A People’s Death and Life (Sermon Preached on Yom Kippur, 1980)

How wonderful it is to look out at a congregation such as you are on this evening.  How uplifting, how inspiring, and not for me alone but for you, too.  It must be elating to sit in a crowded synagogue that reflects vitality and excitement and to be part of a congregation that is completing a new religious school building, showing growth and dynamic life.

Just several weeks ago my wife and I sat at a Shabbat morning service in a historic synagogue in Poland in the city of Krakow, and the walls wept.  The synagogue has been in constant use since 1533.  It is called the Remuh Synagogue.  Remuh, an acronym for Rabbi Meir Isserles, one of the greatest scholars of the Middle Ages, and above his seat in the front of the synagogue a stone plaque proclaims, “Here the great Rabbi communed with God.”  In this venerable synagogue generations of Jews over the centuries prayed and studied, and in the old cemetery adjacent to the synagogue lie buried famed teachers and authors, mystics and pietists.  The tombstones bear names to conjure with in Jewish intellectual and literary history.  More scholars lie at rest in this small cemetery next to the synagogue in Krakow than have been produced by entire countries.  For four hundred years that synagogue was full of life, creative life, inspiring life.  We sat with a bare-minyan, ten or eleven men and one woman, and I suspect several had come because they had been told that we would be in attendance.  The prayer books and the Bibles were musty and torn and not enough to go around.  But what was worse, nobody seemed to notice.  Some people just sat or stood; no effort to utter a word of prayer; and the holy place was disheveled and dirty and begrimed as though no one cared.  We were watching the end of four hundred years of Jewish life.  Death was approaching, and the walls wept.

On these high holy days we prayer for life.  Zakhreinu l’hayyim melekh hafetz bahayyim v’khatveinu b’sefer hahayyim.  “Remember us for life, O Kind who desires life, and write us in the Book of Life.”  This prayer is always expressed in the plural, not the singular.  We pray not only for the lives and lives of those we love, but for the life of our people, the Jewish people – not disappearance, O Lord, but survival; not death, but life.  Zakhreinu l’hayyim.  “Remember us, O Lord, for life,” not a life that is ending but a continuing life, a dynamic life, a creative life.

The Polish Jewry that Was

In Poland several week ago we were witnesses to a saga of life and death.  Speak of Polish Jewry-what great associations come to mind!  Great Jewish communities in dozens of cities, in hundreds of towns, in thousands of shtetlach or villages, and in each place the Jewish population constituted a significant portion, in some places even a majority.  With a history of Jews in Poland going back to the ninth century the Jews helped develop trade and commerce in Poland and in recent centuries industry as well.  And while contributing to the growth of their country, Polish Jews were also making extraordinary contributions to the growth of Jewish learning-great rabbis and famous preachers, scholars in Jewish law and its codifiers, mystics and cabbalists, philosophers and Talmudists.  During the Middle Ages Poland was a refuge for Jewish exiles from Western Europe, and the result was that Poland became the spiritual and cultural center of the Jewish people.  Yeshivot, great academies of Jewish learning, were established in many cities and study was widespread, and the masses of Polish Jews lived an intensive Jewish life marked by faith and piety.  The Hassidic movement flourished in Poland, and great Hassidic Rabbinic dynasties had their origin in that country.  This was Polish Jewry at its peak, at its glory, and before World War II there were well over three million Jews in Poland.

