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Na’aseh V’Nishma

D’var Torah Delivered at Annual Meeting of JFGMW, May 21, 2014

Soon we’ll be celebrating Memorial Day and Shavuot. Last month we celebrated freedom through the story of Passover. But the question becomes: freedom for what? Now that we’re free, and not slaves, how will we use our freedom?

In the Exodus story, we needed to escape from Pharaoh’s wedge — chariots and oppression. But the Jewish people needed a magnet, a raison d’etre, which Shavuot celebrates — the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. That is the mission statement and strategic plan for us. King Solomon reinforced this in Proverbs when he wrote: “without vision the people will perish.”

For us Americans, the inscription on the Liberty Bell proclaims one of the hallmarks of our mission from the Book of Leviticus: Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof, and a Jubilee will exist for you.

Liberty means that in the 50th or Jubilee year, slaves went free, debts were forgiven, and homesteads returned to their original owners. This was revolutionary — to ensure that future generations are not resigned to perpetual poverty and bondage.

So what was the response of our ancestors on the receipt of this revolutionary message of the Torah — their journey into the Great Unknown? Na’aseh V’Nishma: We will accept and do it and then study its substance. Learning is not enough — we must act even though we may not know all the nuances and repercussions of the Law. 

Tonight we honor three remarkable leaders who acted because there was a need to act without fully knowing what lay ahead.

  • Gary Wingens — architect of the strategic plan — looking forward for the next three years in a planful way — but knowing that change is the only constant. Na’aseh V’Nishma
  • Leslie Dannin Rosenthal — president-elect who will lead us in the future for the next three years with a new CEO. Na’aseh  V’Nishma

But I want to particularly thank Lori Klinghoffer, whom Gail and I know, with Steve, for over 30 years. I had the pleasure of working closely with her as our president. 

She acted on momentous issues, some of which were intractable, with unknown future consequences. She is the first president of the merged federation — really an unpredictable and bold statement of Na’aseh V’Nishma. 

  • She acted on replenishing our emergency reserve, which had been dangerously depleted.
  • She helped stabilize JCC MetroWest’s finances.
  • She responded with compassion and speed to three emergencies: Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, Hurricane Sandy, and the Ukraine crisis. 
  • She helped mobilize 500 volunteers for Union Beach…the list can go on and on.

Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, Lori Klinghoffer, Gary Wingens
Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, Lori Klinghoffer,
Gary Wingens
Lori, you have been a rock of stability, even as you suffered the loss of your mom, the beloved Lilyan, and of course the birth of Rae Lilyan and your adorable grandchildren, three of the five most adorable children in the world.

As you retire this July 1 and I on November 1, I will always remember these past three years as emblematic of our ancestor’s acceptance of our mission as a Jewish people: Na’aseh V’Nishma.

Posted by: admin (May 27, 2014 at 9:54 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

My Journey: Part I

Gail & Max Kleinman with Lori Klinghoffer, President
Gail & Max Kleinman with Lori Klinghoffer, President
(These remarks were made by Max Kleinman at a luncheon honoring Gail and me that preceded the 17th Annual UJA Benefit Concert on Sunday, May 18.)

By any law of probability I shouldn’t be here. I don’t mean today. I mean existentially. My parents, Eli and Miriam, are Holocaust survivors. Through grit, guile, and support, even from Germans, they persevered. They also had luck. Real luck!

There was a prison escape by 4 captives. The Germans shot every 10th prisoner. My father was number 9.

Back then, the Jews were expendable. Before World War II, no country would take in the Jews in sufficient numbers. They were unwanted, even by the United States, until it was too late. My parents met and married in Landsberg, Germany, at a displaced persons camp where their meals were provided by JDC, today a Federation partner agency. Through UJA/Federation agencies in New York, they had a new beginning in the “Golden Medina.”

And then I was born, joining my brother Abe, a DP camp baby, and my sister, Lillian, born six-and-a-half years later. After a brief detour in academia, with a Federation scholarship and my wife Gail’s support — financial and otherwise — I pursued an almost 39-year career in Federation — 3 years in Milwaukee, 4 years in Atlanta, 7 in Minneapolis, and 25 years here in Greater MetroWest.

Max & Gail listening to remarks at UJA Benefit Concert reception
Max & Gail listening to remarks at UJA Benefit Concert reception
Together with our network of agencies — local, national, and global — support of donors, leadership, colleagues, and my family, Federation was the platform for me to champion Jewish aspirations and demonstrate Jewish power, so absent during my parent’s incarceration. Simply put, our Federation system, through our collective action as a Jewish people, performs miracles — here, in Israel, and around the world.

Next week’s blog will count the ways.

Posted by: admin (May 21, 2014 at 8:53 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

The Fourth Generation at Play

Yesterday was the dedication of a playground in memory of the first yahrzeit of my father, Eli, generously donated by my brother, Abe and his wife, Marilyn, at Congregation Sons of Israel in Upper Nyack, New York. 

