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Yom Kippur 2010

Irving Belansky

Shabbat Shalom

Thank you Rabbi Jaffe for providing me the opportunity to share a brief review of my personal Jewish Journey and a very special thanks to Sydney Abrams for telling us about her Journey.

As you can imagine it is exceedingly difficult to condense almost 80 years of an active Jewish Journey into a 10 minute talk. However, I need to tell you about 3 significant subjects which informed and influenced my Jewish Journey:

1. Early childhood – First generation American Jew
2. Anti-Semitism and Talmud Torah
3. Epiphany – An event that was transformative

So we begin my Jewish Journey.

I grew up in a kosher home. We lived our lives according to the Jewish calendar. Shabbat and holidays were observed and special. We were kosher but not particularly religious or spiritual. My father immigrated to this country in 1912, when he was thirteen. My mother was 19 years old, arriving after W.W.I. Yiddish was my first language. When my folks needed to speak to each other privately, they spoke in Russian. I can still hear them saying, “Nyet goueree pah jolista.” “Please do not speak.” These were their code words to change from Yiddish to Russian as both my sister and I were fluent in Yiddish.

I had 31 first cousins on my father’s side. Twenty-five of us lived within blocks of each other. Six others lived in the next town. We saw each other every Sunday when we visited our elderly, widowed “Bobee.” Bobee Sarah was the matriarch, not only in our family but in our Jewish community.

As a child I attended the “Talmud Torah.” We studied 5 days a week and were expected to attend Shabbat services in one of six synagogues in our community. The public school was mostly Jewish kids and the school was closed for the Jewish holy days.

Walking home from Talmud Torah each evening and Sunday mornings was challenging. Hardly a day went by without being accosted by the rough “goyem.” Many a day I was saved from a beating by school friends. Lorenzo Vozzella, Emilio McDonough, and Dominic Izzabella came to my rescue. They shouted, “Leave him alone, he is a good Jew!”

My early years were not much different from most first generation Jewish kids.

I lived by the Jewish calendar – counting the days that preceded Shabbat and counting the weeks that preceded holidays. Special foods and special kitchen utensils for Passover. Separation of meat and dairy dishes and utensils. I cannot say that my family observed “kashrut” because we were religious – we were not – we observed because it was common and expected in our community.

So the Journey began – absent spirituality, absent religiosity – but with Jewish identity the center and the core of my early years. I never felt conflicted – I never felt that I had to choose between being Jewish or being American. I was comfortable being both.

We are all on a Jewish Journey taught to us by our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Throughout the ages we have journeyed. “Lech Lachoo” – go forth and start your Journey. Being here today to observe Yom Kippur speaks to this Journey. Our Jewish Journey compels us to ask questions. How did I get here? Where am I going? What is my purpose? The answers are distant but the questions are sublime.

If it is true, as our “Mahtzor” states, “Life is a journey. Death is the destination.” What do we do with the time between life and death. How do we live with meaning, with purpose, with joy and with shalom?

Now, I want to share my personal epiphany – an event that forever altered my Jewish journey and my Jewish life.

This is the third time I have shared this story. The first time was in June 1982, when I was installed as President of this congregation. The second time was in October 1988, when I was installed as President of the N.E.C. of U.A.H.C., now known as Union for Reform Jews.

In the fall of 1953, 57 years ago and only several years after the devastation of World War II, I was a soldier in the U.S. Army serving with the Occupation Forces in Austria. As the High Holy Days approached and very anxious to escape the monotony and tedium of Army life, I sought permission to leave my small camp in the Tyrolean Alps for several days, using as an excuse the upcoming Jewish holidays.

Along with another Jewish G.I., who like me was more interested in losing two days than finding Jewishness, we left for Munich, Germany. We went directly to a bar on Bahnhoff Strasse that catered to American G.I.’s. The bar was owned by a Jewish survivor of the death camps who befriended us and invited us to join him for Jewish food at a small local restaurant in the outskirts of Munich and then to attend Kol Nidre services at a local synagogue. The anticipation of Jewish food to a starving G.I. was an offer I could not refuse – to this day, to this very day, I remember the sights, the smells and the tastes of that restaurant. I have with me the Speisen Karte--Menu--dated September 10, 1953.

We walked to the synagogue – two American soldiers and one Jewish survivor of the death camps. Soon we came to a brand new building that was extremely large and boasting of contemporary architecture in a street whose buildings still showed the scars of war. The plaque on the outside of the building said –and here my memory fades—perhaps due to heightened emotions—the plaque said, “Built by the citizens of Munich, Germany in 1950.” I have forgotten the words on the plaque but I do remember that this was a new building which replaced an historic and treasured synagogue that served the Jewish community of Munich for centuries.

Upon entering the sanctuary we were greeted by six elderly men and several elderly women. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the reality that in this new house of worship –donated by and built by the people of Munich, Germany in such magnificent style….this house of worship did not have a minyan to recite Kol Nidre.

The Germans could restore the building, but they could NEVER, NEVER restore the six million SOULS…

That moment – that evening—September 10, 1953 was for me the single most important Jewish event of my life….

I stand here today, touched by that single event that has led me to this place and to this time in my life. On our life’s Jewish Journey we see only the few precious moments. But the end of our journey reveals that the entire journey is precious!

May the Almighty grant us wisdom and strength to perform our tasks. May our service to the Temple Isaiah Family be a constant source of blessing to us.

May the Almighty grant us wisdom and strength to travel on our Jewish Journey with purpose, with meaning, with joy and with peace.

“Kane Yahee Ratzon” - May it be God’s will.

Fri, May 24 2024 16 Iyar 5784