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Jews Keep Singing and Dancing

My Shabbos together with over 150 survivors of the Nova Festival 

MY wife and I were privileged to spend last Shabbos together with over 150 survivors of the Nova Festival at Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel. The event was hosted by Kesher Yehudi and sponsored by Shmuel Yosef Rieder and his wife, Leah. The Rieders flew in from the US, together with three adult sons, to spend the Shabbos with the survivors.

No effort was spared to maximize the impact of the shabbaton. Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson provided a heavy dose of intellectual stimulation in two powerful derashos. (I confess that I could only envy his rich vocabulary and grammatically sophisticated Hebrew — a stark contrast to my own Hebrew after 45 years in Israel.) The first drashah focused on the essential unity of the Jewish People, a theme stressed throughout Shabbos. One line, from a chassidic master, particularly stood out for me: “There is nothing so whole in the world as a broken heart.”

The second drashah centered on the Jewish response to tragedy: We ask not “why,” lamah — but “for what,” l’mah. What is my task now? That was obviously a crucial message for the survivors, each of whom lost close friends on October 7, and is left to ponder, “Why did my gut tell me to go this way, and his to go the other way?” Yosef Hatzaddik, who told his brothers that while they may have sold him, it was not “you who sent me here, but Hashem,” serves as a classic example of someone who searched for the l’mah in his fate.

Famous musician and songwriter Yonatan Razel had the group — some with tattoos and others already dressed for Shabbos — with their arms around one another’s shoulders within moments of the start of his Erev Shabbos concert. And he did the same at a musical Havdalah to close the Shabbos on an emotional high.

FOR ME, THE EMOTIONAL PEAK of the Shabbos was the talk at the day seudah by Rabbi Yisrael Goldwasser, a Gerrer chassid and well-known historian. He spoke holding a small sefer Torah, which he referred to as a “special guest Holocaust survivor.” His theme was the Jewish People’s power to joyously celebrate their relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, even in the darkest times. He began with a description of the Leviim continuing to sing, even as the Romans broke through the walls of the Temple, in the face of their imminent slaughter (see Arachin 11b).

From there, Rabbi Goldwasser jumped forward nearly 1,900 years, to a boat carrying survivors of the Holocaust, which arrived in Haifa’s port on Shabbos. Those on board had certificates of entry to Palestine, but they were warned that if they refused to disembark on Shabbos, their certificates would be confiscated and they would be taken to an internment camp in Cyprus. Nevertheless, a group of 80 survivors insisted on remaining on board, in the hold of the ship, all Shabbos. Mendel Brickman, one of that group, later told Rabbi Goldwasser that they spent the entire Shabbos singing zemiros.

It had now come time for Rabbi Goldwasser to more fully introduce his “special guest.” After the Nazis, yemach shemam, had deported almost all of Czestochowa’s 50,000 Jews to Treblinka, they left behind a few thousand to work in local factories. Noach Eideles, one of those slave laborers, smuggled into a tiny barracks a small sefer Torah wrapped around his body thirty times — “the special guest.” And every Monday, Thursday, and Shabbos, 80 Jews crammed into a room meant to hold ten to hear Krias HaTorah.

Eventually, they were caught and the sefer Torah seized. But during Succos, a Jewish shoemaker returned to the barracks with the sefer Torah. He had promised to fashion an elegant pair of boots for the Nazi officer in charge of the warehouse in which the Nazis stored Jewish religious artifacts, and, in that fashion, secured its return.

To ensure that the sefer Torah would not be seized again, the Jewish prisoners hollowed out one of the wooden bunks and placed the sefer Torah inside it. That Simchas Torah, the remaining Jews entered the barracks where the sefer Torah was hidden, in small groups. Instead of dancing with the sefer Torah, they danced around the bunk in which it was hidden, singing the traditional Simchas Torah niggunim softly to avoid detection.

Rabbi Goldwasser then related how he had been dancing with that same small sefer Torah last Simchas Torah, when the sirens began to wail — in short, at the very moment that the survivors of the Nova Festival were fleeing for their lives.

He has long taken a special interest in that sefer Torah, and is in the process of raising the funds to restore it so that it is once again kosher for Krias HaTorah. (The parchment is approximately 150 years old.) Because of its delicate condition, it never leaves the aron in which it is housed. But when he explained to the rav of the shul where he wanted to take it, as an example of how Jews, across the religious spectrum, had risked their lives to read from it and protect it, because “the Torah belongs equally to all of us, regardless of our level of observance,” he was given permission to bring it with him.

He then invited all the luncheon guests to come dance with the sefer Torah b’kedushah, with Shlomo Berger, the father of hostage Agam Berger, and Mr. Rieder holding the sefer Torah for the hakafos. The enthusiastic dancing and singing, with the Nova survivors having the chance to taste the Simchas Torah they missed on October 7, went on for a very long time.

TO TELL THE TRUTH, I was not completely sure what kind of impact the shabbaton had. I noticed at the meals that many of the Nova survivors were familiar with the niggunim. And the young man sitting next to me on Leil Shabbos confirmed that many of survivors were from religious homes, and even chareidi ones. The young woman next to him told me that she grew up in a well-known chareidi city. At least one young man told Mrs. Tzila Schneider, the founder of Kesher Yehudi, that he has very much wanted to keep Shabbos again since the events of October 7, and thanked her profusely for the opportunity to do so.

The mother and four young adult children with whom we sat for Shabbos lunch had a completely different story. The mother was at Nova with her husband, who was killed. Since then, the entire family has been on a religious journey and has become fully shomer Shabbos. That was obvious with respect to the only son, whose tzitzis were out and who led the davening on Motzaei Shabbos fluently. But it would not have been equally obvious with respect to the mother and three daughters had they not said so.

