Why I Became a Rabbi: Prague Revisited
A number of times in recent years, I have been asked why I became a rabbi. Each and every time, I answered that it’s a long story, that I had been “drafted” and left the discussion at that. But I knew that the time would come when I would feel comfortable enough to tell you what led me to this place in my life, why I become a rabbi. It’s a really hard story for me to tell, because the experiences which led me to understand what I had to do with my life were all incredibly deep and intense experiences.
I want to share that story, which is a tale of two cities, which are really one, and two people, who are really one person. It’s the story of being touched, and the changes that can happen in a life when it is touched by the memories of people who are no more.
My life changed as a result of a mission I participated in to Prague and to Israel in 1986. I have written about that experience, and the impact it had on me, and I have spoken often of it when I talk about both the Holocaust and our role in caring for other Jews, other people in need.
I went to Prague because I knew I had to. I was called. I had taken my students in Cincinnati to see the Precious Legacy exhibition, pieces from the Museum of an Extinct Nation planned and curated by the Nazis, when it was in Detroit, and I just knew that when UJA announced a Singles Mission to Prague and Israel, I had to go. I had to see it for myself.
Prague is a very beautiful city, and when I was there in 1986, it was very clearly frozen in the 1930’s. Our tour guide pointed out to us that in Prague they do not need museums; the entire city is a museum. It had not changed for decades. Everything was perfectly preserved, and completely dead. Under the Communists, the Precious Legacy of the Jews was indeed cherished as a national treasure, as were all of the churches and cathedrals of this ancient and beautiful city. But religion was dead. We visited, with our government-trained tour guide, a shrine where Christian pilgrims used to go. She noted “There are no pilgrims now.” What was once holy now was simply a memory, Jewish or otherwise.
There is a bridge between the castle and the Jewish ghetto, over the Vlatava (or Moldau) River. On the bridge there are statues of Jesus at different points of his life, culminating with the statue closest to the ghetto of Jesus on the cross. On his right side, over his head, and on his left side are the words in golden Hebrew letters “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh.” Over his chest “Adonai Zevaot.” (Holy Holy Holy, Adonai of Hosts) We knew what this statue was about, what an insult it is to the Jews. But to the hundreds of people who passed it daily, it had no meaning whatsoever. You can’t insult an extinct people.
It was simply a tour until Saturday morning, when we visited the Alt-Neu Shul, the oldest synagogue still in use in the world. In addition to the 21 people in our group, there were 9 old men, and a government spy/rabbi (he must have had an interesting job description). Though there was a sign posted for tourists to keep out, they just kept flowing in and out. In some ways, it felt like a museum with a live exhibit.
Mid-way through the services, a youngish woman (about 30 years old) in a blue dress, looking like Meryl Streep with dark hair, came in and things started to buzz. She heard there were single Jewish men here from the U.S. and she wanted help from us. She hoped for a quick marriage, or promise of help in some way to get her out of Czechoslovakia. We were told by our “scholar-in-residence” that we could do nothing for her: she could be a government “plant” to disrupt the flow of missions to Prague.
So there we were, having learned all about the failure of the past generation in responding quickly enough to Jews under the Nazis. We thought we could do better. We went to see the past, but were hit in the face with a present no better. I have no doubt that she was real; I also have no doubt that I participated in the abandonment of a fellow Jew.
Later that day, we visited the Jerusalemska Shul, which is outside of the ghetto. We were told it was closed for the summer. It wasn’t. We were simply to have no contact with the few people who risked their lives to attend services there. It is a magnificent building. Built in the Moorish style in 1909, outside the ghetto, it was a “Reform” synagogue, as demonstrated by the ornate pipe organ in the back wall of the building. It looks just like the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, but it is mostly blue. It was perfectly preserved, with the exception of the lack of carpets and cushions (which simply did not fit within the Communist context - why waste money on carpet maintenance?). I opened a shtender, and found a siddur from 1926. Perfect condition. It was also perfectly dead.
Above the gold-colored Ark, which was opened with a crank in a nook not visible to the congregation, there is a balcony with a baby grand piano. Perhaps because we had spoken earlier in the day about Smetena, the Czech composer whose tone-poem The Moldau is based on the same folk music as Hatikvah, which means hope, one of the members of our group sat down at the piano, and tried to play the music. The piano was in such disrepair that it could not be played. In this place the sound of hope was not audible. This was a place devoid of hope.
We should have seen this place with some life in it. We should have seen it with children on Purim, or Simchat Torah. Instead we saw the death of this congregation. The Jerusalemska Shul is dead, and we were walking in its grave.
The following day, we visited Terezin. I don’t want to describe the place in all its details. Suffice it to say that it was a village before the war, and has returned to be a village now. People go about their lives, shop, do laundry, garden, in the very places where we were tortured. There was a lovely huge red 5 pointed star in flowers in the square where there once were gallows. You’d never know what this place was used for.
Outside of the village, there is a field dominated by a large Menorahnext to the crematorium. The Nazis dumped ashes in the field. In 1943, on Tu b’shvat, a sapling was smuggled into Terezin, and planted by some of the children. After the camp was liberated in 1945, the tree was transplanted into the field of ashes. There now stands a beautiful maple tree, composed of and nourished by the ashes of the children who planted it. The tree survived. The children didn’t.
I took a leaf from the tree, and brought it with me the next day to Israel. When we got to the bus outside of the Airport in Tel Aviv, our typical Israeli tour guide, cigarette in his mouth, big pot belly, asked where we were from. We said Prague. He looked twice at us and said, “Then welcome home.” There I was with that leaf.
For the next two days, I was overwhelmed with the sense of how bizarre it all was. The singing and dancing Israeli kids, many of whom were Ethiopian, who were rescued by UJA, by the American Jewish community, from the fate of the children of my leaf. Life out of the ashes. On my 30th birthday, I went up to Jerusalem and brought that leaf to the Kotel, the Western Wall and left a part of it there. The remainder I brought home with me, to remember. But it haunted me. I could not possess such a thing. I took the leaf with me to a Federation Board meeting, to show the Board what I had touched. I never opened my briefcase, into which I had put the leaf, for the next six months, though I brought it with me to and from work daily, so no one should know. I toted that leaf around knowing its place was certainly not Cincinnati.
During my next trip to Israel, six months later, I buried the remainder of the leaf in the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. A small symbolic part of those children had come to rest among our people.
After seeing Jesus surrounded by an affirmation in Hebrew of holiness, after abandoning a Jew in a situation not unlike that of 45 years earlier, after walking in the grave of the Jerusalemska Shul, and after touching and being touched by the children who planted that tree, I was essentially different. I could not go back to living my life as I had been living. I can’t really define the connection, but after that mission, I realized that I have a right to live my life to its fullest, to be proud of who I am, to work on behalf of other people whom I could help, and to make a difference in their lives. The children in Terezin were robbed of their lives; I could not let that happen to me.
I found that I needed to go out and do more for the Jewish people than I could achieve in my school. So I took a life-detour and became a Federation Campaign Director. It was not my goal. It was not my dream.'
Fast forward now to six years later. Now I was a staff person for a Federation which had an unusually large delegation for the National major gifts mission to Prague and to Israel. Despite the fact that I had already given notice of my intention to leave the Federation, I was needed for this mission. When I went to Prague the first time, I had no expectation of ever going there again. But since I had been there before, I knew what to expect, and I knew the lay people. So despite my personal desire not to go back, I went.
It’s the same city, but a totally different place now that the Communists are gone. The first thing to strike me was the smog. You think LA is bad? The first time I was in Prague the air was pristine. No one could afford gas, no less cars. There was no traffic whatsoever. Now there was no air, and traffic to rival the worst I have ever seen.
The museum of an extinct nation was being handed over to the remnants of the Jewish community. In transition, it was very strange. Tourists from all over Europe came to this museum which had an atmosphere not unlike Disneyworld. I have rarely seen such crowds anywhere. I just couldn’t figure out why.
We visited some of the same sights I saw on my first trip, but I did not ask to (nor did I) see the Jerusalemska Shul. This was not a trip of death - it was a trip of rebirth. Out of the ashes and repression, Prague’s Jewish community is coming back to life. We were there to witness the first monument dedicated to the memory of the people deported from Prague, noting for the first time that they were deported because they were Jews. This was a completely different place. (The “rabbi/spy” was run out of town almost immediately after the revolution.) Where there had been no hope, hope was renewed.
At Terezin, I arranged a few special services. It was really important for me to be there in a leadership role. I knew there were some things I needed to say, that I needed to hear. We visited the tree, and there read poetry by the children of Terezin and said kaddish for them. We laid flowers in the field.
