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  • Hope at Hannukah: A Modern Tale

    Posted on December 10th, 2012 Special Contributor No comments

    It was Hannukah of 2005, four months after Hurricane Katrina changed everything. A group of us were in New Orleans helping to restore the homes of four Jewish families that had been flooded with nearly eight feet of water. After five days of putting up sheetrock, spackling and taping, we were standing with Anne and Stan Levy outside their home.


    Anne Levy is a short woman. She is a survivor of the Holocaust, miraculously being smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in January, 1943 and passing for Christian once on the outside. Eventually, some fifty years ago she had come to this house in New Orleans and has lived there ever since.  “Now we have to start all over,” she had said with tears in her eyes.


    She would never have asked for help with her home. “Others need it more.” It was her daughter who had told about their need, bringing us to their home. It wasn’t requested; it was offered.


    When we first entered her once beautiful home, we saw that the damage was total. It had been gutted to the studs. There was a hole in the living room floor and a coffee table with a waterlogged copy of Anne’s biography: “Troubled Memory,” sitting on it. It told of how in 1989 she had confronted David Duke at the State Capitol Holocaust exhibition and had told him, with her finger raised high, that this was not a place for a Holocaust denier. She hounded him throughout his run for Governor until he lost.


    So there we were with Anne and Stan on the fifth day of Hannukah. Each of the nineteen members of our group had written a special, personal blessing for them. We recited our words with tears in our eyes. Then we presented them with a mezuzah and a Hannukiah.


    Holding up the Hannukiah, Stan said words that I will never forget: “Here you are, Jews helping Jews. You have renewed my faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in G-d.” Regaining his composure he added, “I can see the light shining from your faces as you work on my home. I want to have that experience myself. So I will join you on your next building project.”


    Author: Rabbi Joel Soffin

    The following year we returned to New Orleans. Stan and Anne hosted all of us for dinner after a day of work. We studied Torah together. This November during Hurricane Sandy, Stan set me this email: “We hope you were out of the storm damage. Please let me know.”


    I found a copy of that Dedication Ceremony which began with this paragraph:


    The story is told of a family that left New Orleans for a time due to the hurricane and moved to Philadelphia. One member of the family, the mother, went back weeks later to see the extent of the damage to their home. She found that everything had been ruined and removed from the house except one thing, the menorah. As she sat holding that precious object, it seemed to light up in her hands and to ease her burden.


    Whenever I look at the lights of the Hanukiah, I think of Anne and Stan. I can hear Stan’s words. And I, too, feel a deeper faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in  G-d.


    This week’s post was contributed by Rabbi Joel Soffin founder of Jewish Helping Hands.


  • Centropa: Old Stories New Meanings in Confronting Europe’s Past

    Posted on July 25th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 6 comments

    Memorial where the bima stood at the Heidelberger Synagoge in Heidelberg, Germany.

    Stories are an essential element of Jewish tradition, but they can also be an essential element of Jewish history and Jewish education. This week Melissa Cohavi shares her new take on stories we often struggle with passing on.

    I love stories.  I especially love stories about families, history, and people affected by history.  Centropa is all about stories too, and perhaps this is why their materials speak to me on such a personal level.  I am the Director of Education at Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut and learned of Centropa last winter.  Centropa, based in Vienna, uses technology to tell the stories of elderly Jews in Central Europe who survived the holocaust, and then made the decision to live their lives in Central Europe and not emigrate to Israel, Western Europe, or the USA.  Centropa has interviewed over 1250 Jews living in 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean.  Centropa has produced more than 25 short multi-media films and has cataloged thousands of personal photos from the interviewees.  Centropa’s goals include:  connecting us all to the lands of Jewish heritage by creating programs about the entire 20th century, not only about the period of the Third Reich; using these programs in innovative ways so that Holocaust education will have relevance everywhere; combating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial by creating programs that students carry out themselves, and share with other students across borders, oceans and ethnic divides. I know what you’re thinking.  I have heard this before.  But Centropa is different.  Their films focus on the lives of Jews in Central Europe both pre-war and post-war.  For me, when we teach our students about the Holocaust it is important to focus on the stories, not only about the tragedies.  After all, stories are so much a part of Judaism and enhance learning in so many ways.  Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe prior to World War II was so vibrant, and now it is gone.  In fact, stories are what connect Jews around the world, and our students to their history.  I don’t know about you, but my students (both youth and adult) love to talk about themselves.  When we, as educators, can bring them stories of a previous generation that they can relate to in their own lives today, we have succeeded on so many levels.  I lived this myself when I was at the egalitarian minyan on Saturday morning, July 14th at the West End Synagogue in Frankfurt.  I attended services with five other Americans and one new friend from Stockholm.  We had so much in common with the approximately 20 or 25 others in attendance that morning.  We all knew the music and I was so happy when we sang Debbie Friedman’s Oseh Shalom.  I was even honored with an aliya to the Torah that morning.  The stories we shared with one another during the oneg brought us together on a very special level, and it was a morning I will never forget.

