Have you ever been on a trek with friends up a hill or a small mountain? Here in Israel, we try to find as much time to explore this country as we can. Kids are constantly going on small treks to nearby Nature Reserve parks whenever they have a free moment. Schools take students to the most beautiful vistas, and families take trips outdoors every Friday or Saturday to explore our beautiful country.
I am not an avid trekker. Born to New Yorkers who were city folk, my family did not do much in terms of trekking up mountains or going to the Grand Canyon. But, as a young child, my father accepted a job offer in Connecticut. My parents scrambled to find a home in any Jewish community near his office. They found a home in Fairfield, Connecticut that was a half an hour’s walk towards our local Orthodox synagogue. I remember them asking me and my sister if we could “hack” walking that far to synagogue on Shabbat, and we said “Sure, it will be an adventure!” And so, our new life began.
We moved from Memphis, Tennessee to this small town in Connecticut called Fairfield. The frigid cold hit our noses like icicles. My sister and I loved it…we were eager to explore the wooded area behind our home…looking for leaves, rocks, small animals…just about anything. As we returned to the house, our noses would be red from the chill. But, we loved it.
And so it was. Every Saturday morning, we would wake up, get dressed, and walk half an hour to our local synagogue with our parents. Yes, we were cold, but we warmed up as our stride and pace increased. We talked about our week at school, our friends, our dilemmas, our concerns with the world…all of it on those walks to synagogue, or “shul” as it is called in Yiddish.
Our shul was our second home. My parents made quick friends within the community. They chaired various events for holidays and celebrations. They became best friends with the warmest friends who felt like family members.
There was something unique about our shul, it was called Ahavat Achim (Brotherly Love). Yes, today that seems as if it is a slogan from the 1960s Woodstock culture. But, this shul was truly a place of love.
Our shul was originally established in nearby Bridgeport, CT. in 1905 to help serve the needs of a growing Jewish population in the area, Eventually, as the Jewish population began to migrate, the shul moved to Fairfield, Connecticut. The congregation grew over the years, and in 1940 it began to serve as a home for Jewish refugees from Hungary. My fondest memories of shul are of our many “Adopted Grandparents” who were Holocaust survivors. They showered us with kisses and hugs, with meals after shul that consisted of Hungarian Chicken Paprikash, followed by delicious Hungarian babka cakes. And, I remember the times that our grandparents would just smile…proud that a young generation was running through the back halls, making noise, and being proudly Jewish.
The chazan (prayer leader) would sing Hungarian and European tunes during the Shabbat and Holiday prayers. The congregation would sing in unison, affirming their right to be in a land that allowed free speech, and freedom of expression of faith. It was a place where love and prayer were intimately bound, where souls connected, and friendships were made. It was a place of LOVE just like its moniker proudly stated on the sign outside, on the front lawn of the shul. It was a place of Higher Ground…a place where one could look UP to God and feel the love, the history, the culture all wound in a tight-knit ball that could not unravel.
I have been thinking about that faraway place….that home away from home recently. The membership of the shul dwindled, as children moved away, congregants became elderly, and the costs and upkeep of a building were unbearable for the mere 80 congregants left. So, the building was sold, and the members of the congregation currently pray in another smaller location every Shabbat and Holiday.
But, I keep thinking about the soul of that shul, of the Hungarian Jewish immigrants who ran away from war, or experienced it and made it to American soil to start a new life. Their sweet souls, what would they say? What would they think of the current Hamas War? Would they cry? Would they be proud of me and my sister for moving to Israel? What advice would they give me and my friends? What wisdom could they give me from their experiences of running away from a Hellish nightmare of the Holocaust…and surviving? I wish I knew….
I think of some of my family’s closest friends from the shul, Julia and Joe Macy. Holocaust survivors who were the true soul of our shul. Their smiles were boundless, their hearts full of love, and their hugs were pure Heaven. My daughter recently saw a picture of Mr. Macy, and someone asked “Do you know who that is?” And she answered “My Great-Grandpa!” Yes, they were family…our members of the heart.
And now, I wish I could sit with Julia and Joe, or give them a call…and ask them what am I supposed to do here, in the War against Hamas? What are Jews around the world supposed to do? How are we supposed to go on, knowing that there are over 200 Hostages in Gaza…deep in tunnels beneath the earth of the blessed land we gave to the Palestinians in 2005. I am sure that they would be crying for our people, for the return to humanity in this cruel reality. They would be praying for a higher moral code of decency, respect, and honor. The type that they thought was fought only 75 years ago. They would be praying for a Higher Ground.
I found myself wondering, how do I seek that Higher Ground? What can I do? I got a call from an old friend who teaches English at our local community Yeshivat Ner Tamid. She told me to come over to talk about a possible food drive for a Northern Israeli base that needs food for Shabbat. She then said, “Oh, we have to go see what’s going on in the Bet Midrash! They are making tzizit for the soldiers there”. And so, we walked over.
What an endeavor! Hundreds of people were learning how to make tzizit, the four-corner garment that every Jewish male wears from age three and above. It is a reminder of the 613 commandments of the Torah (Bible) for every Jewish person. Each day, men say a blessing on this garment, and kiss the fringes during the Shema (Hear O Israel prayer).
The Shema prayer is a simple one….
Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, The Lord is One.שמע ישראל ה’ אלוקנו ה’ אחד
There are several paragraphs that continue after this prayer, but these six simple words are the mainstay of our existence. This is the prayer that many Jewish people say three times a day, or even in times of crisis and pain, times of suffering, and times of conflict. We, the Jewish people, are supposed to remember that Higher Ground. That fact that God is here, He is with us, and He sees us. We have to believe this with every fiber of our being.
The tzizit for soldiers was a project born from a need to be able to give EVERY soldier who wants to wear a set of tzizit has one. Yesterday hundreds of four-cornered garments like these were made by mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, friends, rabbis, teachers, students, and more.
And, as we packed up the tzitzit into boxes, turned out the lights, locked up the Bet Midrash of the Yeshiva, and walked out of the doors. Me and two good friends held onto each other knowing that we did a good thing here. We created a Higher Ground. We found a way to protect our people.
May my Hungarian “Grandparents” smile down upon us now…knowing that we brought a bit of Higher Ground to our troops. We are trying to envelop our IDF with love and protection.
May we all be protected, like the Ancient Hebrews were protected by the Cloud of Glory as they traveled 40 years through the desert as they wandered from Egypt towards the Promised Land.
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NB. Thank you Stevie Wonder for your inspiration from Higher Ground, from his 1973 album Innerversions. This was a song about reincarnation, and the ability to have a second chance.