In 2007, just five days before the onset of Chanukah, I officiated at the funeral for Ruth Gutmann, the mother of a dear member of my congregation, Dr. Sidney Gutmann who serves as one of our Gabbaim on weekday mornings during the Torah Reading. Ruth and her family were one of three Jewish families living in a small German mining town of Naroyda, now considered part of Poland. In her early twenties Ruth did an apprenticeship in photofinishing and when she completed her training she arrived back to her home to find that her father and brother were arrested. It was just before Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when her father Max was taken to Buchenwald, a detention camp before it became a concentration camp. After six weeks, Max was released and the family made the decision to leave Germany and went to Shanghai, China where Ruth would be introduced to her future husband, Herbert Gutmann who also was born and raised in Germany. Herbert would propose marriage to Ruth on her 24th birthday and they would be married for just short of 40 years. From Shanghai, Ruth and Herbert would immigrate to America, arriving in San Francisco with no money or possessions. They ended up settling in Stockton where Max worked at Grey’s Men’s Clothing, a business that he eventually bought from the owners. Ruth would assist her husband with bookkeeping, alterations and sales. They would raise their two sons Sidney and Ron and Ruth would become active in Stockton’s only conservative shule, Congregation Adat Yeshurun, serving as a volunteer who polished the silver of the Torah mantels, washed the linens for the Kiddush lunches and was just always there to help in any cause for the shule. She was passionate about her Judaism.
Fast forward to Chanukah, 2015, almost 8 years since her funeral. Yesterday I received a letter from Ruth’s grandson, Jonathan Gutmann who is spending his senior year of high school in Germany on a special program. The program is called the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX). It is a scholarship program for high schoolers established by the U.S. Congress and German Bundestag to strengthen ties between Germany and the United States through citizen diplomacy. Candidates must submit an application and interview to be selected. This is the 36th year of the program.
One might ask why a 17-year old Jew from Sacramento would want to spend a year in a small town in Germany, living with a non-Jewish family with no Jews. In addition to the experience of studying abroad, Jonathan chose to spend the year in Germany because he wanted to have the opportunity to connect with his family’s roots. His heartfelt letter describing his observance of Chanukah in a small town in Germany with no Jews, speaks loudly to his own passion for Judaism, just like his grandparents.
Let me share his words:
Chag Chanukah Sameach! I hope that this Chanukah has found you in good health and in a time of happiness. I miss seeing you and being at Mosaic Law, but, after four months here in Germany, I know for sure that this is a great experience for me.
I just wanted to share a few thoughts I have been having during this week of Chanukah. It is certainly a different sort of Chanukah for me, as I am not with my family of any other Jews, but, in a way, this has made me feel even more Jewish. At school, I am taking wood-shop, and my last project was making my own Chanukiah. It is a simple menorah, but I am so happy to have it, as it enables me to fulfill the mitzvah of celebrating Chanukah. In addition, building it in class gave me the opportunity to explain what it was and tell a bit of the Chanukah story to the kids in my class. The teachers and students were all very interested, and I was proud to be able to explain it to them.
Something I found funny, though, was what happened before I explained Chanukah: Because they have learned some things about Judaism in school, many know about the Menorah in the Jerusalem Temple. So, six or seven kids and one of the teachers all came by my work station on their own and counted the numbers of places for candles. When they got to seven and saw that there were two remaining places, they stopped abruptly and looked confused, until I explained it to them.
It has been especially meaningful to me to light the candles, recite the blessings, and sing Ma’oz Tzur in Germany, the land where my family is from but also the place where so many of our people were persecuted and murdered. It’s a bit sad for me to be the only Jew in the city of Bocholt celebrating Chanukah, but I look at it not as a misfortune but rather a triumph. Every night when I sing Ma’oz Tzur, I think of how the Greco-Syrians oppressed us, the Babylonians exiled us, and Hitler tried to destroy us, but, thanks to G-d, we are still here. I am proud to stand here in Germany, lighting the Chanukah candles exactly like my grandparents did years before me, a sign that Hitler did not win and that G-d will never forsake the Jewish people.
I look forward to spending next Chanukah among my people, celebrating together as we’ve done for thousands of years, but I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to celebrate Chanukah this way, too. My 5776 celebration is an embodiment of the story of Chanukah itself, and it’s an experience that I will remember forever.
I hope the rest of your Chanukah is filled with celebration and peace.
P.S. Here is a picture of my menorah lit up this evening for the fifth night.
This past Friday night I read his letter to those who attended our Shabbat Chanukah Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv Service. As I gazed amongst the congregation it was apparent that Jonathan’s words touched every single adult and child. I have watched Jonathan grow up coming to shule just about every Shabbat with his parents and his sisters. After his Bar Mitzvah he has continued to serve as Shliach Tzibur for Shacharit or Musaf on Shabbat and has read from the Torah. Had he been in Sacramento this Chanukah, we would have asked him to lead Hallel, prayers of Thanksgiving recited on this holiday. What will be indelibly etched in my soul from the letter he sent me are his words, “I am proud to stand here in Germany, lighting the Chanukah candles exactly like my grandparents did years before me, a sign that Hitler did not win and that G-d will never forsake the Jewish people.”
For those who are worried about the future of Judaism in America, Jonathan Gutmann gives me assurance and hope that the American Jew will not vanish as some predict. If he is illustrative of our Jewish youth today, then the future of Judaism and the Jewish People will not just endure, but will be strengthened.