    Author, Melissa Cohavi

    The Centropa summer academy brought Jewish life and history alive for me.  I was able to visit places in Germany, such as Worms and Berlin that I had only had the opportunity to study about.  Today there are no Jews living in Worms, but there is a small Jewish community in Berlin made up mostly of former Soviet Jews.  It also allowed me to see that non-Jewish teachers in Vilnius, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest and Vienna are both learning about the Holocaust and teaching it to their students.  I learned that there is one synagogue in Vilnius today, where there were hundreds prior to World War II.  I saw how Germany is taking responsibility for its past and learned how teachers in former Soviet-bloc countries are learning about how we live our lives in the West and that the connections between us and our students are so important. This trip was personally important to me on so many levels.  I must admit that I was hesitant to visit Germany, given the history we all know so well.  But I learned that Germans are aware of their mistakes and are working hard to make things right.  There are memorials and museums remembering the holocaust everywhere.  It is taught in schools from an early age and there are numerous exchange programs between Germany and Israel, all supported and paid for by the German government.  There is even a memorial for homosexuals persecuted and murdered by the Nazi’s, located in Berlin.  The connections I was able to make with educators from 14 different countries was probably the most invaluable and tangible thing I came home with. I learned about the Jewish communities in Stockholm and Helsinki, Vienna and Budapest.  Centropa has allowed me to grow in so many ways, and I thank them for that.  Share your stories, we all have something important to tell.

    Centropa Summer Seminar 2012

  • A Modest Proposal for the Olympics

    Posted on July 17th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Israeli Olympic team 2012

    I’m a sucker for the Olympics. True, it is a whole lot of expense that might be better spent, but even as a die hard non-sports fan, I find the pomp and ceremony, the exertion and accomplishment exciting. And the part I love best, without question, is the is the parade of countries. The costumes, the flags and the excitement of each country draws me in as I think about how hard each of these people worked to get to this day. As a Canadian who lives in the US, I root for my two “home” teams (okay I will always be biased towards Canada) And as a Jew, I am always particularly proud of the Israeli team.

    But like many, I’m feeling more than a bit ambivalent about celebrating this year.

    This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympic games and the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre, which saw the cold blooded murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists. On the 5th of September 1972, Palestinian terrorist broke into the poorly guarded Olympic village immediately killing two and taking 9 hostages. Attempts to rescue the hostages failed and all those taken were all murdered.

    The Olympic games have come to represent the ability of the world to come together. They are a rare moment of peaceful competition rather than the wars that we are used to. The Munich Massacre is clearly the something that the International Olympic Committee would like us to forget. They have reject all appeals to remember the athletes and coaches who were murdered on their watch 40 years ago.  Each of the murdered Israeli men came to the Olympics with the highest hopes and with the ideals of the Olympic committee. Not only were they betrayed by the very organization for which they labored hard at the time, but their memories are being erased by the lack of memorial.

