I officiated at a wedding not quite two weeks ago that, by all external criteria, looked much like many of the hundreds of weddings I’ve officiated at over the last thirty years.
The bride and groom were gloriously happy, the setting was lovely, she walked around him seven times, the guests had a wonderful time… it all looked “right.” But just six years ago, I first met the bride when she was Catholic, and — most significantly — a 28-year-old licensed guide at the Auschwitz-Birkenau “museum” in Poland.
Back in 2005, I led a group from my synagogue- the Forest Hills Jewish Center- on a mission to Poland and Israel. We of course visited all of the major Holocaust related sites in Poland, and by the time we arrived at Auschwitz, towards the end of our time in Poland, we were already filled with that sense of outrage and sadness that walking those streets and feeling those feelings can generate.
Against all odds, our guide at Auschwitz, Anna, somehow managed to penetrate our collective sense of horror and help us understand that she, too- as a child born and raised in Oswiecim after the war, the town that the Germans renamed Auschwitz, deeply understood what had happened there, and what it represented for Jews, and indeed for all of humanity. There was just something about her that shone through, some fundamental humanity and kindness that, to a one, we all were able to detect- even an Auschwitz survivor who was part of our group.
Upon our return to New York from what had clearly been a transformative experience for all of us, I wrote an article about this young woman for The Jewish Week titled “A Ray of Hope at Auschwitz.” And, fatefully, I invited Anna to come to New York to serve as a weekend scholar-in-residence at my synagogue, believing that she could share with our membership what she had shared with us in Poland. Anna accepted. There were those in my synagogue who had serious misgivings about the idea, and some were quite upset. But the weekend program was a great success.
There was one other significant success that owes to that weekend. Some months before then, Anna had met a wonderful man in Poland named Stephen who remained in touch with her, and told her that if she ever came to the States … So after Shabbat in New York, she went to visit Stephen —very much a Jew — and thus began one of the great long-distance love stories that you might imagine. He, because of his work with the Jewish community, traveled regularly to Eastern Europe. She, as an emerging young scholar, was increasingly being drawn to the States. Somehow their connection transcended the difficulties, and they fell very much in love.
From there, the story just gets more remarkable.
In the years that followed, as her relationship with Stephen grew deeper and more serious, Anna and I —and our family —became good and close friends. And slowly- hesitantly at first, but then resolutely- Anna began to study with me for conversion. It was far from even being a topic of discussion when we first met, but everything about her life was changing.
As both an undergraduate and graduate student in Jewish studies in Poland, Anna already knew more about Judaism and Jewish life than many Jews I know, and she even had a working knowledge of Hebrew. But still, learning Judaism and living it are two very different things. E-mails, reading lists, long trans-oceanic conversations, Passover Seders, and also extended stretches of daily, in-person study over a summer vacation brought her to the point where she was ready. In the fall of 2010, Anna appeared before a beit-din that I convened here in New York, immersed in a mikvah, and became Channah bat Avraham v’Sarah.
And so it was that, just about two weeks ago, I officiated at the joyous and beautiful wedding of two special Jews, with quite a few family and friends from Poland in attendance. At the wedding, I consciously tried to take a step back from what was happening and just take it all in, but each time I did, I just shook my head in disbelief. I couldn’t have made it up if I tried.
This is one of those stories that resonates with meaning on multiple levels, and there are many ways to tell it. It has, of course, a Holocaust dimension, and it is also a testament to the power of love to overcome even the greatest of obstacles.
But the more I consider it, the more I come to believe that it is also about the possibility of changing one’s life in previously unimaginable ways. Well in advance of the High Holidays, I find myself in awe- no pun intended- of the possibility of life taking unanticipated twists and turns. Usually, we focus on this when the twists and turns work against us. But sometimes- sometimes- change is and we just don’t know it.
Perhaps the most significant layer of meaning for the story of Anna and Stephen is never to give up on finding happiness. Destinies can change. Sondheim said it so well. “Who knows? It’s only just out of reach, down the block, on a beach…maybe tonight!”
Gerald C. Skolnik is rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, and vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly.