Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

From Tragedy To Triumph

When we were children, there were decorative signs that hung in classrooms. They depicted the chodshei hashanah, the months of the Jewish year, through illustrations. Each month was illustrated with a mitzvah or a Yom Tov connected to it, to create a warm feeling and association in our young minds. Tishrei had the shofar, lulav, esrog and sukkah. Kislev had the menorah. There was one month for which there was no specific illustration: Cheshvan. Some signs had a picture of Kever Rochel, in tribute to the mother whose yahrtzeit falls during Cheshvan. Others had a picture of driving rain, remembering theMabul that wiped out a world during that month.

Either way, whether the picture was the water of Rochel’s perpetual tears or the furious waters of flood, the image evoked the same sense of sadness. It is Mar Cheshvan, a bitter month, devoid not only of a Yom Tov, but also of cheer.


This year, Cheshvan ended on that tearful note, the images of rushing waters and ceaseless tears taking on the dimensions of real life. Very real.


During Cheshvan’s waning days, acheinu Bnei Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel were once again in the line of fire. After a relatively brief hiatus, life once again became a series of sirens and screams. The reports from that tiny country fill us with fear and trepidation, because we know that the enemy they face is inhuman. A suicidal, maniacal beast, Hamas is governed by a charter that calls for the destruction of not only Israel and Zionists, but of Jews everywhere. Yet, when Israel, which cares about its citizens and their safety, takes legitimate steps to protect them, the world is perturbed and troubled by the loss of Palestinian lives in Gaza. They ignore the barrage of hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas at Israel’s population. They ignore the history of terror and the truth of the historical facts.


Imagine Israeli soldiers forced into combat in places like Gaza City, home to 500,000 people. Our brothers are exposed to snipers in apartments and on narrow, unfamiliar streets. Focused on staying alive, they also need to be mindful of killing civilians in those very crowded neighborhoods where bombs and rockets are planted in schoolyards and backyards. They are ever attentive of doing what they must without unleashing the cynical ire of the same world that stands by silently as Syria massacres tens of thousands of its own citizens at will.


Since Israel’s last Gaza incursion, the Arabs there have improved their fighting capabilities. They have better weapons, better anti-plane and tank capabilities, better rockets and better training. In the last war, their bravado was stronger than their bravery. Their fighters ran and hid when the Israeli soldiers came. This time, they have been trained by Iran to stand and fight. Whether they will, is beyad Hashem, but the danger is real and quite serious, and we dare not take it lightly.


America, Canada and a handful of European countries verbalized their support for Israel, while the rest of the world is occupied with being even-handed, denouncing the violence on both sides. Once again, the familiar storyline repeats itself, a macabre play with everyone taking their parts: Israel as the aggressor, the Arabs as the victims, and Jewish blood considered hefker. Peace and truth are forgotten as war looms yet again.


In the past, we would look on and offer tefillos and Tehillim from our comfortable perch in America, but we didn’t know much about war, boruch Hashem.


Thankfully, the vast majority of us have never experienced war. We never experienced that fear or the panic attacks brought on by air raid sirens. We never had to run out of our homes in the middle of dinner, into the dark of night. We never had to rouse sleeping children and carry them to safety. We were never in a position where the enemy was rapidly approaching to attack and annihilate us. We never had the fear that the whole world was lined up against us, seeking our destruction and annihilation, and that death was imminent. We never had to run out of our homes to hide in concrete pipes, seeking shelter in a small dank room, or being without provisions and power for weeks on end.


We never had to deal with the aftermath of war either, picking up the pieces and putting life back together. It is hard for us to even look at pictures of what war causes, let alone imagine the situation in which our brethren all across Eretz Yisroel presently find themselves. We never contended with the sense of loneliness foretold by the posuk, which is now a reality, of an entire world condemning our every move, lined up against us: “hein am levodod yishkon.


Until now.


Now, we’re a bit more educated and more aware of what difficult conditions are like. When our brothers in Eretz Yisroel flee their apartments to hide in concrete pipes or seek shelter in dark, small, dank rooms, living without power or provisions, perhaps we have a bit more of an appreciation of the challenge. We see pictures of blown-out walls and shells of residential buildings and are well able to imagine the pain of seeing the home – the bricks and mortar that carry so many memories – wiped out in an instant.


