Elevating Sacred Moments

Click here for more gallery images from the Leo Martin March of the Living 

Four years ago at this same time, I was in Poland and Israel on the Leo Martin March of the Living. The trip fell precisely during Parashat Kedoshim (Be Holy), our Torah portion last week, and Parashat Emor (Say… to the Israelites), our Torah portion this week. I'll share two remarkable stories with you (among so many others that take place during this transformational program).

Parashat Kedoshim is all about the concept of holiness, and my first story is an example of holiness in action. Saturday night in Poland, Rabbi Eli Wolf, a Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Rich Agler, a retired Reform rabbi and I shared our personal faith journeys and understandings of G!D in light of the Holocaust. Each of us described our own beliefs and how we reconciled them with the experience of the Shoah.

Then speaking last, Rabbi Agler revealed that though he is a rabbi, he still struggles with the paradox of why bad things happen to good people every day since his 26-year-old daughter Talia was struck and killed by a car while out jogging one night four years prior.

In tears, he disclosed that what consoles him in part is the legacy of good his daughter left behind, including a cause she used to work for that was named posthumously in her memory--the Talia Agler Girls Shelter in Nairobi, Kenya, for victims of abuse and human trafficking.

Upon hearing his story, the next day members of Rabbi Agler's own bus, the Red Bus as it was called, secretly collected money from every student on the bus to support the Girls Shelter, and then went to Blue Bus and Yellow Bus to do the same.

By the next morning, when we all landed in Israel on Monday and were standing on the terrace of the Begin Museum overlooking the magnificent Old City Walls of Jerusalem for our Shehechiyanu moment, one student, on behalf of all the Miami March participants, presented Rabbi Agler with $1600 of spontaneous cash donations for The Talia Agler Girls Shelter in memory of his daughter. Needless to say, Rabbi Agler was again moved to tears by the compassion and generosity of the students’ gifts.

What an amazing way to take one of the key messages of the March- counteracting the hate of the Holocaust with acts of hesed/ kindness and kedusha/holiness. It was a perfect, real-time gesture that took education into action!

The second story took place a few days later and made me think of Parashat Emor, the Torah portion in which the holidays are described, the moments for sacred celebration in our Jewish calendar.

At breakfast on Wednesday in Israel with one of our survivors named Sam Peltz, I discovered that he had never had a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. When I asked why, he said that he turned 13 after the war when his family was in a DP camp and there were no rabbis (they were mostly all murdered), no Torahs, no synagogues and no money to do anything more than survive day to day.

Then I asked him how old he was, and Sam replied "83." I asked, Do you know there’s a tradition of having another bar mitzvah at 83? No, he didn't, he told me. So I explained that after living 70 full years, the marker of a long life in the eyes of our sages, we start counting again and if we are lucky to have lived so long, we have a repeat Bar Mitzvah at 83. And then, with a little prodding, Sam agreed to let us finally hold a Bar Mitzvah ceremony for him at the Torah reading the following day.

That following day, a Thursday morning, was coincidentally also Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. Everyone gathered for tefillah/ the prayer service as usual, only it wasn't usual at all.

It was magical. Every teenager in the room was wide awake and fully present to see their beloved survivor achieve the dream of having a Bar Mitzvah that he was never able to have and each one of the students had taken as a “given” in their lives. (Even the cynical Israeli security guys decided—for the first time I might add-- to attend this momentous prayer service!)

Rabbi Wolf helped Sam put on tefillin and led a beautiful service. Then Rabbi Agler and I gave Divrei Torah to Sam and his fellow Marchers about holiness and the power of spiritual elevation. But the very highest moment came next.

One of our March students from the RASG Hebrew Academy, Danny Bister, had been asked to present Sam with a gift on behalf of our congregation, because of course, every Bar Mitzvah has to get a gift! And during his speech, Danny looked Sam in the eye and said, "Sam, today you are celebrating a rebirth of the spirit through your Bar Mitzvah exactly on the day that we are all celebrating the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the modern State of Israel. Thank you for letting us celebrate our national milestone with your personal milestone."

WOW! Three rabbis spoke before this young man and not one of us made that connection, but Bister (as we affectionately called him) said exactly the right thing. And in so doing, a personal/ group experience was linked with a national/communal experience and that elevated the entire celebratory moment to the level of kedushah (holiness).

Those kind of moments happen over and over again on the Miami March. We at CAJE are so proud to continue the legacy of Gene Greenzweig z"l, founder of the March, and survivor Leo Martin z"l, who endowed our Miami March, in making it the most impactful identity-building and thought-provoking program for Jewish teens in our community.  

Shabbat Shalom

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