A text version of my remarks from this past Shabbat (7/6/19) –
As I think most of you know our Beth El group has just returned from its Eastern European trip. In a ten day span we visited four cities – Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and Berlin. A trip to Eastern Europe that focuses on Jewish history is not ‘fun’ – it is not a vacation that you return from feeling refreshed or recharged. Each day you wrestle with difficult and often painful moments from the history of our people. You are faced with questions that often are unanswerable. A trip to Israel is celebratory, you are rejoicing in what has been found. But a trip to Eastern Europe is elegiac, you are mourning what was lost.
At least for me that sense of loss was pervasive, as day after day we were reminded of Jewish communities that had once been centers of Jewish life that no longer existed. It is often striking to me how the Torah portion we read on any given week will in some way reflect the lives we live and the issues with which we wrestle. This week our portion is Korach, which tells the tale of the ill fated rebellion that Korach and his followers launch against Moses and Aaron. You’ll remember the narrative – Korach publicly challenges Moses, accusing him of setting himself above and apart from the people. Moses responds, telling Korach there will be a public ritual, almost like a spiritual shoot out, between Moses and Korach and his followers.
The very next day the ritual is enacted. Korach and his followers on one side, Moses on the other. At the moment of confrontation, what is it that happens? The earth opens, and Korach and his followers are swallowed up, never to be seen again. Here is the verse from the Torah that describes that moment: וירדו הם וכל אשר להם חיים שאולה – they went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them – ותכס עליהם הארץ – and the earth closed over them – ויאבדו מתוך הקהל – and they vanished from the midst of the community. I’ll give you just the English so you can hear it straight – “They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them, the earth closed over them, and they vanished from the midst of the community.”
That is what happened to Jews of Europe. Before the war in Warsaw had the second largest Jewish community in the world, second only to New York City – 350,000 Jews lived there, close to %30 of the city’s population. Today there are fewer that 2,000 Jews. And that is a story told in one way or another in every major eastern European city. To sum it all up, before the way 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland alone, and today there are fewer than 10,000. Literally town by town, community by community, city by city, the Jews of Eastern Europe were swallowed up by Nazi Germany, like a great, vast chasm had opened up in the earth, and almost over night they were gone. Some 75 years later the Jewish population of the world has still not recovered. Before the war there were more than 16 million Jews in the world. Today there are maybe 15 million, almost all of them living in Israel and here in the US.
So our group struggled with that pervasive sense of loss. We said kaddish near a barbed wire fence in Birkenau. We walked through a crematorium in Auschwitz, our heads low and our eyes cast to the ground. We stood at the platform of track 17 just outside of Berlin, where the Germans had deported Jews, sending them from their homes to the camps, never to return. And we walked through the sumptuous halls and gardens of the villa where the Wannsee conference was held and the details of the so called Final Solution were meticulously discussed and recorded. These are experiences that can not be summed up in a sermon, experiences that I think we will all be pondering for a long time.
But as difficult as the trip was at times there were moments of light and life. In Krakow we had dinner at the vibrant JCC, the center of Jewish life in that area. Johnathan Ornstein, the charismatic director, spoke with us about his mission of revitalizing Jewish life in Krakow. He told us stories about young Poles discovering that they had a Jewish grandparent, or even a Jewish parent, and that they were coming, one by one by one, to the Krakow JCC to explore what that means, and to think about Judaism and Jewish life. When we left the building that evening the JCC’s courtyard was filled with young people dancing and singing, drinking and eating, and we couldn’t help but feel the energy and the sense of hope that Jewish life could continue to grow there.
On Shabbat, on Friday night, we davened in the Maisel shul, a synagogue from the 1500s that is now a museum of Jewish life in Krakow. A small Jewish community led by a young rabbi meets each week, holds services, sings and prays, and maintains a sense of Jewish community and ongoing Jewish life. As our Cantor and members of our congregation helped to lead the service we truly felt part of a world wide Jewish community, supporting one another, caring for each other, and sharing in our common history and brotherhood.
The tour guides we had in both Prague and Berlin were Jewish, having grown up in Israel and moved at some point to Europe where they now make their lives. They were proud of their Jewish identities, proud to be guiding a group of Jews, and I believe they felt that part of their mission was to not only convey to us the history, but to remind the cities we visited that there is a vital and vibrant world wide Jewish community, that Jews will come to visit Eastern Europe and by doing so we bear witness to what happened, but we also symbolize the ultimate failure and defeat of the Nazis. At Birkenau and also track 17, after we said the kaddish we chanted the Shema, as if to say despite what we’ve seen we still have faith, despite what happened here Judaism survives and thrives, despite the sadness we might feel we still hope. Hope beats so powerfully in the Jewish heart, and עם ישראל חי – and the Jewish people continue to live!
One last vignette. Our farewell dinner took place at an elegant restaurant in Berlin. Towards the end Dr. Bor played a few songs on his clarinet, with the Cantor singing along. Suddenly he played the opening notes of Hatikvah, and we all stood up, singing together Israel’s national anthem, a song entitled the Hope that is a symbol of Jewish freedom and the Jewish future. The lyrics of the song were written by an Eastern European Jew named Naftali Herz Imber in the late 1880s. It was a striking moment, and a striking way to conclude our trip – a group of Jews from Baltimore, singing the lyrics composed by a Jew who lived his life in the lands through which we had just traveled, lyrics that became the national anthem of the homeland of the Jewish people, and singing those words together, publicly, in the heart of Berlin.
This is a translation of the words you know so well in the Hebrew – As long as within our hearts the Jewish soul sings, as long as towards the east, towards Zion, looks the eye – our hope is not yet lost. It is 2000 years old – to be a free people, in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.