This year, during the month of Mar Cheshvan, which ended against the backdrop of war’s first shots, we experienced devastation and destruction right here, in peaceful New York and New Jersey.


We saw what happens when the malachei chavolah are unleashed. It was no war, boruch Hashem, but it gave us the ability to really comprehend what happens when man is without options. “Nature” can be a foe too, Rachamana litzlan. Raging waters with a force none of us knew possible showed no mercy as they came aground and swallowed everything in their path.


We are fascinated by the sea and its beauty. Oceanfront real estate is most prized; the view of the waves washing ashore is coveted and calming. That is, until Hakadosh Boruch Hu decides that “g’vul samta bal ya’avorun,” the law He put in place at creation, stopping waves as they reach their Divinely-ordained border, needs to be temporarily set aside.


I had never been to Sea Gate until last week, when I visited there along with a couple non-descript tzaddikim who head the Chasdei Lev organization. It is well-known that “eino domeh shmiah le’reiyah.” There’s nothing that compares to seeing something with your own eyes and experiencing it with your own heart. Everything you’ve read about and all the pictures you’ve seen of the destruction in Sea Gate doesn’t compare to what you feel when you arrive there.


Two weeks later, the hard-hit areas we have all read about still look and feel like a war zone. It is like a war-ravaged area after the victorious army has gone and left destruction in its wake.


We saw police all over, along with sanitation workers, dump trucks, huge tractors, and all types of workers cleaning, banging, pushing, pumping and doing every type of work imaginable.


We saw houses suspended in mid-air, their contents piled up in front, waiting to be removed. It almost felt like an invasion of privacy to encounter the items and keepsakes that made up people’s lives. Their toys, clothing and books formed little mountains waiting to be taken away in a sanitation vehicle.


The piles composed of the fabric of people’s lives were wet with tears and from rain, drenched and ruined. From the outside, some homes appeared whole and undamaged, but you cannot imagine what they look like inside. You see sheetrock, beams, tiles, refrigerators and stoves along with suitcases, pictures, books and more.


You see pieces of collected memories sitting there, forlorn, at the side of the road, drenched beyond repair. You see that and your heart melts.


Who among us doesn’t associate the voice of Mordechai ben David with joy and fervor? His songs are the essence of joy. People listen to them and are uplifted. You grew up with him and his songs. You picture him as tall and handsome, exuding strength.


We pull up to Sea Gate and park in front of Reb Mordechai’s unassuming house. He is standing outside with a few people, waiting for us. Yet, it doesn’t look like him. The usually tall, strong man seems shrunken and sad. You find it hard to accept that the voice that brings joy and chizuk to so many of acheinu bais Yisroel is the same voice talking to you, speaking slowly and haltingly of sadness, of destruction, of the lives of his neighbors turned upside down.


He shows us where the concrete wall meant to hold back the sea in times of emergency was. It’s gone. Washed away. He points this way and that. “Look at what happened here. Look at what happened there.” The voice that has spent a lifetime singing the niggunim of Simchas Torah and Purim is now chanting the bitter tune of Eichah.


“Come inside. Let me show you my house,” he says.


One room after another, destroyed and ripped apart.


“This was my recording studio,” he says.


His voice is flat and the room suddenly looks so small. You imagine it pulsating with joy and music, but now it’s soggy and moldy, with a smell that drives you away.


“This is where I stored my CDs,” the voice says. And so it goes.


We go out for a tour. There is a huge tractor trailer overloaded with ruined seforim, now destined for shaimos. Outside of it is a box that caused me to glance a few times to make sure I was seeing correctly. It was a case of ruined seforim, but the covers were intact and clearly visible. The title of the seforim? “Gishmei Brocha.”


Our group began to think about what could have been and what was. What was until now for decades long; and the once-in-a-century storm we just suffered. A message from Heaven, for us to ponder, no doubt. Think of what could have been and what was.


