Nothing can ever break you
Shmuel Rufeisen was born a Jew in Poland in 1922. During the Holocaust, he obtained the papers of a German Christian and made his way to Mir in Belarus, where he served as a translator to the Gestapo commander there. Rufeisen used his position to warn Jews of upcoming Nazi actions and smuggled weapons for the Jewish underground operating in the Ghetto. When he learned the date on which the town’s Jews were to be deported for extermination, he warned the community. This saved the lives of three hundred Jews who managed to escape to the forest.
When the Gestapo discovered him, he found refuge in a monastery. Unfortunately, he soon converted to Christianity, ultimately becoming a friar with a monastic order located in the Stella Maris Carmelit Monastery in Haifa. He was known as “brother Daniel.”
In 1958, Rufeisen appealed to the Israeli government to be recognized as a Jew and granted citizenship under the Law of Return. He claimed that despite his conversion to Christianity, he had been born a Jew and remained a Jew by ethnic and cultural origin.
When the government refused, the case was taken to the Supreme Court of Israel, which upheld the government’s decision. A Christian friar, they ruled, is not a Jew.
Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling? I’d love to hear your opinion.
The answer to this enigma lies in the inspirational words of one of the worst antisemites of our history in the Torah portion Balak. A powerful Saudi Arabian Prophet named Bilaam was hired to curse the Jewish nation but wound up blessing them with some of the most incredible blessings we have ever experienced. His blessings were so fundamental that the sages wanted to include them in the daily Shema prayer, opting against it only because it would make the Shema too long! The most celebrated blessing of the portion is “He crouches and lies like a lion, like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Those who bless you are blessed, and those who curse you are cursed.”
What’s the big deal with being blessed to be a crouching lion?
The Rebbe explains that a lion is always a lion, even when he’s laying lazily in the sun. Though he spends over 20 hours of each day doing absolutely nothing, at any moment he can spring into action; with one ferocious roar, he can remind all those around him who the king of the jungle really is!
I vividly recall the date of November 2, 1993, when news broke in South Africa about a group of unsuspecting Chinese tourists who had decided to step out of their safari vehicle to get better photos of the sleeping lions that seemed so harmless. In a flash, they were severely wounded by the lions that jumped at them before they could even react. Indeed, the Talmud rules that, despite the futile attempts of circuses around the world, a lion can never be tamed. Sadly we hear of stories, every once in a while, of lions turning on their trainers.
The beauty of Bilam’s blessing is that a Jew is always like a lion. Though he might seem like he is asleep or out of touch, his Jewish soul always burns brightly within him and at any moment and without warning, it can come back to full strength.
How many times in our history have we teetered on the verge of extinction? When Mordechai was the lone Jew who refused to bow to Haman in Ancient Persia; when the valiant Maccabees fought the mighty Greek army while the vast majority of world Jewry had voluntarily assimilated into the Greek culture; when the Nazis snuffed out half of the world Jewish population and the vast majority of observant Jews— we have always bounced back and landed on our feet. Despite the most dismal odds, we have always managed to spring back into action, far outliving our much greater and stronger enemies, who today are nowhere to be found!
There are so many things that can break you if there is nothing to hold you together. The secret to our incredible resilience is the Jewish soul that burns within each and every Jew. It is literally a piece of G-d and, like Almighty G-d, is indestructible. No power or pain can put out its flame. Despite all of the most sincere attempts from both antisemites and Jews to snuff it out, this indefatigable spirit continues to shine within each and every Jew!
This is why our Jewish identity, unlike our nationality, profession, or ideology, is inherited from generation to generation. Because being a Jew is not about what you do, it’s about who you are.
And that’s why we Chabadniks love every single Jew, without ifs, ands, or buts, regardless of what you believe or don’t believe. We love you just the way you are because of who you are!
It was a typical evening for Rabbi Shlomo Koves, a Chabad Rabbi in Budapest. He had just finished giving a class in the shul and was getting ready to go home when he received a text message: “Hi, this is Csanad Szegedi, and I’d like to meet you.”
For a Rabbi in Hungary, meeting Szegedi was like meeting the Satan. Szegedi was a high-ranking leader of Jobbik, a neo-Nazi party known for its rabid antisemitism.
Already as a child, he was selling black shirts with Swastikas, and he was a founding member of the “Hungarian Guard,” a since-outlawed militia that threatened minorities across the country. They would arrange marches whose participants torched Israeli flags and chanted, “Go back to Auschwitz.” Szegedi was a man you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.
Now, however, he was looking to talk with a Rabbi. Koves agreed to meet him at the Rabbi’s home. Szegedi arrived looking very confused, and when he began to talk, the Rabbi thought he was hallucinating. Szegedi explained that rivals within his party had scooped up the ultimate “dirt” on him—revealing that his grandmother—his mother’s mother—had been Jewish and was a survivor of Auschwitz. For decades, she had tried valiantly to hide her past, but now the secret was out: Szegedi the antisemitic nationalist, was one hundred percent Jewish himself.
Szegedi was in shock. He tried to understand what a Jew is and what it means to be Jewish and why he suddenly had to lose his rising career just because of his grandmother. The Rabbi explained that, according to Jewish law, Judaism passes by birth through one’s mother, and Szegedi came to terms with the fact that things would no longer be the same for him. Sure enough, he resigned from the party and embarked on a journey of self-discovery. A few weeks later, he met with the rabbi again, expressing his wish to join the Jewish community.
Rabbi Koves was speechless. Could he accept a person who just weeks ago had spewed vile antisemitism, who tried to turn Hungary into a powder-keg of hatred? became a heated debate. Elderly Jews, Holocaust survivors, who were afraid to walk in the street due to Szegedi’s hateful rhetoric, were horrified at the idea of him sitting next to them in Shul. Should everything be forgiven, just because he decided overnight to become a nice guy?
Koves raised the matter with Rabbi Baruch Oberlander, chief Chabad Rabbi of Hungary and head of the Rabbinical Court there. After examining the relevant Halachic works, he was unsure what to do, until he remembered something he’d once heard from the Rebbe. The Rebbe had told the following story:
The Maggid of Mezritch once called for his student Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, and said, “Meilech, you hear what they’re saying in Heaven? Love for a fellow Jew means to love a complete rasha (wicked person) just like you love a complete tzaddik (righteous person).”
Remembering this, Rabbi Oberlander thought, “Who were they talking about in Heaven, if not exactly this kind of person?”
Then and there he made a firm decision to put Szegedi’s past aside, giving him a chance to turn a new leaf with the Jewish community. And he didn’t regret it. Szegedi became a sincerely observant Jew and an active member of the Jewish community who avidly combats antisemitism by sharing his story around the world.
Can you love your fellow Jew this much?
Like a lion that never loses his nobility, a Jew is always a Jew.
No matter how hard the wind is blowing against you, remember that while our hearts may be broken, our spirits will be woken.
Whatever I’m going through right now is building me, not breaking me. Because the days that break you are actually the days that make you!
Indeed, in his will, Shmuel Rufeisen wrote: “I experienced everything in my lifetime, and I no longer fear death. I am afraid of memory. I don’t know if I am to be doomed or spared, but from all the things you may know about me, I would like you to remember that I was born a Jew, and died a Jew”.
Just as we now are more conscious of the invisible germs on doorknobs, dollar bills, and car keys, so can we shift our awareness when viewing our fellow jews— to always see the beautiful G-dly soul, their Neshama within.