Those who feel they have been wronged in some deep fashion often believe they have earned the right to treat others as they see fit. The same morality that binds everyone else is simply not applicable to them. Too often victims go on to become abusers, and it is to this point that the Torah offers a powerful ethical message that is essential for the Jewish people to hear after centuries of slavery. Among the litany of laws that Moses communicates to the Jewish people in Parshat Mishpatim, one repeats again and again in the Torah: “You shall not oppress a stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)
Instead of holding on to pain and using it as a weapon, God asks the Jewish people to harness it as a source of empathy and moral responsibility. Because the Jewish people were oppressed, they must now strive never to do the same to others. Some might feel that this is, in fact, an unreasonable request. Can we honestly expect those who have suffered to let go of their pain and dedicate their lives to helping others? There are many who might say no, but I can promise you they never had the honor of meeting Joe Klein. Despite suffering horrors few of us could ever imagine, Joe took his pain and used it to open up his heart to others. He was an extraordinary man. His warm smile and many acts of kindness endeared him to all who crossed his path. To know Joe was to love him because that is the kind of person he was.
When meeting Joe for the first time, one was bound to discover two things. First, that he was a Holocaust Survivor, and second, that he was an active leader of his beloved synagogue. The passion he devoted to both was perpetually inspiring. Joe felt a deep bond with other Survivors. Through their shared experience of pain and loss. Joe understood that Survivors often have unique needs others are not aware of, and therefore, he took it upon himself to look out for them. Joe distinguished himself in his efforts to preserve the memory of the Holocaust both in the Jewish community and beyond. At a time when few Survivors could find the words to tell their stories, Joe became their voice. He would say to me, “Rabbi, I don’t know where the words come from, but I know that I do not have a choice. Of all my family, Hashem saved me, and it must have been for a reason, for a purpose.” For decades Joe would lecture in countless schools so that children from outside the Jewish community could hear about the horrors that had taken place during World War II. He must have spoken hundreds of times educating thousands. It drove him. Even as he got older and his health declined, he continued his efforts. With the knowledge that younger generations would soon lose the opportunity to hear from Survivors firsthand, Joe would not rest if even just one more person could hear his story.
When Joe shared about his experiences during the Holocaust, he spoke not only on behalf of those Survivors who could not, but more importantly, on behalf of the six million who had no voice at all. In telling his story, his words gave them life once more. To this day, I still find myself thinking about the image of Joe, his mother, sister, and baby niece waiting on the line at Auschwitz. When they arrived at Dr. Mengele, he gestured that Joe should be saved and the others sent to the gas chambers. It was for them Joe spoke, for as the Baal Shem Tov taught, “Forgetfulness leads to exile, but remembering is the key to redemption.”
Joe’s love for Warrensville Center Synagogue and later Cedar Sinai Synagogue was infectious and second to none. As he said many times, the shul was not just a place he came to pray. Rather, it was a home and those there his family. Coming to Cleveland as an immigrant and Survivor who had lost so much, the shul became a place where he not only rebuilt his life, but also served as a leader, who gave back in extraordinary ways. Already over the age of eighty, Joe was perhaps the most active member of the shul when I arrived, and nearly a decade later, the same still held true. Joe loved his shul, and everyone there knew that. There was no aspect of the synagogue that did not register his impact during the sixty plus years he was a member. Joe was certainly the best recruiter the shul ever had. Over the years, he encouraged countless people to come and visit the shul on Shabbat, and whether or not they joined, Joe made certain they knew they would always have a home there. Joe was a fixture at daily minyan. He recognized its critical importance to the synagogue life and would do all that he could to come even when it was not easy for him. Joe’s faith and perseverance even during the shul’s difficult days gave us all the strength to continue forward despite whatever obstacles were before us. Without Joe, it is almost certain that the shul would not still be here today.
As I mentioned, Joe excelled at the mitzvah of loving the stranger. I saw this time and time again when he reached out to those in need with no one else to turn to. But most importantly, I experienced it in my own life. Coming to Cleveland as young rabbi knowing few people, I often felt like a stranger. Many in the community have ties going back generations, and even the rabbi of the synagogue can sometimes feel like a stranger. Joe, I think, knew this, and from my first day, he made sure I knew that he would make me feel welcome. Despite the more than five decades between us, he made clear to me that I was his rabbi, and it was very important to him that we be close. We bonded over the fact my grandmother was from Munkatch, as was he, making us landsman. Because my grandmother died before I was born, I would constantly ask Joe to share stories of his life growing up there. Hearing him speak about his childhood felt as if it gave me a window into my own family history. My children always had a great fondness for Joe, in no small part because he loved to give them candy on Shabbat. His only condition was they sit down next to him during the davening for a few minutes. As far as I was concerned, they had no better role model for what it means to really pray with kavannah, intention, in a synagogue.
As much as I felt Joe’s warmth each day, the most profound moments of his love and support occurred on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When the Aleinu is recited on these holidays, there is a custom to fully prostrate oneself on the ground as a sign of the awe and majesty of the day. Every time I would bow down on the bimah and start to slowly get up, I would feel Joe’s arm clasped around me. He didn’t want me to get up alone. He wanted to make sure I knew I had his support. Obviously, I told him he didn’t need to do this. As a man more than twice my age, there was no need for him to help a young, able-bodied rabbi like me climb to my feet. I would tell him the Torah says that the young are supposed to rise for the old, not the other way around. But Joe wouldn’t take no for an answer. He said it was his custom to help the rabbi up after bowing down on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and that nothing was going to change that.
On the holiest days of the year when everyone’s attention is focused on their own prayers, who has the presence of mind to go up on the bimah and help the rabbi? At the beginning, I found it slightly embarrassing, but then I realized something. We all need someone to help us get off the ground sometimes. We all need someone who can help us up, not necessarily because we cannot do it ourselves but because it serves as a reminder that there are always others who cannot and need our help.
As I write these words and think about the precious moments Joe and I shared side by side together on the bimah, I cannot help but get choked up. But I am also able to recognize something else. I am not the only one Joe lifted up when they were down. Every Holocaust Survivor who knew Joe and every member of our shul experienced it at one time or another. Though we have many reasons to be grateful for Joe’s presence in our lives, it is this memory we must hold on to. May it serve as a reminder and inspiration that no matter what pain we carry, we can still find a way to open our hearts towards others.
Joe Klein, a man laid low by that which we cannot ever imagine, somehow found the strength to climb up off the ground, and in doing so, he raised us all up along with him.
תהא נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים
May Joe Klein’s soul forever be bound in the bonds of eternal life
יהי זכרו ברוך
And may his memory forever be a blessing