We traveled down block after block of sandy streets, with eerie silence and no people or vehicles except for those there to help with restoring. The more we saw, the more our hearts broke.


“Come down this block,” says Reb Mordechai.


There we saw Mr. Zimmerman’s house, the one captured in dozens of photographs, ripped in half by the raging sea. We saw the house across the street. Condemned. Stay away. Don’t approach. This house is a danger zone.


Silently, we bid him farewell and move along to Belle Harbor, Bayswater and Manhattan Beach and see the same horrific scene again and again.


We begin to know what it’s like to be in a war zone.


It’s pointless to compare the destruction. Each neighborhood sustained a beating, each resident is suffering, and each and every person who was affected is an olam molei. Every family who sat in the cold and dark of a destroyed home, bereft of their possessions, is a tragedy that sits on our hearts and minds.


In each neighborhood we had previously visited, the vast majority of the residents were severely impacted, their homes ruined and their lives turned upside down. But by sheer numbers, since it is comprised of a much larger concentration of acheinu Bnei Yisroel, the Far Rockaway/Five Towns area was worst hit.


The Achiezer organization established by Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender four years ago is a multi-faceted mosad hachessed not found in any other city. In a regular week, they handle between 700 and 800 calls. Kodmah refuah lemakoh. The infrastructure was in place to deal with a calamity. Since the hurricane hit, Achiezer has been handling 1,000 calls a day.


The calls relate to everything from people who need psychological help to overcome the trauma they experienced, people who need help cleaning out their homes, to those with no food, money, or place to be. The calls were still pouring in from people without power.


Achiezer is so good at what it does that when the New York State Homeland Security Commissioner met with them to assess the damage and coordinate post-Sandy efforts, he was so impressed that he told the staff members that he had never seen a non-governmental organization like theirs.


When the storm hit, no one really thought it would be as bad as predicted.


They were right.


It was much worse.


To provide a picture of the scope of the devastation and how many people were impacted, consider that the homes of no less than fifty employees of Yeshiva Darchei Torah and over seventy employees of Torah Academy for Girls were heavily affected.


It wasn’t only Darchei Torah and TAG families. There were hundreds more, including doctors, lawyers, professionals and blue collar workers. Every strata of society was affected by a storm that didn’t discriminate.


Think about all the families who were left with nothing. No clothes, no boiler, no electric panel, no seforim, no furniture, no books, no pictures, no cameras, no kitchen. Nothing. They were out in the street, but the street had become a rushing, angry torrent. It was dark and their children were hungry and scared. The parents didn’t know what was going to happen and when it would end. They still don’t know when they will be able to put their lives together and start all over again.


The night of the storm, 70 panicking families called Hatzolah and said that they were trapped in their homes. The water was rising, filling the basement, then the first floor and then the second floor. In some homes, the water rose until the attic. The people were frantic. Some were sure they were going die. They said “Shema Yisroel” and called family members to bid farewell. There were no options of rescue. The streets were rivers. They were impassable. There were trees and wires down everywhere.


A trooper was stopped. “There is a family trapped in a house. Do you have any boats available to rescue them?”


“No,” he responded. “I’m so sorry, but there are 37 rescues ahead of that family. They will have to wait… and pray.”


Hatzolah couldn’t get there. The NYPD couldn’t get there. Firemen couldn’t get there. So volunteers, whose hearts were torn by the anguished cries of their brothers in distress, “stole” rescue boats out of the fire stations to reach people stranded in their homes. They literally risked their lives to save others.


It is thanks to heroes like them that no one died that night in Far Rockaway and the Five Towns. And it is thanks to heroes like them that life is slowly returning to normal in a community that lost so much – not just objects, but, for many, parts of themselves.


It is thanks to heroes like the people from Achiezer and Chasdei Lev, who haven’t stopped helping people since the hurricane blew out. Achiezer has been raising and disbursing much-needed funds. Chasdei Lev supplied generators for power, pumps to rid homes of water, and gasoline to power generators and cars. They organized massive volunteer clean-ups of hundreds of homes, supplied food, and arranged for huge shaimos trucks – three tractor trailers, in fact. All of this has been done quietly, swiftly, and free of charge.


