How to Bring Judaism’s Strength of Spirit to All
I will give them in My house and in My walls a place and a name, better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give him, which will not be discontinued.
Today, January 27th, marks the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. As Jews, we are all connected to this event. I am connected, too, as a grandson, an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) colonel, and a Reform rabbi.
This is my story.
When Anatoli Shapiro, a Jewish major in the Russian army, opened the gates to Auschwitz in 1945, my Polish grandmother became a Holocaust survivor. She moved to Israel, where I was born, raised in an Orthodox home, and flourished as an IDF officer, ultimately achieving the rank of colonel.
In 2002, I was part of an IDF delegation that traveled to Poland to recount Warsaw’s Jewish history and visit the country’s death camps. I hardly expected the journey would change the course of my life.
But it did.
On our first morning in the hotel – in which a group of Jewish American teenagers also was staying – our delegation was davening (praying) and reading from the sefer Torah (Torah scroll) we had brought with us. A young girl wearing tefillin (phylacteries) and a tallit (prayer shawl) appeared at the door. As her group did not have a Torah with them, she wished to pray with us. It troubled me that we, all Jews, were praying in separate rooms. Why shouldn't we all pray together as one? When the young woman was given permission to stay, she disappeared for a moment and returned with her entire group. The gentleman reading the Torah suddenly stopped. Who were these people and why should they be here – male and female alike?
I quietly pointed out to the reader that we were only 500 meters from the deportation site – a place where Hitler and the Germans did not ask about differences. I urged him to let the teens stay as this would mark a memorable time in their lives. In the midst of a place of distant horrors, we were one group – united by prayer and our love of Judaism. The reader consented, continued to read, and we all prayed together concluding the service in song.
After our worship, it occurred to me that we can be Jews in so many different ways, but we must always respect the beliefs of other Jews. As a Colonel in the IDF and the grandson of a Holocaust death camp survivor, I can do much to foster, promote, and embody this respect. But then I asked myself this question: Shai, what are you doing for the Jewish people?
At that moment – in a Polish hotel within reach of the horrors of the Holocaust – I had a spiritual awakening that ultimately led me to become a Reform rabbi.
Many Jews in Auschwitz kept Judaism alive through sheer force of spirit. One such prisoner, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Meisels, for example, somehow managed to obtain a shofar and blow it on the eve of Rosh HaShanah in 1944, encouraged by a group of 1,400 teenage boys who were to be sent to the crematoria the next day. His effort to sound the shofar in their block enabled them to fulfill this precious mitzvah in their last moments of life, before they were martyred for Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name).
Indeed, Judaism is filled with such strength of spirit, which is so well articulated in the Book of Zachary: “And he answered and spoke to me, saying, ‘This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel, saying: ‘Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit,’’ says the Lord of Hosts.” Likewise, just as God gave the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel in a desert – a land open to all – we as Reform Jews must now bring those commandments to all, opening our doors and inviting in all those who wish to enter.