We moved to our apartment in Baka exactly 24 years ago, a week before our son Yonadav was born. Within a week or so we discovered the shul that we have been attending ever since. Its official name is Bet Knesset Emek Refaim, but it’s fondly known simply as “Yael”, after the street that it’s on. Then, 24 years ago, it was at best a small shteible-type shul barely scraping a minyan together for daily morning services. One of the main attractions for us – then in our early 30’s with by then 4 children, was the fact that the shul was made up mainly by a group of elderly holocaust survivors, who were so delighted that a family with children was joining the shul. And so our kids grew up with characters such as Ziggy Stiener, Moshe Lichtenstein, Shaul Weinstein, David Greenvald, Yitschack Herzog, to name but a few. Each one was a unique character – and most important each one had their own story or stories to tell. This one was in Auschwitz, this one in hiding in Bratislava, this one was in the enforced labor platoon of the Hungarian army, and this one in the red army.
The first time it hit me hard that all these elderly gentlemen all had experienced severe holocaust-related horror and suffering was in the spring of 1992, barely two years after we had moved in. Michal and I had just returned from a seminar in Poland I was running that was the final portion of 2-year young leadership development project funded by the Jewish Agency. We had utilized the logistics and timings of the “March of the Living” organization and with the help of superb in-house historian Shalmi Barmor, we visited death camps, museums, cemeteries and shteitelach, in an attempt to retrace the splendor of what was once Polish Jewry and is no more. I thought it would be a good idea to share our experiences in shul between Mincha and Ma’ariv on Shabbat afternoon and show a few photographs. And so it was that I described our week in Poland and the impact it had upon us. As I finished, one after the other of the holocaust survivors came up to me and commented: “We all got off the train just here (pointing to the platform in the picture I had taken), and then they did the “selection” and straight after that, a few of us went behind the train to say “Kiddush Levana”, said one of them. Another commented that when he saw for the first time the enormous chimneys spurting out the smoke of the burned bodies, it reminded him of a verse in the Torah he had recently learned by heart and that it gave him a tremendous surge in “emuna” – belief in God, that he claims allowed him to survive and tell the tale to me some 50 years later. My mouth went suddenly dry as I realized that I had been talking about the trip to Poland as a significant experience in our lives, while not fully appreciating that for many of the people who came to hear me, they had experienced the real thing, horrors that were etched into their souls for the rest of their lives.
Not long after this was Tisha B’Av. At the end of the Kinot, a page was distributed around the shul and on it was a Kinah composed by a survivor by the name of Y. L. Bialer, who at one stage was a member of Yael. The Kinah he composed, “Eli, Eli, Nafshi Bechi” is a powerful lament on the Holocaust. It was published for the first time by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in 1948 and as he had done every year since then, Moshe Lichtenstein got up to the bima and in his inimitable Hungarian accented choked-up voice lead us in singing it to the tune of Eli Tsion…. Hearing the words from his cracked voice, watching the tears run down his face and down the face of many others of his generation who had experienced the Churban known as the Holocaust, made me realize just what an amazing z’chut we have to be in Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av with these unbelievable individuals. How my paternal grandparents, who perished in the Holocaust would be smiling at the fact that their grandchildren were living in “Yerushalayim It HaKodesh” and that their great-grandchildren were attending school in the Rova Hayehudi of the Old City.
When shul was over, I walked up to Moshe (or Gingi as he was known to some of his shul-mates) and asked him to tell us about Tisha B’Av during the years he was part of the enforced labor platoon of the Hungarian army. Moshe was a natural story-teller. We must have stood in the courtyard of the shul for at least an hour and a half, listening to Moshe relate incident after incident, some chillingly horrific and some simply awe-inspiring. Occasionally others who were in the circle would add a story or anecdote of their own, weaving these tales into a stunning tapestry of the near demise and eventual survival of European Jewry within the specific context of how they all eventually made it to the shores of Palestine of the newly declared State of Israel. From that year on, I made it a point to go up to Moshe every year after Kinot at Yael to hear his stories, the vast majority of which were different every time, and every year a small crowd would gather around listening. I have no doubt in my mind that my understanding of the Holocaust, and my appreciation of the fact that we have the Z’chut to live in Israel in general and in Jerusalem in particular, has been shaped by hearing Moshe and his holy friends relive their experiences allowing me to get a vicarious glimpse into their world.
Moshe passed away a few years ago, and while many of their amazing wives are still alive, over the years all of the other great individuals who founded the shul as Holocaust survivors in 1949 are no longer with us. This morning, as we sang “Eli, Eli,” I could hear Moshe’s piercing cry, see Ziggi’s tears – even though they weren’t physically there. I yearned to be able to approach Moishe and hear from him more stories and insights into the “hiyme”.
Alas, we are bereft of their company and are forced to contemplate Tisha B’Av within the contemporary context of 2014, with an unfinished war against Hamas, rockets falling across a large area of Israel, overtly anti-Semitic rallies across Europe and dozens of killed officers and soldiers and many more wounded. Clearly, we are light years ahead of where we were a couple of generations ago. My murdered grandparents could only dream of the miraculous flourishing of the modern State of Israel that we are witness to today. To be actually living it is worth multiple “tov lehodot lashem”s a day. But Tisha B’av is here to remind us that even in such flourishing times, we cannot be complacent, we cannot fall into the “kochi ve’otsem yadi” trap of self-congratulation. We still have a ton of major challenges to address, some related to external security threats and others to internal social challenges, and we have a long way still to go.
I firmly believe that in order to meet these challenges and prevail, we need only one thing – unity. When Eyal, Naftali and Gilad were abducted and murdered a few short weeks ago, I wrote the following: “The families of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad decided to respond in a very particular and noble manner. They decided to take their personal anguish and tragedy and leverage it into a quest, to become a catalyst for creating new levels of unity and love among all of Am Yisrael.”
Throughout this whole Protective Edge campaign, we have been witness to unprecedented levels of consensus among the people of Israel. Until the Yom Kippur war, there was always consensus and unity regarding Israel’s right and duty to defend itself. But from the evacuation of Yamit and onwards this consensus has dissipated. Now it was returned. Our task this Tisha B’Av – when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple that we are told occurred as divine punishment for the schisms within the people that resulted from “Sin’at Chinum” – worthless hatred, we must work hard to retain these unprecedented levels of unity that were triggered and sustained by the example of the three families of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad that can result from “Ahavat Chinam” – worthwhile love. So let’s begin: הנני מקבל על עצמי את קיום מצות העשה של ואהבת לרעך כמוך – I hereby take upon myself the fulfillment of the mitzvah of “Love your neighbor as oneself”…..