The story begins in Nuremberg, Germany and Satu Mare, Romania, wends its way across Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald, and coalesces in the sleepy upstate New York town of Monroe. Where I grew up.
Some of the details are lost to history. But the essential lesson remains. It is the untold story of the Reform rabbi and the Satmar rebbe.
Many have never heard of Monroe – but for two exceptions. Mention Monroe to some people and they’ll tell you about the bargain they found at the gargantuan outlet mall that sits just outside of town. Thousands of tourists flock from New York City, searching for Gucci handbags with an almost religious fervor.
Mention Monroe to Orthodox Jews, and they’ll tell you about another gathering just two miles from the outlets, where real religious fervor is a way of life. The village of Kiryas Joel – or “KJ” as the locals call it – is a hub of the Satmar Hassidic movement.
The Satmar, one of the strictest and most insular of all Hassidic sects, took their name from their town of origin, Satu Mare. In 1944, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, escaped from Nazi hands. Before his release, which was negotiated with none other than Adolf Eichmann, the Rebbe spent several months in Bergen-Belsen.
Rabbi Teitelbaum ultimately made his way to America where he established a community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In 1974, seeking an additional location for his growing following, he settled on a tract of land outside Monroe. Today, Kiryas Joel counts over 20,000 residents. Black-hatted men and modestly clad women are everywhere in Monroe – from the walking path that rings the pond in the town’s center to the toy aisle in the local Walmart. But back in 1974, Kiryas Joel consisted of a few houses on the edge of town, containing only the Rebbe and a handful of Satmar families.
Rabbi Kurt Metzger arrived in Monroe the year before.
Rabbi Metzger was born in Nuremberg. The city of the infamous Nuremberg laws. The same Nuremberg where Nazi war criminals were later tried for their crimes against humanity. Nuremberg was hit harder than any other German city during Kristallnacht. On that horrible night, no other city saw more Jews killed or commit suicide.
Rabbi Metzger was the last Rabbi of Nuremberg.
Like the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Metzger arrived in the U.S. after escaping the Nazis, also detouring to a concentration camp, in his case Buchenwald. Like the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Metzger started his life over, tending to the calling of the rabbinate in a strange new land.
The similarities end there.
Rabbi Metzger was the spiritual leader of the Monroe Temple of Liberal Judaism, a 20-minute walk and several worlds away from Kiryas Joel. While the Satmar Rebbe embodied a certain strain of Eastern European ultra-Orthodoxy, Rabbi Metzger embodied one of the most liberal strains of the German Reform movement. The Satmar Rebbe stood for strictly following the Torah’s commandments and minimal contact with the outside world. Rabbi Metzger was a native son of what some have called “high church” Reform, complete with organ and church-like music and optional wearing of head coverings during the service.
Yet somehow, in Monroe, these two worlds came together ever briefly. In our book, Doublelife, I recount a lesson I learned from Rabbi Metzger about coming to terms with God in the face of the Holocaust. But this story is not about reconciliation with God, but rather with our fellow Jews.
As a child, I found myself one afternoon standing in the back of the Satmar synagogue in Kiryas Joel. Although any field trip was a welcome respite from Hebrew school classes in the Monroe Temple’s basement, that afternoon I wasn’t so sure. Rabbi Metzger had brought our class to the Satmar’s mincha (afternoon) service. We stood awkwardly, jeans-clad youth amidst a sea of black hats, unable to follow the all-Hebrew service.
A Satmar man, apparently assigned to us, pointed to the front and said with awe, “You see there. That’s the Rebbe.” The Rebbe gazed almost imperceptibly in our direction. He knew we were there, of course. Our visit never would have happened without his approval.
A synagogue field trip – hardly remarkable. Except . . . except that this bridge is almost never traversed. How many Reform rabbis take their students inside a Satmar synagogue, even as they disagree with almost everything the Satmar stand for? How many Reform rabbis, or Hassidic rebbes, attempt this kind of connection today, knowing from the start the gaps are too great to overcome?
Nor was the encounter a one-way street. One Sunday morning, shortly after my Satmar synagogue escapade, I bounded up from the temple’s basement into the social hall, where adults would gather to hear a speaker. I always came for the amazing bagels, regardless of the topic.
As I ravenously consumed my bagel, I looked up to see two Satmar Hasids, their backs to the entrance of the temple’s non-kosher kitchen, speaking to the bare-headed crowd. They had come at Rabbi Metzger’s request. It was just before Passover, and one of the Hasids held a handmade “shmura” matzah in his hands. Accurately guessing that the attendees bought the square machine-processed matzah that comes from a box, he held up his round matzah and said, “Does anyone know the difference between this matzah and the matzah that you use for Passover?”
Without pause, a woman shouted out, “Yeah, it’s burnt!”
The surprised Hasid struggled to respond. Yet the conversation continued for nearly an hour, moving beyond the burnt matzah to deeper issues like why Hassidic sects require a Rebbe, how they interact with the outside world and what drives their beliefs.
Like my synagogue visit, it was in some sense an unremarkable dialogue, but remarkable nonetheless for how rarely it takes place.
I am now an Orthodox Jew. Were Rabbi Metzger alive today, he and I would disagree about many things – not small matters, but ones that go to the very heart of Judaism. But as the Mishna (Pirke Avot 4:1) teaches us: “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.”
So this is what I learned from Rabbi Metzger:
Whatever the gaps between Rabbi Metzger and me, they pale next to those between Rabbi Metzger and the Satmar. Yet, that didn’t stop Rabbi Metzger from reaching out, from exposing his students and congregation to a form of Judaism with which he wholly disagreed, and from engaging in what I call real discourse, in contrast to much of the phoniness that passes as discourse today.
Today, we Jews have adopted three main ways of dealing with our differences: shouting, ignoring/marginalizing and singing Kumbaya. Some of us imagine that if we resort to name calling, those who do not think as we do will shrivel up and disappear. But name calling only emboldens the other side, and the last time I checked this is not a recipe to win friends and influence people. Others think that if we pretend the other side isn’t there, then they’ll cease to exist. If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard liberal Jews talk about the “mainstream” Jewish community (read: not Orthodox), or Orthodox Jews speak triumphantly about the non-Orthodox disappearing through assimilation. But other than funding my retirement, what can such pronouncements really accomplish?
Still others engage in the dialogue of the hug-fest. We’re all the same. It’s all relative. You have your truth and I have mine, but it really doesn’t matter. I’m glad your religious practices work for you, and so my religious practices work for me. This is the dialogue that enables us not to have a dialogue. You have your truth and I have mine, so none of us really have to engage. We can just smile at each other and pretend to talk.
Rabbi Metzger took another path, one we could learn from today. Rabbi Metzger was respectful. He never said a demeaning word about the Satmar. Nor did he pretend they weren’t there or were a passing phenomenon. At the same time, Rabbi Metzger didn’t park who he was at the door, nor did he expect the Satmar to do so. He did not compromise his beliefs one bit. He didn’t try to find common ground that wasn’t there.
But that didn’t stop Rabbi Metzger from reaching out anyway. Nor the Satmar Rebbe from reciprocating.
It may have been a small step. But on those two days in the Satmar synagogue and the temple social hall, I believe God was smiling. For His children may have been far apart in so many ways.
But, despite everything, they were together.