Not every survivor attended every lecture, but almost everyone was present just before Shalosh Seudos, when Merav Berger, dressed in jeans, and her Kesher Yehudi chavrusah, Margalit Peretz, spoke about the deep friendship they have formed. Merav and her husband Shlomo are the parents of Agam, a 19-year-old soldier who was taken hostage on October 7 from her base, where she was serving as an observer of the border. Her parents have learned from released hostages how Agam tries to keep Shabbos in captivity and recites brachos on whatever food she eats. Merav currently speaks once or twice a day around Israel on the need to form friendships like hers with Margalit to unify the country.

As the guests were leaving, Mrs. Schneider made clear to each one, “We at Kesher Yehudi are not interested in hit-and-run programming. This was only the beginning. We will be back to work in the morning, already setting up chavruta pairs and matching each participant here with a partner. For us, this is about building relationships and getting people to know each other who would not otherwise meet, sit, and talk. There were many beautiful moments this Shabbat. But our goal was not just to create beautiful moments, but to build something more lasting.”

Over 110 of the survivors have signed up for a chavruta, and those numbers are still growing. Most of those who requested a chavruta have already been paired with a Kesher Yehudi volunteer.

So, I guess my question about the impact of the Shabbos was answered.

Out with the Moderators

After President Biden’s disastrous performance in the first presidential debate on June 27, his aides desperately cast about for someone, anyone, to blame. Eventually, they alighted, inter alia, upon CNN, the host network. Most of the complaints, by virtue of their silliness, only emphasized how woeful Biden looked: His makeup was bad; he wasn’t told from what side he would be viewed on camera, etc.

But one of the complaints actually spoke volumes about what’s wrong with the current presidential debate formula. The Biden campaign whined that CNN moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, did not fact-check Donald Trump.

What is telling about this complaint is the unspoken premise that the mainstream media have a duty to bolster the president’s candidacy. It is of a piece with Biden’s frequent complaint that the New York Times and other leading media outlets are not sufficiently highlighting the wondrous nature of his presidency.

I rather doubt that there are any folks not firmly on the left wing of the Democratic Party who harbor any doubts as to whom the Times or the Washington Post are more sympathetic. And if there are, let them contemplate the strenuous efforts of virtually every mainstream news outlet to completely discredit the Wall Street Journal’s June 4 story about the president’s declining mental capacities.

In any event, we must ask: Why should it have been the moderators’ job to fact-check Trump? That should have been up to his opponent. When I debated in high school, one of the categories upon which we were judged was our use of evidence — both that in support of our position and our analysis of the evidence adduced by the other side. And that should still be the rule.

Indeed, the best thing that could happen to the presidential debates would be to get rid of the moderators altogether. Their presence and desire to win kudos from their colleagues, who almost uniformly lean to the left, inevitably distorts the discussion. That has certainly been obvious ever since CNN’s Candy Crowley decided that her job was to serve as President Obama’s tag team partner in his second debate with Mitt Romney. But it was always true.

Debates in the Oxford Union, the world’s most famed debating hall, do not require moderators. The topic is set, the time limits given, and the two sides go at it.

(Incidentally, for anyone who caught even a few moments of the Biden-Trump debate and then glanced at old clips of Obama-Romney, the contrast is startling and speaks volumes about the depths of our current situation. Both Romney and Obama were attractive, vigorous, and capable of speaking fluently while moving about the stage, untethered to lecterns. No one watching either man could have doubted that he possessed the intellectual toolbox and temperament to execute the duties of president, however much one might have disagreed with their policy positions. No one watching the more recent debate could have gone to sleep confident that either man had what it takes.)

It should be mentioned that despite Biden’s frequent boast, “I know how to tell the truth,” there is no evidence he hews more closely to the truth than his opponent. He had to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination in 1988 after being caught purloining an autobiographical campaign speech of English Labour Party candidate Neil Kinnock. And his repeated claim that he attended Syracuse Law School on a full scholarship and graduated in the top quarter of his class is straight-out malarkey (a favorite Biden term). He received a half scholarship, graduated in the bottom 15 percent of his class, and was caught plagiarizing to boot. His various “origin stories,” depending on the audience, invariably end with the words “no joke,” which is the surefire sign that they are made up out of whole cloth.

And he also told numerous whoppers in the debate. One, that no American servicemen have died abroad on his watch. Thirteen were killed in the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. It hardly matters that the number of those apprehended crossing the border dropped 40 percent in the last month, after the president finally issued executive orders restoring some of his predecessor’s policies, when ten million foreigners have already entered the United States. That may be why the union of the US Border Control was quick to refute the president’s claim that it had endorsed him. The richest Americans do not pay 8.2 percent of their incomes in taxes, as Biden asserted, but 26 percent for the top one percent and 23.7 percent for the wealthiest .001 percent.

The president also repeated in the debate two hardy perennials of his. The first was that when Trump referred to “fine people on both sides” of the clashing rallies over Confederate monuments at Charlottesville, he was also referring to neo-Nazis and white supremacists: He explicitly excluded both groups, as even the left-leaning Snopes fact-checking site admitted two weeks ago. The second repeated fib was that the Trump administration held mothers and babies in cages at the southern border. The wire-surrounded camps were not cages, and they were put in place by the Obama-Biden administration.

So, if the moderators had fairly served as fact-checkers, it would have been an even more distressing night for Americans watching at home than it already was. But we do not need moderators for that. They have played an outsized and distorting role in the presidential debates for too long.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1019. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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