and negative attention isn’t disputable.

And neither is the truism that historical happenings can hang on what seem trivial, almost random, things. To some people, that is just evidence of the folly of the cosmos, the meaninglessness of life. To those of us, though, who realize that human life and history have ultimate meaning, and that a Divine hand guides both our personal lives and the collective one of the world, such “trivialities” are not trivial at all.

We tend sometimes to lose ourselves in the turmoil of our hishtadluyos, the efforts we make, as we are enjoined to do, to effect desired outcomes – personal, communal, political. And we begin to think, in the backs of our minds (or, worse, even in their fronts) that our actions per se directly bring about the results that follow. It is that sort of imagining that fuels the wild passions some exhibit about politics.

An antidote to that misguided magical thinking, a reminder of Who is always ultimately in charge, consists of contemplating just how easily the world can change through no intentional action of our own, or of any mortal.

© 2016 Hamodia

We, the Jury

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It’s probably safe to say that not since the 26 seconds Abraham Zapruder filmed of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963 has a moving image of a killing been viewed more often than that of the April, 2015 fatal encounter, in North Charleston, South Carolina, between police officer Michael Slager and motorist Walter Scott.

The 50-year-old Mr. Scott was pulled over by Mr. Slager for a broken brake light. For reasons unknown, the motorist left his car and fled. The policeman shot and killed him.

The report filed by the officer report stated that he had deployed a Taser against Mr. Scott to stop him from fleeing, that the two men then struggled over the electrical shock device, that Mr. Scott gained control of it and attempted to use it against Mr. Slager, prompting the officer to shoot eight rounds at Mr. Scott, striking him five times.

A passerby caught the event on his mobile phone camera and, after hesitating for fear for his own safety, made the recording public.

The video clip showed Mr. Scott running away, nothing in his hands, and Mr. Slager, at a distance of 15-20 feet, coolly shooting at the back of the fleeing man. The film also seemed to show the officer, after the victim had fallen, retrieving something, possibly a Taser, from his patrol car and placing it next to the dying Mr. Scott.

Last week, a jury in Mr. Slager’s state trial (whose members had the option of finding him guilty of either murder or manslaughter), after 22 hours’ deliberation and repeated viewings of the video, remained deadlocked. Reportedly, 11 of the 12 jurors favored a conviction.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin, 17a) teaches us that when the Sanhedrin judged a capital case, a unanimous verdict would automatically be vacated.  (For the reason, see Rashi and the Maharatz Chayes.) Unanimity, when a life is at stake, is unacceptable.

In American federal felony trials, however, as well as in trials on serious charges in various states, South Carolina among them, a unanimous verdict is required. And so, faced with the deadlock in the Slager case, the presiding judge declared a mistrial, and the lead prosecutor announced her intent to retry the defendant.

Most of us, and rightly, are sympathetic to police officers when they feel compelled to use their weapons. Police live dangerous lives, and many have been murdered in the course of their duties protecting us all. And in many of the cases where white officers like Mr. Slager have been accused of needlessly shooting black suspects like Mr. Scott, we tend to think that things aren’t always – excuse the expression – black and white.

Sometimes, though, they are.

Whether or not, as some have charged, the holdout in the jury box was motivated by racism, the video makes undeniably clear that Mr. Scott was unarmed and fleeing, and that Mr. Slager shot him at a distance, repeatedly, in the back.

Many African-Americans, unfortunately, automatically assume that if a white police officer shoots a black man it must have been because black lives don’t matter to white cops. That assumption is misguided; it ignores the inherent and considerable dangers of police work and the disproportionate representation of black men in criminal activity, resulting in a heightened sense of threat some officers might have when confronting them. (That’s not an excuse, only a reality.)

But disabusing those who jump to such conclusions about police shootings requires diligently investigating each case where a black person is hurt or killed by a police officer, and vigorously prosecuting any officer accused of using force wrongfully. As seems clearly to have happened, lethally, in the Slager case.

North Charleston’s police chief Eddie Driggers understands the importance of that.  After watching the video, he minced no words, saying simply, “I was sickened by what I saw.”

Michael Slager will be retried by the state, and also faces federal charges of violating Mr. Scott’s civil rights and using a weapon during the commission of a crime. Usually, it is unjustified to expect a particular verdict. Usually, the public isn’t privy to what is needed to judge an accused person innocent or guilty. Usually, there is no way for people, even members of a jury who have heard much testimony and weighed much evidence, to know what in fact took place.

This, though, is not a usual case. And its outcome could help reassure American minorities that they are treated the same as everyone else in our country, or help confirm their worst suspicions.

© 2016 Hamodia

A Very Different Future American Jewish Community?

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The dovetailing of the incoming American administration’s apparent views on many issues of concern to Orthodox Jews and the remarkable demographic changes taking place on the American Jewish communal scene may herald an American Jewish political and organizational future that will look very different from the current one.

An opinion piece of mine that recently appeared in Haaretz about that, which the paper titled “Like It or Not, the American Jewish Future Is Orthodox, and Deeply Conservative,” can be accessed here.

If it’s not accessible, write me at [email protected] and I’ll send you the text.

An Unfortunately Necessary Letter

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I was privileged and humbled to be asked to join a group of rabbis more distinguished than I and spanning the Sephardic, Yeshivish, Hasidic, Kiruv and Centrist Orthodox world to deliver an important message.  The signatories are immediately below; and the letter, below that.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein Editor, Cross Currents

Rabbi Shalom Baum President, Rabbinical Council of America

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Eshel Mara D’atra, Adas Yeshurun Herzliya Synagogue Winnipeg, Canada

Rabbi Moises Benzaquen Mara D’atra, West Coast Torah Center Rosh Hayeshiva, Harkham Gaon Academy Los Angeles, CA

Rabbi Joseph Dweck Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom

Rabbi Daniel Feldman Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

Rabbi Ilan D. Feldman Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jacob Atlanta, GA

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg Mara D’asra, Boca Raton Synagogue Boca Raton, FL

Rabbi Micah Greenland International Director, NCSY

HaRav Mayer Alter Horowitz, Bostoner Rebbe of Yerushalayim

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky Rosh Yeshiva, Darche Noam Jerusalem, Israel

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Avraham Joseph (BAYT) Toronto, Canada

HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz Rosh Beit Din, Beis Din of America and Chicago Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Avi Shafran Media Liaison, Agudath Israel of America

Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya

HaRav Michel Twerski Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jehudah Milwaukee, WI

 

 

The text of the statement:

As rabbonim and mechanchim, we are greatly concerned about the popularity in some circles of a “kiruv” approach that does not bring honor to the Torah ha-Kedoshah but, on the contrary, creates considerable chilul Hashem.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi apologized for one particularly offensive statement he made on several occasions. But he has voiced, both before and since that apology, many things that reduce complex issues to simplistic and misleading sound bites. He has also repeatedly arrogated to “know” why unfortunate things happen to various people and has presented subtle statements of Chazal in superficial and deceptive ways.

That method may entertain and even stimulate some audiences, but it does no justice to the Jewish mesorah. And, especially with the worldwide audience enjoyed by any public speech these days, misleading assertions even when offered with the best of intentions, are particularly objectionable, and even dangerous.

Jewish institutions must be discerning about the credentials and the histories of those to whom they offer the honor of acting as teachers of Torah. We urge all shuls and organizations to act responsibly and take seriously decisions about whom they invite to address their gatherings.

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