 

This was such an appropriate memorial for my father as his fourth generation, namely my two grandchildren, Marlee and Xander, were playing together with other children who attended the dedication.

 

Of course they did not realize the significance of what transpired; they just played like any three and five year old kids would play. But that is the message. Through the heroic will power of my parents, Eli and Miriam Kleinman, with a lot of luck and support, they survived. They were able to build new lives in a new world, raise a family, and have this fourth generation literally at play. 

 

The ninth day of Iyar this week represents the first yahrzeit for my dad, and Gail and I are helping to sponsor a kiddush in his honor at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell. Last week, I returned from Poland with about two dozen high school students from New Jersey and their adult chaperons ably led by Joel Katz, the regional director for March of the Living.

 

During one of the long bus rides on the way from Białystok to Warsaw, we showed the powerful film created by my nephew, Evan, highlighting how my parents lived before the war, how they survived during the war, and the life they made afterward. The name of the film is We Are Still Here. The story tells how they did not let the horrors of the Holocaust become their obsession. They were future oriented and established roots in the New World.

 

I told the students that remembering the Shoah and understanding what happened is the first step. But that is not enough. As the holiday of Shavuot is approaching, we are reminded that our ancestors said, N’aseh V’Nishma: that is, that we will act on the Torah’s precepts and then study some of the implications. Like my father, I told them, you need to be activists. Become active in your synagogue and community. 

 

My father was president of one of the largest synagogues in the Bronx, Young Israel of Pelham Parkway, for 19 years. Although he grew up near Krakow, far from Lodz, he helped organize an annual Lodz Ghetto gathering that attracted thousands and was attended by the leading politicians in the state of New York, including governors and senators. He led fundraising in his synagogue, supported Israel through UJA, Israel Bonds, and Magen David Adom. He spoke to hundreds of high school students about the Holocaust. 

 

So, I told the students, use this time in Poland and in Israel to educate yourselves and make a commitment, use details of the Holocaust as a platform to educate others about the horrors of the Holocaust, and prevent its reoccurrence and how it is still happening. 

 

It is too late for Rwanda, as this year we are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the genocide where many of the horrors of the Holocaust affected that African country with 800,000 dead. Become advocates for the state of Israel, which largely is the guarantor for the safety and security of the Jewish people throughout the world; combat BDS when you go to the college.

 

After my presentation, the teens applauded loudly, but not at what I said but rather how my father became a role model for them. My father’s reputation for being a mensch, leader, and promoter of good deeds carries on, which is the greatest legacy a human being can impart. That was my father — the person and legacy which we honored yesterday. And a fourth generation at play is its greatest manifestation.

 

(Photos by Sara Barasch)

 

Posted by: admin (May 06, 2014 at 1:28 PM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

A Sea of Blue

There were 13,000 of them wearing blue jackets with the Magen David insignia of the March of the Living. They marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau, a 2.5 mile trek. They were mostly teenagers, with a sprinkling of adult educators and chaperones and survivors. They came from 40 different countries: New Zealand, Australia, Turkey, Sweden, Brazil, Israel, and North America. There were delegations from Poland, from Gdansk to Krakow.

 

Yom Hashoa Ceremony at Birkenau
Yom Hashoa Ceremony at Birkenau
As we began the March, we were greeted with hugs and kisses by a contingent of Polish friends of Israel who gave us embossed tags with the priestly blessing: the Lord Bless you and keep you...As I gazed ahead and behind, I witnessed a sea of blue marchers with their blue jackets proclaiming that we Jews are still here at the site of man's worst inhumanity to man.

 

After the March concluded we sat down for the Yom Hashoah program marking the 70th anniversary of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry and the Rwanda genocide. In his moving remarks, Janos Adler, president of Hungary, indicted his own country for collaborating with the Nazis. He stated that if there were a minute of silence for each victim of the Holocaust, we would be here for three years.

 

NJ/NY Region - International March of the Living in Birkenau on Yom Hashoa
NJ/NY Region - International March of the Living in Birkenau on Yom Hashoa
Even though Germany knew it was losing the war, it made the liquidation of Hungarian Jews a top priority, even diverting war resources for the killing. Of the 800,000 Hungarian Jews, only 200,000 survived. Of them, 100,000 were saved by Raoul Wallenberg, the heroic Swedish diplomat, through the use of diplomatic tools and threats of exposure of Nazi evils to the larger world. His grandniece spoke to us about the Shem Tov (good name) he bestowed on her family. The Talmud teaches us that if you save one precious life it's as if you saved the world. Wallenberg saved 100,000 worlds.

 

We also honored the memory of the heroic Hungarian Jew Hannah Senesh, an Allied paratrooper who after her capture, and despite horrendous torture, did not name names. We all collectively sang her stirring poem, “Eli Eli.”