The Polish Jewry that Is

And what did we find of Jewish life in this country of Poland when we were there several weeks ago?  A barren wilderness, an empty desert, a vast nothingness.  How many Jews are there in Poland today?  We asked Moshe Finklestein, the so-called President of the so-called Jewish community of Poland.  “Fifteen thousand,” he replied with a half smile and wink of his eye, as he added, mistama veist ihr az ich muz azoi zagen, “I suppose you know that I must say so.”  We asked a Jewish researcher at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.  He whispered, “Perhaps five thousand Jews in all of Poland.”  Five thousand where once there were over three million!  Maybe fifteen hundred in Warsaw, he said, where once there were about four hundred fifty thousand.  And maybe five hundred in Krakow, where once there were over fifty thousand.  And when we travelled through Poland we had reason to believe that even what he said was an exaggeration.  We were in Lomza – no Jews.  Bialystok – two Jews.  Suwalki – one Jewish woman.  But that is only half the story.  The handful of Jews in Poland are old people living on government pensions.  Nisht genug far’n leben, tzu fihl far’n shtarben, “Not enough to live on,” we were told, “Too much to die on.”  When Moshe Finklestein was asked by one of us, “Is there a cheder, an elementary Jewish religious school, in Poland?” he answered, Fahr vemen?  “For whom?”  And he went on to say, “I’m the youngest-I shall be seventy years old in February!” “Everywhere else in the world,” he said sadly “Dor Holekh v’dor ba.  A generation goes and another generation comes.  Only here for Polish Jews it is Dor Holekh.  A generation goes.”

In Lublin we were amazed to see still standing a magnificent building, the building of the world-famous Yeshivat Hokhmei Lublin, the Yeshiva of the Wise Men of Lublin, but the voices of students studying Talmud are not heard in the corridors, only the sound of footsteps of doctors hurrying to their offices and their laboratories.  The great Yeshiva building now houses an academy of medicine.  The sound of Yeshiva students poring over pages of the Talmud is hushed forever in Poland.

As we looked at six once great synagogues in Krakow, now converted into museums and factories and theaters, we had a horrible thought – a horrible thought that forced itself into our minds – would Jewish tourists visiting America sometime in the future stare at synagogue buildings which because of Jewish apathy and the ignorance of Judaism would possess no more worshippers and be converted into such other uses?  Perish the thought!

On the first day of Warsaw we visited the area where the Warsaw Ghetto used to be.  We were taken to a new high-rise office building in that same area to meet the heads of tourism in Poland.  From the 39th floor we were shown the view-new buildings, new apartment houses, young trees and broad avenues.  We were told, all of this, this entire area was once the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw.  See, we were told, there was Umschlagplatz, where Jews were rounded up each day to board cattle cars for extermination in Treblinka, there, over there, is a monument over Mila 18 – No. 18 Mila Street, beneath which was the bunker where Jewish leaders conducted the battle of the Warsaw Ghetto against the Nazis.  As I looked I thought to myself, all of these new buildings and these wide boulevards are built on the blood and ashes of my people, of hundreds of thousands of my people!  Their blood cries out, but no one hears!  And Warsaw is magnificently reconstructed from the ruins, and the food at the Forum Hotel is delicious, and heavy traffic flows down the avenues.  Everything is so ordinary.  Life goes on in Warsaw; only the Jews are no more there.  And no one gives it a second thought.  I had a dreadful thought – Hitler has won!  Certainly as far as the Jews of Poland are concerned, Hitler has won.

The first sight we saw on that first day was the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw on Okopova Street.  At night when sleep would not come I thought, it was appropriate that we had begun our visit to Poland with a cemetery.  We had come to see the world of the dead; we were visitors from another planet, the planet of the living Jews who had come to explore and observe a dead planet.  And there rang in my ears a prayer that we recite today.  Zakhreinu l’hayyim melekh hafetz behayyim v’khatveinu b’sefer hahayyim.  “Remember us, the Jewish people, for life, O King who desires life, and write us in the Book of Life.”  But the prayer is useless now for the Jews of Poland – once over three million strong, once a great center of Jewish learning.

Jews or Judaism?

