Friday, June 28, 2013

From Babi Yar to Jerusalem

This past Monday, I stood in Babi Yar, the infamous ravine in Kiev that became a killing field for nearly 34,000 Jews over the course of three days in September of 1941 at the hand of the German SS and local Ukrainians.

My guide for this difficult tour was Idan Peysachovich, a Siberian Jew who made aliyah in 1992 and now works for the Jewish Agency. Locally, the primary mission of the Jewish Agency is to strengthen both Jewish identity and build connectivity to Israel. Within minutes of meeting him, I felt an immediate bond with Idan, who informed me that the work he does is more than a job but entirely bound up in his personal life. He comes to his work on behalf of the Jewish Agency based on the journey he has undertaken as well as a sobering acknowledgement of the history of Jews in his native region.

As we walked towards Babi Yar, Idan told me that he is constantly engaged in the task of looking forward and backwards… at once. The forward glance he casts is towards the hopeful future he is building in Israel with his young family and two children who have rock solid Jewish identities. But he is compelled to look backwards also and contemplate the black pages of the Jewish experience in Kiev.

While Jews have been in Kiev since before the 11th century, there has always been an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in this part of the world, Idan told me. Russian princes would go through towns and let go of their pent-up feeling, looting villages and causing pogroms. These early pogroms culminated in the later pogroms of the 19th and 20th centuries. The pogroms in Odessa were especially fierce.

This was Idan’s way of contextualizing Babi Yar, his way of trying to explain the horror, the inhumanity; the sheer lunacy that led local Ukrainians to massacre their neighbors with their Nazi invaders over the course of three winter days more than seventy years ago.

Approaching the site, Idan wanted to make sure that I, an American Jew, born into the sanity and safety of the second half of the 20th Century, might come to understand where anti- Semitism and hatred can go when unchecked, where people can go when they lose their moral compass and people lose their bearings.

What struck me about Babi Yar is that it is a park, a ravine, in the middle of the city. That surprised me. Babi Yar is a park. It struck me that it could be Central Park. In the days before the massacre, Jews were told to show up with their belongings and papers and they did. They showed up, thinking they would get on a train to another city or be taken to a ship to Palestine or elsewhere.

They had no idea what awaited them.

Babi Yar – where tens of thousands of Jewish men, women and children were gunned down -- is a park. There’s an office building to one side. There are families strolling through it. I took a picture of a man sun bathing. The dissonance of past and presence overwhelmed me.

Idan told me that the doomed Jews encountered three rings of processing when they entered. First there were Ukrainians. Then Ukrainians and German soldiers, regular soldiers with German Shepherds and then, there were the SS Einsatzgruppen.

It was this last group that did the actual shootings into the ravine. Over three days, 34,000 Jews were shot and then thrown into the ravine. Afterwards, the Germans made the townspeople come and burn the bodies to destroy the evidence and protect against disease.

Here’s the thing. In the summer of 2013, Babi Yar seems so normal. I cannot get my head around it. Clearly, at the time of the mass murder of the Jews, the local people knew what was going on. They heard the shooting and the screaming even through the Germans played classical music very loudly and they helped, either in turning in families or in serving as guards or in simply turning a blind eye and allowing their neighbors to be butchered.

Today, there is not much to see in Babi Yar, but there is much to feel and to imagine: the terror of the victims; the cries and pleading and disbelief and desperate hope for a last-minute miracle; the horror of watching loved ones killed before your own eyes; the powerlessness of parents to save their children.

So, what remains of Babi Yar today? There’s a ravine. There’s a menorah and a platform where you can have a memorial ceremony, as we did. And there are the ghosts of the victims and their descendants, the millions of unborn Jews whose lives, as well, were taken by the Nazis.

Yet, it was very moving to be at Babi Yar with the Jewish Agency because thanks to their efforts, it is possible to stand at the very foot of the ravine and look forward with hope about Jewish life in Ukraine and the former Soviet Union.

At the beautiful ceremony I attended, members of the IDF choir sang, Natan Sharansky and Israel’s Minister of Housing spoke, and one of the rabbis of the many local, newly-reinvigorated synagogues led the el maley rachamim prayer and kaddish.

A local young man also recited the words of a four-year-old survivor of Babi Yar whose entire family was betrayed by their nanny while he was inexplicably saved.

Among the songs performed by the IDF choir was Hatikvah.

Awash in so many dark feelings – sorrow, anger, fear of the modern-day anti-Semites now possessed with weapons of mass destruction – I tried to retain a sense of hopefulness.

What I found myself struggling with at Babi Yar was the tension between my fear of resurgent anti-Semitism (as it gets expressed in countries like Iran who call for Israel’s annihilation) and a real deep desire to want to believe – as Anne Frank did -- that deep down, people are good and moral.

I want to believe that through building relationships we can build a better, more just society yet when one goes to a place like Babi Yar, this belief appears naïve. The troubling truth I know is that as Jews, we need to be vigilant.

Leaving Babi Yar we went to the community center of the Jewish Agency and met spirited young people – from their teens to their 30’s – who were part of five different programs that the Jewish Agency sponsors here and in Ukraine. We visited a summer camp for 10-14 year olds and an ulpan for anyone who wants to learn Hebrew.

As I spoke with the proud and enthusiastic young people I met, that elusive sense of hope began to assert itself. Here, Jewish identity burns strongly. It gets expressed through so many ways -- through Taglit/Birthright trips for college-age and young adults; through Masa/through 10-month internship programs and so many other means.

Here, there is a burgeoning Jewish community made up of many communities of many denominations – Reform, Masorti, Chabad, Haredi. Here, there are synagogues and minyanim and prayer services and celebrations: brises, bar mitzvahs and weddings.