    Israeli Olympic Team 1972

    Each of these men did not live to see their Olympic dreams fulfilled, to embrace the message of peace and brotherhood. They died before Jodoka Yael Arad was able to win Israel’s first medal and surfer Gal Fridman won Israel’s first gold. On a personal level they did not live to see their families flourish, to know old age. They will not among those who are cheering as the Israeli delegation enter London’s Olympic stadium. And most who are there, marching, watching or watching at home will not even know the story of these men.

    So next week, as you watch the Olympics and all the pageantry of opening, (live or taped after Shabbat) I hope you will join me, in turning off your television for two minutes when the leaders of the International Olympic Committee and the London organizers take the stage, and instead turn your attention to the memory of those who died 40 years ago.


    Those who died:



    Moshe Weinberg

    Yossef Ramano

    Ze’ev Friedman

    David Berger

    Yakov Springer

    Eliezer Halfin

    Yossef Gutfreund

    Kehat Shorr

    Mark Slavin

    Andre Spitzer

    Amitzur Shapira


    May their memories be for a blessing.


  • God and the Holocaust

    Posted on June 26th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    The Holocaust poses particular challenges when it comes to theology. For this week’s guest author, Rabbi Phil Cohen, these questions have been on his mind for a long time. – editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Back in my days in the New York school I gave a presentation on the subject of post-Holocaust theology in Eugene Borowitz’s Jewish thought class.  It was 1980, and the subject had been on the table for perhaps a bit more than a decade and a half, with many serious voices weighing in on the subject of God and the Six Million.

    My study of the topic brought me to the provisional conclusion that the Shoah was caused by people, that the evil perpetrated by the Nazis and their many fellow travelers in both East and West Europe was just that, evil perpetrated by human beings.  My theology, I thought, did not include the question of God’s failure to intervene in the violence, because my image of God did not allow for God to intervene into our affairs at all.  God “does” other things, but not that.

    Author: Rabbi Phil Cohen

    But in a low level way the subject persisted to enter my thinking from time to time.  Then I read an essay by Michael Wyschogrod in which he said, “There has crept into our consciousness a profound anger at God, and this  anger is shared by all Jews even those who will not permit this anger to become  conscious.”  (Contemporary Jewish Theology: a reader, p.247)  I took this anger as being related to the Shoah.  So I called Prof. Wyschogrod and inquired of him if a) the statement was directed at the Holocaust, and b) if he still held to the statement.  The answer to both was “yes”.  “How could a Jew think about the Holocaust and not wonder why the Kodosh Baruch hu didn’t do something?”

    His statement and our brief conversation prodded me to think anew about what is at stake with the dilemma of God and the Shoah.  If we are to deny God’s ability to redeem in Auschwitz, then the liberation paradigm of the rescue at the Sea, which informs so much of our Jewish religious culture, loses meaning. We lose the dynamism of covenant, which, however interpreted, always entails a mutuality of relationship between God and the Jewish people.   We lose chosenness, a idea partnered with covenant, the belief that, somehow, the Jews and God have historically had, one might say, a privileged relationship. But perhaps most was encased in the sentiment voiced by Michael Wyschogrod, that asks how God could have not stopped the brutality.

    Now, this is not to say that these historic features of Jewish belief about God ought to be maintained at all costs simply because they have a role in Jewish thought. Indeed, Richard Rubenstein, who is to be credited with bringing this topic to public discussion in 1966 with his famous work After Auschwitz, loudly declared the death of the God of history.  On the other hand, the continuity of Jewish theology could be maintained by Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, who blamed Liberal Judaism and Zionism for bringing God’s wrath upon the Jewish People.  Similarly, the English Reform Rabbi, Ignaz Maybaum, saw in the Shoah God’s hand bringing the entire world into a new and better phase of human existence through the suffering of the Jews.

    I find myself caught on the horns of this dilemma.  I cannot for various reasons accept Rubenstein’s blanket declaration, nor can I see a divine purpose, punitive (Teitelbaum) or otherwise (Maybaum), in the Shoah.  However, I do like Irving Greenberg’s dialectical thinking that post-Holocaust Jewry’s consciousness sways between two poles.  On the one pole rests absolute evil and through it we viscerally experience the absence of the divine.  On the other side lies the state of Israel, no compensation for the events of 1933-45, nonetheless an experience of deep meaning for Jewish existence, in which religious people see God’s presence.  Negativity and positivity with the Jewish people swinging back and forth between them, occasionally perilously.

    And then there’s Wyschogrod’s statement that all Jews bear an anger toward God.  I’m less interested in whether the statement is true than that is carries in it some truth: many people knowingly or unknowingly bear an animus toward God.  That’s important and interesting enough.

    I have no satisfactory conclusion here except to say that just as the Shoah hangs over us in so many other ways, the predicament of God and Auschwitz, for me, will likely never be resolved.

  • For the day after Yom ha-Shoah v’hag’vurah – Holocaust Rememberance Day

    Posted on April 18th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 5 comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    In the normal course of things, stuff happens, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff. Then it passes and we forget most of it. We remember what is meaningful, or useful, or hard to let go of. Those memories inform our actions, which in turn create new stuff, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff.

    But when something catastrophic happens, when the stuff is beyond words, imagination, or of a scope that cannot be imagined, this regular chain of stuff, remembering, forgetting and incorporating is disrupted.

    Growing up in a family that was, as my mother now calls us, second hand Holocaust survivors, I lived with the effects of catastrophic disruption. No one in the family that went to the camps survived but many did escape. It was not easy, (you can learn about how my family was interned in United States at the Holocaust Museum) and it left long and lasting imprints. Hitler and the Holocaust were ever present and our extended family ever absent.

    On my path to figuring out how to cope with this legacy, I became a Jewish historian. My initial goals were purely feminist, but when I settled on the study of German Jews, I had to confront my sense of disruption, memory and family history.

    The focus of my graduate work was the period from 1848-1914. I looked at the rythms and flow of domestic life. As I read diaries, letters, and cookbooks, the mundane elements of daily life came to life. There were joys and frustrations, aspirations and limitations. It was stuff, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff –normal stuff.

    Somewhere in between the Anschlus and the liberations of 1945, my namesake, Razel Lowy Brody known as Rufi was murdered. My mother never knew her grandmother. Never got to experience her cooking, her drawing, her singing. She never had a chance to get annoyed with her grandmother, bored that she told the same old stories, or argue with her about the way she dressed. She missed out on all the stuff. She never got to remember, forget and incorporate the way one normally does in the ebb and flow of life.

    It goes without saying that we can never forget the brutality of the Nazis and the callousness of the millions of bystanders. That is what Holocaust Remembrance day is for.

    But if we only remember that, we are in danger of handing Hitler a posthumous victory. Reducing the memories of those who perished to their final helpless moments robs them of the complex legacies they would have passed on if the richness of their lives had been lived out in the proper order of things.

    When the candles go out at the end of Holocaust Remembrance day, take some time to engage with the past. Learn about Jewish life in Greece, the complexities of ethic Jewish identity in Yugoslavia, or domesticity in Germany. Take some time to get to know the people who did not live to share their stuff.


  • Memory and the Nazi Legacy: Modern Germany from a Jewish Perspective

    Posted on July 6th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    Memorial to Jews in Center of Berlin

    For Jews, German history casts a long shadow over modern Germany. It can be a challenge to know how to make sense of this legacy as we go about building a vision for the Jewish world. In recent years several groups of HUC-JIR students from across the programs and campuses, have traveled to Germany Up Close. This week, Andi Milens, Vice President at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs reflects on what she has learned from her experiences with the program. This January, a select group will initiate the first HUC-JIR alumni travel program with Germany Up Close. Applications for the program can be found by clicking on this link.


    It’s amazing how something as mundane as a bus stop can change your whole perspective on something. I guess the fact that the bus stop was in the heart of Berlin rather than in Manhattan, where I live, might have made a difference.

    It was October 2004, my first visit to Berlin, although not my first trip to Germany. I was a participant in a trip called Bridge of Understanding, a precursor to the Germany Close Up program. Walking rather absentmindedly down the street, out of the corner of my eye I caught the outside of a bus stop. I almost passed it up, but then I realized that it was an explanation of the role the building opposite the bus stop had played during the Third Reich. A few paragraphs into reading it, I realized that the explanation was entirely in English. That struck me as odd until it occurred to me to walk around to the inside of the bus stop. There was the same explanation, in German.

    Andi Milens

    In that moment, I began to understand something about German society. They get it. They know how to do memory. They have accepted their history and figured out how to collectively remember and memorialize it. There wasn’t any German on the outside of the bus stop because Germans won’t stop to read it while they’re hurrying along their way. The German explanation is on the inside of the bus stop because that’s where Germans will read it.

    This thoughtful addressing of both the past and the present struck me in sharp contrast to my visit to Poland two months prior. In all fairness, I met very few Poles on that trip. But based on observation and hearing only about Poles as victims of the Nazis with no acceptance of responsibility for their actions toward the Jews (and others), it made me appreciate all the more how far Germany has come.

    There is any number of examples of how Germany does memory. Shortly after my 2004 visit, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial opened. Beyond the significance of its architecture and its location -in the heart of Berlin, steps from the Brandenburg Gate, is its name: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The name is important and powerful, a constant reminder that the Jews of Europe were murdered by Hitler and the Nazis and all those who participated or stood idly by. A memorial to homosexual victims was opened in 2008, across from the Jewish memorial, in Berlin’s equivalent to Central Park. Brass plaques on Berlin street corners bear the names of the Jews from that street who were taken away (granted, a controversial installation). There is no hiding the past; reminders are everywhere and occupy the time and space of everyday life.

    What struck me most, though, was our visit to the Reichstag, the home of the German Parliament. From the outside, it looks like the old Reichstag – Gothic, imposing, and intimidating. Much of the building’s interior is made of plexiglass (or some other like material). As you look through a floor to ceiling window on a memorial to those who died trying to escape over the Berlin Wall, you understand the architect’s vision. The purpose of the architecture is to serve as a constant reminder of the importance of the transparency of democracy.

    That’s a powerful thought. There are people who look at any German over a certain age and wonder what they were doing during the Holocaust. Now I look at that same person and consider that here is a person who understands what it’s like to live without democracy. I’m 41 years old, born in America. No matter how angry I am about our civil liberties that have been taken away since 9/11 or that are still denied to segments of our society, I have never known what it’s like to live without democracy.

    In a small town outside Bad Arolsen, where the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains an archive of 50 million original Holocaust records, I visited a tiny Jewish cemetery that has been restored by volunteers. When they restored the low cemetery wall, they inserted plaques with the names of the Jews who were taken away. And they left empty spaces representing the absence the community feels. In the next town they’ve restored the synagogue, and schoolchildren visit as part of their curriculum. In the next town volunteers have turned a house into a museum remembering the Jews that were lost.

    I learned a new piece of history when I was in Bad Arolsen: the week before Kristallnacht, the Nazis did a trial run to see what the reaction would be. If there was no huge outcry, they’d do it on a larger scale. So there was a pogrom in Bad Arolsen. And there was no outcry. Why not? Maybe the Germans didn’t care about their Jewish friends and neighbors; maybe they agreed with what the Nazis were doing. And yet again, maybe they were confused and terrified. Maybe they were afraid that if they raised an objection, their home, too, would be burned, or worse.

    Our guide did not have a definitive answer. I think he wanted to believe the fear theory. Many in the American Jewish community, including those who chastised my parents for letting me travel to Germany when I was 17, would probably choose to believe that none of the Germans in Bad Arolsen objected to the pogrom. I don’t know the answer.

    I have now been to Germany 4 times — to Berlin twice, to Frankfurt, Weimar and Dresden, and to a surprising number of small towns. I’ve been to Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. My experiences in Germany have shown me that as a society, Germany deals with its past. It isn’t easy; it is painful and sometimes overwhelming and unrelenting, perhaps to a fault. They deal in different ways, but they deal with it. We could all learn something from the German experience.