But how about us?  How about us, the Jews of America?  The first thing to be said is, it is not enough only to be concerned with the survival of Jews.  That must not be our emphasis or shall we lose the struggle.  Our emphasis has to be on the survival of Judaism, then Jews will survive.  The Holocaust is a searing pain in our hearts, but to brood over it is not the purpose for being a Jew; the anxiety to prevent another Holocaust is not the essential incentive to Jewish activity.  To feel the tragedy and to talk about it does not in itself make us good Jews, for then the Holocaust becomes a surrogate rather than a reminder; then the Holocaust becomes the entire content of Jewish life, and it cannot be if Jewish life is to be.  Professor Neusner of Brown University points out, and I quote him, “The Holocaust and the Redemption (meaning Israel) constitute a central myth by which American Jews seek to make sense of themselves and to decide what to do with that sizeable part of themselves set aside for being Jewish.”  But that is a vicarious way of living as a Jew.  It is not your own life that is being Jewish, you identify something far away with being Jewish, the Holocaust or Israel.  Our purpose as Jews in America is not only to remember the Holocaust, and remember it we should; not only to help build Israel, and help we should.  We exist in order to prevent not our own destruction, but to advance our special assignment, embodying the ageless values which are our raison d’être.

We must shift the current emphasis from survival of Jews to survival of Judaism, for without Judaism Jewish survival is both questionable and meaningless. The slogan, “Never Again,” that we saw as the monument to eight hundred thousand dead Jews at Treblinka is a slogan to be adopted by non-Jews.  It is for them to say “Never Again,” but for Jews “Never Again” is a poor substitute for the purposeful Jewish living as a potent driving force to promote Jewish vitality.  We should see the Holocaust and the death of the Jews of Poland and Jewish life in that country not as a reason for perpetual despair, but as goad for affirmative Jewish living in order to assure the survival of Judaism.  We cannot bring back the Jews killed in Poland, but we can revive the Judaism that once flourished in Poland.  It is not enough to know that Peretz lies buried in the Okopova Cemetery in Warsaw, it is more important to know what Peretz wrote.  It is important to visit the Remuh Synagogue in Krakow, but it is more important to study what the Remuh taught.  It is painful to see the buildings in Lublin, occupied for so many years by a great Yeshiva, now empty of Jews, but it is more important to study the Talmud that was once studied there.  Obsession with the dead Jews of the Holocaust dare not lead to the neglect of living Jews and the life of Judaism.

A great monument stands in an open square that was once the center of the Warsaw Ghetto.  It is a heroic tribute to the Jewish fighters in the battle of the Warsaw Ghetto.  The sculptor, Nathan Rapoport, is sitting in our congregation tonight and he is presently completing the sculptures to be affixed to the façade of our new building.  In the front of the Warsaw monument there are two large menorahs, and an agreement with the Polish government provided that the two menorahs were to be kept burning always as a Ner Tamid, as an Eternal Light.  But the agreement has not been observed.  The menorahs are dark, the Eternal Light does not exist.  The light is out.  Symbolic of the light of Polish Jewry, it is extinguished.  It will burn no more-no more, but the rabbis in the Talmud taught Orah zu Torah.  Light-that is Torah!  The light of the learning, the light of study of Judaism.  If it is extinguished in Poland, it can be lit again and burn more strongly in America.  If the Eternal Light is dark in Warsaw, it can become brighter in New York.  Teachers teaching Judaism, students learning Judaism, Jews living Judaism-that is the purpose of being a Jew in America, not survival alone but survival for a reason, for a purpose, and the purpose is the medium.

