Monday, January 19, 2015

Unexpected Inspiration on a Cold Winter Night

It’s not often that you get a history lesson and a story of hope and perseverance from your air conditioning installation guy.

But when you live in Israel, that’s par for the course.

Last night, our air conditioning specialist, Eliyahu, was over to give us a quote and we got to talking. He mentioned that his parents arrived in Israel separately on their own as young adults – his mom from New York and his father from San Antonio.

“San Antonio?” Josh said. “How did that happen?”

And so began his story.

It turns out that Eliyahu’s grandfather was from Chechia. While his great-grandparents were on a business trip to New York, Eliyahu’s grandfather was born, giving him automatic United States citizenship. The great grandfather died, leaving his great grandmother alone with her baby. She returned to Chechia, remarried and had many more children. As the Holocaust unfolded, the boy’s accidental birth in America saved his life. They sent their 16 year old boy to the States, after a two year fight to get him out, since he was the only one who could escape.

The entire family perished in the Holocaust.

And so, this 16 year old boy arrived in New York, where his relatives wanted little to do with him. “We have other relatives in San Antonio” they said, and shipped him off again.

Eliyahu’s grandfather graduated from high school and enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. in World War II. He found himself in Germany, fighting the Nazis. 

WWII Wings of Glory P-51 Mustang
And when the war ended, he asked for a pass to travel to Slovakia to search for his family.

His discoveries were devastating.

Along the way, he had many adventures (crashing the Jeep he was given from the army, ending up in jail for selling wares to Russian soldiers, and more).  He met a Jewish girl in Slovakia whose family had been hidden during the war (that was another entire story we didn't hear last night) and he worked for her father when they were married.

He eventually made his way back to America, where they began to build their family in San Antonio.

Years later, one of their kids, Eliyahu’s father, decided to come to Israel. And he met Eliyahu’s mother, who had come to Israel on her own one week before the outbreak of the ’67 war. She was living in Massuot Yitzhak (one of the original Gush Etzion communities destroyed in 1948, but then rebuilt along the coast) and recounts seeing the planes flying overhead when they attacked Sinai.

The very early days of Massuot Yitzhak (1947)
Eliyahu’s parents met after the war, settled into life and raised their family. Later, all of Eliyahu’s grandparents followed his parents to Israel. Today Eliyahu lives in Bat Ayin, a few short meters away from the original site of Massuot Yitzchak.
Bat Ayin today

As he finished his story, we sat there spellbound. I asked him if he had this written down. “No,” he said, “but when my grandfather ran from the Nazis to America, they actually stamped his passport with a Nazi insignia. Can you imagine? So his American passport had a Nazi insignia on it and he gave that to a museum in Texas before he died.”

Eliyahu went home. The hour was very late. And I sat there marveling that only in Israel do you invite your air conditioning guy over for a quote – and get a spellbinding story of survival, hope, perseverance and the Jewish experience.

A story for the history books.

And one that is still being written, with the grandson planting roots in Gush Etzion and living out the dreams of his people…and ours.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Celebrations in the Snow

In February of 2003 I was all set for Yehuda’s first birthday. I had bought oodles of art projects for the little kids to do. I had a cake with a picture of Yehuda swinging with glee. I had Winnie the Pooh decorations and more. We were set.

Until the snow wouldn’t stop. And so, since none of Yehuda’s little friends could make it to our house, we called in the neighbors. We lived in a lovely cul-de-sac filled with our friends, who came pouring in to enjoy the snow day and the cake with us. Josh’s parents were with us as well, and were actually trying to drive out that day. So when the party ended, our friends helped to dislodge their car and walk along the road with shovels to literally push them out of the neighborhood.

Coats piled at our door during the snow storm!

Needless to say, it was  a very memorable first birthday.

So it would seem fitting that Yehuda’s Chanuchat Tefillin should arrive under the same weather conditions. The Chanuchat Tefillin is an event that marks the first time that the pre-bar mitzvah boy wears his tefillin for morning davening. Typically, this is done 1-3 months before the bar mitzvah. Some families go to the Kotel for the event; others go to Ma’arah haMachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs); and some celebrate the event at the child’s school, etc. We had planned to bring our breakfast cereals, milk, chocolate milk, a cake with his picture on it and enthusiasm to Yehuda’s school so that he could celebrate with his whole class. Instead, we tromped through the snow to our local shul, Imrei Rachel, and had a lovely, cozy event with Yehuda's friends (who had braved the weather to walk over from all over Neve Daniel) and our neighbors who were all happy to have a very convenient morning minyan and to share in our simcha.

Yehuda put on his tefillin. We ate cake. We sang, hugged him, and marveled at the passage of time.

Prior to this event, we had the privilege of going thirty minutes south of us to Kiryat Arba to meet with Rav (Rabbi) Gershon who created Yehuda’s tefillin. We spent two hours with him while he explained the entire process of putting the tefillin together and actually had Yehuda help in the creation of his own tefillin.

The tefillin are made from cowhide and are created in a meticulous process passed down to us through countless generations. Inside the tefillin worn on the head are four sections from the Torah where it describes the mitzvah (commandment) to wear tefillin. The words are written by a Sofer Stam (a ritual scribe) and are written in a beautiful, detailed style. We had a special person in Neve Daniel write the parchment for us and Yehuda had the opportunity  to learn about the process and laws of writing tefillin with him.

Then, he sent the parchment down to Rav Gershon, who places each piece in the tefillin. The parchments are wrapped in a specific way and placed in a certain order. Yehuda learned all about this process with Rav Gershon and had the honor of actually placing his parchments into their respective locations.

As I watched Yehuda join with his ancestors, with the whole of Jewish history, I was amazed and humbled. It was hard not to think about the recent pictures of bloodied tefillin, left scattered and shattered on the floor in the Har Nof synagogue. It was impossible not to imagine the butchery of Jews in the middle of their morning prayers. I tried to push these images from my mind, but their significance was not lost on me.

Yehuda was learning about our rituals and our faith, passed down from generation to generation, connecting us to our past and our future. He will stand as a strong, proud Jew donning his tefillin each morning and connecting himself for all time to those who have come before him. This will include those who have lost their lives for the sheer fact that they are Jews – that they are davening with their tefillin and standing before Gd and their history.

May he carry his tefillin close to his heart (and not lose them – man they are expensive!) and may he always remain connected to his people and his heritage in this – and so many other - ways as he reaches the momentous time of becoming a bar mitzvah shortly (but maybe without snow?).