    Most importantly, for me, is this. Germany makes me think. It makes me rethink my view of history. It makes me ask questions. It challenges me to form my own opinion, even if it’s not very popular in some circles. It makes me appreciate the choices individuals and societies wrestle with. It makes me think about the past and the present and the future. I have been forever changed by my experiences in Germany, none of them easy – and for that I am grateful.


  • Reflecting on Faith After the Holocaust

    Posted on May 4th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    This week we observed Yom HaShoah. Rabbi Larry Bach shared this beautiful reflection with his community. The message is both timeless and timely.  —- Ruth Abusch-Magder


    The text is fairly well-known:“I believe, with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for him.” The context is verywell-known. It was this text, set to that tune, that Jews sang on their way to their deaths during the Shoah. The Modzhitzer niggun nearly perfectly captures the longing, the hope, and the horror of those moments on the trains, on the platforms, on the journey to the gas. He tarries…and we wait.

    I’ve been thinking about the text, and the melody, a great deal lately. I’ve been thinking about what it takes to say “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah” while everything around you suggests otherwise. Would I have had the strength of faith to join that song? Would you?

    I cannot know, but I can hope. Better yet, I can prepare. I can try to live each moment well, forming habits of the heart and soul that will lead me to do the right thing, instinctively and reflexively, when the chips are down. And as I practice, I come to realize that faith in the Messiah is, most of all, about faith in myself. It is about the having faith in my own capacity to connect to Other, to Self, to God. When I do those things…when any of us does those things…we bring what our Tradition calls Y’mot Hamashiach that much closer.

    Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz concludes his Faith after the Holocaust with two pieces of testimony from that time and place, seeing in them reason to believe. He tells the story of

    Abraham Seidman, the Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, the kind of Jew whom Judaism produced in every generation in tens of thousands, a pious, modest, hardworking pater familias at the same time scholarly, not in a professional sense, but simply because it was the duty of every Jew to study and know the Torah. He had been taken from the Ghetto to the Umschlagplatz to be sent to Auschwitz. There was still some time before the transport was to leave. How did Abraham Seidman spend the few remaining minutes? He wrote a letter to his children taking leave of them forever and asking them for forgiveness should he ever have offended or hurt them.

    And Berkowitz also tells this story, first-told in Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel’s Min Hametzar, regarding Itzik Rosensweig:

    Itzik was a Jew somewhere in Slovakia, a Jew like Abraham Seidman in Warsaw. He made a living by raising poultry. One day he and his family were squeezed into the cattle cars, in which hundreds of other Jews were pressed to suffocation. In the car there was despair all around him; outside a celebrating population of former neighbors was jeering at him and deriding him. He begged them: Please go to my house and give food and water to the poultry. They had nothing to eat or drink all day.

    Where is the Mashiach for whom we wait? He is Abraham Seidman, showing himself to be, for one shining moment, a perfect parent. He is Itzik Rosensweig, answering baseless hatred with a display of compassion and wholeheartedness for the ages. He is those Modzhitzer Hasidim, singing their faith with full hearts, performing the ultimate act of Kiddush Hashem Barabim, sanctifying God’s Name for all the world to see. He is always at hand. When we are be’emunah shleimah, in a place of wholeness and trust, feeling safe and secure no matter what is happening around us, then Mashiach lives in us. And so…

    Ani Ma’amin – I believe. I believe. I believe.

    Be’emunah sh’leimah – with a faith that is whole. With a faith that emerges from my own wholeness, the clear sense of just what is, right now.

    B’viat hamashiach – I believe with a faith that emerges from the clarity of this moment, that all moments can be this moment. Clear. Perfect. And I believe that the clarity and perfection is precisely what is calledmashiach.

    V’af al pi sheyitmah’meyah – And though that clarity is fleeting, though the moments of perfection are few and far between…

    Im kol “zeh” – With every moment that passes, every “now,” every “this”…

    Achakeh lo – I seek to open to that possibility, waiting, and working, and hoping.

    B’chol yom, sheyavo — Every day, every moment, let it come to pass.


    Ani Ma’amin…