 

At the conclusion of this extraordinary ceremony, the last six letters needed to complete the Torah were inscribed in the scroll with the assistance of six survivors. Then the Torah was raised to the throng celebrating the continuity of our mission and of the Jewish people. As a further affirmation, we all sang the Hatikvah against the backdrop of the gas chambers and crematoria.

 

This was a great display of Jewish solidarity and the greatest "revenge" against the Nazi regime. Major General David Elazar said it well: "We are a nation whose monuments have never been to victory. On our monuments the names of the fallen are engraved. Other nations have gates of victory. Our symbols of heroism are Masada,Tel Hai, and the Warsaw Ghetto, places where we may have lost the battle but won the war — for the existence of the Jewish nation."

Posted by: admin (April 30, 2014 at 10:51 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

The Two Sides of Anti-Semitism

Babi Yar is a ravine in an outlying neighborhood in Kiev. This was the site of one of the largest single mass killings by the Nazis as they invaded Ukraine. Between September 29-30, 1941, German troops massacred 30,000 Jews, assisted by Ukrainian accomplices, including security police. Why did they follow the directive to appear at Babi Yar? Because they were told that otherwise they would be shot.

 

This was the beginning of the first phase of the Final Solution, whereby soldiers would shoot Jews by the hundreds of thousands. But this method was too inefficient for the Nazi regime, so they perfected the extermination camps, where gas was the murder weapon of choice.

 

After the war, the Soviet government refused to acknowledge the slaughter of Jews at Babi Yar. Communism, after all, eliminated any sense of nationalism or religious identity. That is why the Soviets forbade the teaching of Hebrew and Judaism during their totalitarian regime. Instead, there was a monument that acknowledged the slaughter of “Soviet civilians.”

 

Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Two Soviet artists of the first order, at great personal risk, commemorated, through poetry and music, the fate befalling the Jews simply because they were Jews. In his poem “Babi Yar,” Yevgeny Yevtushenko minced no words in describing the horrors that were encountered there. 

            Over Babi Yar there are no monuments (for Jews).

            The steep precipice is like a crude gravestone.

            I am terrified.

            I am as old today

            As all Jewish people.

 

            Now I imagine that I'm a Jew.

            Here I wander through ancient Egypt.

            And here, on the cross, crucified, I perish.

            And still I have on me the marks of the nails.

            I imagine myself to be Dreyfus.

            The Philistine — my informer and judge.

            I am behind bars. I am surrounded.

            Persecuted, spat on, slandered.

            And dainty ladies in Brussels frills,

            Squealing, poke their parasols into my face.

            I imagine myself the boy from Belostok.

 

            Blood flows, running over the floors.

            The rabble-rousers in the tavern commit their outrages

            Reeking of vodka and onions, half and half.

 

            Kicked by a boot, I lie helpless.

            In vain I plead with the pogrom-makers.

 

            Accompanied by jeers: "Beat the Yids, save Russia!"

            A grain merchant batters my mother.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich
Subsequently, Dmitri Shostakovich, the greatest symphonist of the 20th Century, composed his symphony No. 13, the Babi Yar Symphony, with a chorus reciting Yevtushenko’s poem. Shostakovich’s interest in Jewish music stemmed from an earlier period when he orchestrated the opera, Rothschild’s Violin, by Jewish composer Benjamin Fleischman. 

 

During the height of the Stalinist terror, between 1948-1952, he composed a series of works using Jewish themes including The First Violin Concerto, the Fourth String Quartet, the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, and other works.

 

In his memoir, Testimony, he told the Jewish musicologist, Solomon Volkov:

“...It would be good if Jews could live peacefully and happily in Russia, where they were born. But we must never forget about the dangers of anti-Semitism and keep reminding others of it, because the infection is still alive and who knows if it will ever disappear.

 

That's why I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko's ‘Babi Yar’; the poem astounded me. It astounded thousands of people. Many had heard about Babi Yar, but it took Yevtushenko's poem to make them aware of it. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans and then the Ukrainian government. But after Yevtushenko's poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art.

 

People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko's poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.”

 

Now almost 75 years later, the specter of anti-Semitism is being used to justify the Russian invasion of Ukrainian soil. While there is anti-Semitism in Ukraine and always will be, there has been no uptick in it during the recent street demonstrations resulting in the overthrow of a dictatorial government and replacement of a new government that is sympathetic to the West and democracy. Yet Vladimir Putin has used this phantom anti-Semitism to protect the rights of Ukrainian Jewry. This has been protested by Ukrainian Jewish leaders, and others, particularly the National Conference of Soviet Jewry. 

 

I guess it is progress that combating anti-Semitism is used as an excuse for aggressive actions by Russia, contrasted with the murdering of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. 

 

But this other side of anti-Semitism to justify aggression is wrong nonetheless.

Posted by: admin (April 08, 2014 at 3:59 PM) | Comments (0) | Permalink
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