I watched the people in the group walk back to the bus, and I said my own farewell to that place, and my regret about the leaf. I realized how much my life had changed since the first time I had been there, and I worried about what was in store for me now.
I was moved by the experience of Prague and Terezin this time in a very different way. It tore at my heart, yet I felt, in some ways, closure. I had come back, and in some ways said what I needed to so I could stop grieving.
After this whole emotional day, we did what Jews do best with emotional situations: we sat down for a picnic. As I said, I had a delegation of 10 people from North Jersey with me, as a part of the full contingent of 50 people in the group. We were eating, I was still a little shaky, and this couple from Florida came up to me and asked, “Where are you the rabbi?” I told them that I was not a rabbi. They said, “Really?” And walked away, looking very confused. There, in that place. At that time. Just after I asked the tree “what next?” It was obvious to them that I was a rabbi. The only one who was avoiding it was me. I never got the names of those people from Florida, nor did I see them again during the trip. They were, for me, messengers.
I was ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion four years after hearing from strangers in Terezin who I really was. Just as I did not choose to be “twice blessed” (Jewish and gay), I also really did not choose my calling, but rather chose to listen, accept and see myself as a reflection of God’s love. Living with these blessings, though, helped me to be particularly sensitive to people who were struggling with their own faith and perception of God. I became very involved as a layperson in Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York, the world’s largest gay and lesbian synagogue, and realized that part of my journey had to be in working with people living with HIV/AIDS. I was in “ground zero” of a plague affecting so many young lives, people who were just like me. I had to respond.
I was ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion 16 years after I first entered Rabbinical School. (Right out of college, I was accepted into Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and studied there for one year before I withdrew because I could not reconcile my sexual orientation with the rabbinate.) During the process I became the Associate Executive Director of the AIDS Interfaith Network of New Jersey and wrote Being A Blessing: 54 Ways You Can Help People Living with AIDS (published in 1994 by Alef Design Group). After ordination, I became the Director of Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services (LAJAS), a program of Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles. The program flourished, until, thank God, it became obsolete. It also taught me, though, that a caring community can and should be available for people living with all kinds of serious illness; HIV/AIDS was a starting point for me. I saw that there were tremendous opportunities to apply what we had learned and done in the HIV/AIDS community to people living with serious illness and their loved ones in the Jewish community. The San Diego Jewish community welcomed me as their first Jewish Community Chaplain, and we built ways of creating caring community for people living with serious illness.
We are formed and changed forever by those who came before us. Some we have known, and some we never got to meet. There is no one to say kaddish for so many of the six million Jews whose lives were destroyed. And they are unable to say kaddish for their previous generations. When we say kaddish, it’s not just for the people we remember; it’s for the people they remember, and the people they would remember going back for thousands of years. And that chain has been irreparably broken.
What I learned in Prague is that you just never get to know what path your life might take - how the memories of others can create your future. But you can be sure that once you get out of your own way, once you open yourself to the possibilities, miracles can happen in your life and in the lives of those around you.
There are miracles in the memory of others.
My story of Prague is also meaningless if sharing it doesn’t help to move you to see how interconnected we are as a people, how much we are depended upon, and need to be dependable. If it were not for the United Jewish Communities, the ongoing rescue of thousands of Ethiopian Jews and Jews from the former Soviet Union would not have taken place. Our money, the money the American Jewish community raised, bought them freedom. For thousands of Jews anywhere around the world, we are the only source of comfort and hope. The reemerging Jewish community of Prague is almost totally dependent on our support. It’s not enough to remember. We have to be moved by memory to prevent new disasters, we have to be moved by memory to do good in the name of the people we remember. Memory is meaningless if it does no one any good.
I didn’t grow up in Czechoslovakia. My ancestors did not come from there. There is no familial connection between me and the children whose ashes compose the tree in Terezin of which I wrote. The connection is in our peoplehood, in our Jewishness. All we have, in many ways, is one another.
I became a rabbi because there was no other option for me. It is my hope and my prayer that in telling you this story you will see yourself similarly drafted into this amazing relationship with God and the people Israel.
May it be Your will, Adonai our God, that we remember those who came before us, those whose memories we are entrusted to preserve, and may we draw strength and hope from them. May we be ever mindful that their immortality is in us: we are their precious legacy. May we live our lives in ways that would make them proud, ways that ensure the future of our people and our safe refuge, by being a Light of My People. Through us, and our actions, may peace and healing be brought to this world.
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