Our New Building

That is the greater significance of what we as a congregation are doing in constructing a new Hebrew school building.  We are dedicating it to the million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis, and the sculptures that will be affixed to the façade of the new building will portray Dr. Janusz Korczak and his children.  He was born Henrik Goldschmidt of an assimilated Jewish family in Poland.  He became a pediatrician, but he was interested more in how to raise children to become self-fulfilled mature men and women.  His books on that subject – and he used the pen-name Janusz Korczak – brought him international renown.  He established an orphan asylum in Warsaw in order to test out his theories, and when the Jews were confined to the ghetto he moved his children and the orphan asylum into the ghetto.  One night he was ordered to bring his two hundred children the next morning to the Umschlagplatz for transport to Treblinka and extermination.  Eyewitnesses say, they marched in their best clothing.  One little boy who loved music was playing the violin, and Dr. Korczak was leading them.  When they came to the Umschlagplatz the Nazi commandant told Dr. Korczak he had received instructions from his superiors, who know of Dr. Korczak’s fame and his accomplishments with children.  The instructions excused Dr. Korczak from going to Treblinka.  But he denied the favor.  He said that without him the children would be terrified.  The last sight seen of him was as he went up the ramp into the cattle car, his arms outstretched protecting his children.  That is what you will see in the sculpture on the façade of our new building.

We are remembering the past-Are we not?-but we are building for the future.  In the evening following that first shattering day in Warsaw one of our companions on the journey, a man who had been in and out of half a dozen concentration camps, said to me, “That is why what you people at the Park Avenue Synagogue are doing is so important.  Dr. Korczak and his children will live through the sculptures.”  I thought to myself, true, but our school where Jewish children will learn and grow to be informed and committed Jews will be the great, the most meaningful monument.  In living Jewish children the Ner Tamid will be a continuing light burning brightly as it once did in Poland.  That night I thought of the work of Nathan Rapoport that we had seen that day in Warsaw, the monument to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto and the monument in the Jewish cemetery of Mordecai Anilewitz, the leader of the Jewish ghetto fighters of Warsaw, and I linked them with the sculpture that Nathan Rapoport is working upon now soon to be on our building.  How fortunate is the sculptor, I thought!  He is giving them all new life.  He is like God himself, involved in the act of creation.  But not quite.  The sculptor cannot breathe into his figures of bronze and stone the ruah hahayyim, the breath of life-that, only God can do.  And we in our congregation, we can be shutafim l’hakadosh barukh hu b’maasei vereshit, we can God’s partners in the act of creation, through not only a bronze sculpture, but especially by building a school for living children, for they represent continuing Jewish life in America.  They are the future not only of Jews but of Judaism, and when Judaism is meaningful, when Judaism is lived, then Jews will live.

I was told a story of what happened in one of the concentration camps one winter when Hanukkah came.  The Jews in one of the barracks wanted to celebrate Hanukkah, but how could they?  There was no menorah, there were no candles. This is what they did.  In the heavy dust on a barracks window a Jew burned a menorah, then he cut his hand and with his blood he drew burning candles on the menorah, and they sang the berakhot and Maoz Tzur.  This coming Hanukkah we shall celebrate and sing and light the menorah in great joy, for during Hanukkah week we shall we dedicating our new school building and the new magnificent sculptures, and the light will burn brightly not only during that Hanukkah week but for all time to come, the light of Jewish learning as a Ner Tamid, as an Eternal Light.

Will you have a share in it-will you be a shutaf l’hakadosh barukh hu, a partner to God?  Will you play your part in assuring the completion of our new magnificent school building?  It represents the achievement of a long time goal and we have such reason to be proud of this superb accomplishment.  Magnificent classrooms and a splendid learning and reading center, a larger chapel for children’s services, a playground on the roof, and a beautiful new hall of worship.  It is a turning point in the life of our congregation, a source of joy for the entire community.  Already we have the largest school enrollment for this year that we have ever had, and we have now the largest congregational membership in our history.  Only one thing remains-to cover the final phase of construction and the furnishings on a pay-as-you-go basis.  This congregation has always demonstrated its vision, its courage, its generosity.  Let us not falter as we reach the final phase.  Let us all participate in the joy of accomplishment.  I ask you, add a gift to the building fund this year so that the new building will be completed and furnished.  You will feel better for it and the New Year will have started off right.

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This is a tribute to Rabbi Judah Nadich z"l and Martha Hadassah Ribalow Nadich z"l, created and maintained by their family. If you have a memory or thought to share, please submit it to nadichblog at gmail dot com.

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