It was so uplifting to hear stories of how young Ukrainian Jews – 70-plus years after Babi Yar – are discovering their Jewish identity and wanting to find out more. The summer camps of the Jewish Agency really work. A staggering 6,000 young people attended summer camps this summer through Jewish Agency. Through this experience, they come in contact with their Jewish heritage and were inspired.

And I was inspired to find this outpost of Jewish spiritual reawakening in a place that tried to annihilate Jewish life. No one could have foreseen a flourishing Jewish community after Babi Yar and yet when the Jewish Agency opened their first office in Kiev in 1990, they were betting on hope instead of fear.

My trip to Kiev led me to Israel where I joined hundreds of my colleagues at the Rabbinical Assembly convention yesterday. One person we met with was Yuli Edelstein; once a Soviet Refusnik; now Speaker of the Knesset.  This represents the miracle of the Jewish people; the miracle of Israel.  This is the definition of hatikvah.

It is now erev Shabbat in Jerusalem, the most beautiful and tranquil moment of the week in the most beautiful city in the world. It has been an eventful and emotional week. As I look out over the quiet city, I think back to my visit to Babi Yar and all the people whom I met through the Jewish Agency.

I hear Idan’s voice and it mingles with the memory of the IDF Choir singing Hatikva at the site of that terrible tragedy of our people.

Od lo avda tikvatenu.

We have not lost our hope.

We will never lose our hope.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

My Father's Tallit (A Father's Day Blog)

For working parents of school-age children, the logistical relay race that constitutes our daily lives often makes us feel like we are contestants in a Beat the Clock-style game show.

Between overseeing our children’s schoolwork, physical, spiritual and emotional wellbeing and extra-curricular lives; making deadlines, meetings, planes and trains; charting our own professional achievement; paying bills and attending to relationships, there is scarcely a minute to spare…especially within the instant-response culture created by smart phones and the Internet.

Add to this mix the caretaking responsibilities that go along with aging parents and it is easy to see why members of my generation are especially vulnerable to mental, physical and spiritual burn-out.

Being a rabbi – or member of the clergy – sometimes increases that sense of burn-out exponentially.

I was recently surprised, therefore, by the outpouring of love and nurturing that came my way from my father – courtesy of his Jewish ritual prayer shawl, known in Hebrew as a tallit.

And the remarkable thing is that my father had no idea of the gift he had given me.

On a Monday morning in June, I found myself rushing to the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ to attend the tallit ceremony of Alana, my youngest daughter. Consumed with work matters, I had arrived at her school, a Jewish Day School, without my tallit, forgetting that the day began with the recitation of Shacharit -- the morning prayers.

As I was pulling into the parking lot of the school, I suddenly remembered that my father, also a rabbi, worked at the school teaching advanced rabbinics and I could therefore borrow his prayer shawl…however, this presented a conflict as he would obviously wish to wear his tallit at morning services.

Yet as I entered the school, I remembered that my father would not be in attendance due to a funeral that he had to officiate that same day. I was promptly directed to the area where his prayer shawl was stored.

And here is when the tallit worked its magic on me.

Removing the woolen garment from its case, I was overwhelmed by the fact that the tallit’s scent was just like my father's.

Draping it over my head to recite the blessing, then moving it to my shoulders, I morphed momentarily from an over-committed adult to a boy once again, protected and enveloped by his all-knowing, all-powerful father.

In a flash, I was once again 11 years old, standing in synagogue with my father on a Shabbat morning and it was time for the Priestly Blessing – birkat kohanim. I was standing close enough to my father to feel his heart beating. With one mighty swoop, he draped his tallit over the two of us and we were invincible – a father and his son – in the cradle of God’s love.

On that Monday morning in June I stood, draped in my father’s tallit, feeling love and sorrow flow through me. Things have not always been easy between my father and me. We both lost a wife and mother…twice. I have been critical of decisions he has made. I have felt alone and abandoned, compelled to create my own invincible family to repair what was shattered for me.

Memories of my life with my father washed over me as I inhaled his long-ago scent, imprinted upon the tallit. I remembered the good as well as the sad. I realized that my father imbued me with a love for going to shul and being an active member of USY. He made me feel part of the great fellowship of the Jewish People. He gave me a place in the community and inspired me to become a rabbi myself.

And then I realized that he gave me one of the greatest gifts of all – the insight that the tactile rituals of Judaism are not merely actions, but rich repositories of memories and teaching and embedded meaning.

Had I never stood with my father under his tallit as a child, the experience would not resonate so deeply for me now – in my fatherhood – through a sensory portal.

But I realized something more, and that is, that the act of recalling my father’s influence upon me was the fulfillment of the great Jewish mitzvah of “kibood av v’em,” respect for one’s father and mother.

The realization of what he has given me led to gratitude and then respect. I knew at that moment that my father continues to influence me in ways I had not previously fathomed.

Respect gave way to a new compassion. Life was grueling for the man who twice lost the woman he loved, who was expected to function as a spiritual beacon because he himself was a rabbi, who was supposed to function as a father but felt orphaned instead.

Nor was it easy for me to love and lose my two mothers and even to lose my father for a while as he sorted out his grief.

But love returned to me, manifold.

I am greatly blessed by the love of my wife and three daughters and many dear friends. And I am blessed to be born a Jew, whose tradition is a tactile one...with the challah we taste, spices we inhale, fringes we touch, shofar blasts we hear, the beauty of the world that we behold with wonder and appreciation.

Approaching Father’s Day 2013, I think back to that morning at the Golda Och Academy, to the moment that I recited the blessing, l’hitatef b’tzizit -- which means, quite literally, to wrap oneself in the holy garment of the tallit.

I was reciting the blessing by memory. And then, the memories conjured by my father’s tallit blessed me once again.