Now, they are organizing good people who are going around from house to house replacing the sheetrock they ripped out last week, laying down new floors in place of those that were waterlogged, affixing electric panels in place of those that were destroyed, purchasing and shlepping boilers and heaters, and providing one house after the next with ovens, stoves, couches, beds, clothes, toys and whatever else people need. They rescued the people physically – they fed them, clothed them, and pumped out their basements – and they are now doing whatever they can to put them on the road to normalcy again.


For two weeks, thousands of donated meals were served to people who had no food, no heat, no stove and no light. Still, last week, there were hundreds of people eating supper at Congregation Beth Sholom. We were there, and we saw proud, dignified people, like the ones who live next door, being treated to a warm, light place and a hot meal. On the way out, they packed up food for Shabbos.


In the gym of Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv, Chasdei Lev organized thousands of clothing items for entire families, all brand new and all free, so that people who were left with the clothes on their backs could rebuild their wardrobes.


Would we ever, in our wildest dreams, have imagined America of 2012 as a place where so many of our brothers and sisters would be without basic clothing and shelter?


As the Second World War began, Lithuania and Poland were sliced up like a pie by Russia and Germany, each claiming large swaths of land. Vilna somehow remained independent, under Lithuanian control, and it thus became a place of refuge for thousands of Bnei Torah who fled there from all over. Seventy years later, Rav Yaakov Galinsky remembers when he arrived there.


A young bochur, he was anxious to take advantage of the opportunity to meet the gadol hador, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, who lived in Vilna. Rav Chizkiyohu Yosef Mishkovsky was the rov of Yankel’s old town and arranged an appointment for him. The night before, Yankel was too excited to sleep, expecting the farher of his lifetime. He reviewed all he had been learning in Maseches Yevamos that zeman so that when the towering gadol would ask him a question, he would be able to offer an intelligent response.


The bochur arrived at the appointed time, only to find some thirty people ahead of him on line. Finally, Rav Mishkovsky opened the door and called his name. Before he knew it, young Yankel was standing in the company of Rav Chaim Ozer. He mentally readied himself for the inevitable: “What are you learning? What daf? Let’s hear a chiddush.


But that didn’t happen. Rav Chaim Ozer asked three questions, which were quite different than anything Yankel imagined they would be.


The first one: ‘When is the last time you received a letter from your parents?”


“Um, half a year ago,” stammered Yankel. “They are on the Russian side and we ran to the German side.”


The second: “Do you have a blanket?”


The city was so overrun by refugees that many of them had no place to sleep. At night, the yeshiva bochurim slept in their clothes on benches in unlit, unheated shuls. The lucky ones had blankets with which to cover themselves and provide a measure of comfort and warmth.


“Yes, boruch Hashem, I do,” said Yankel.


Then came the third and final question: “Please, can I see your shoes?”


An embarrassed Yankel showed the aged gadol hador, upon whose shoulders rested all of Klal Yisroel, the ripped strands of leather wrapped around his feet.


Upon seeing them, Rav Chaim Ozer reached into his pocket and gave the boy money, telling him to use it to purchase a pair of shoes. “This is your new home,” he added. “Whenever you need something, I want you to come here and I will take care of you, any time of day or night.”


When Yankel heard that, instead of dancing for joy, he began to cry uncontrollably. He remembers that he cried because someone cared about him. Someone felt what he felt. He wasn’t all alone. He cried from emotion at feeling, once again, the love he’d left back at home. Someone actually cared about him.


When I was in Far Rockaway, I asked people, “What do you want from us? What do you want us to do?” The response was repeated again and again: “We want you to know what we went through. We want people to know what went on here. We need people to know what we experienced. We need their help.”


In other words, they were saying that they need us to care. They need us to show that we care. They need us to show that we feel the pain of our brothers and sisters. They are in distress. They need our help. They need money to get their lives back together. They don’t need us asking silly questions about insurance and FEMA. They need boilers, they need heaters, they need food, they need a stove; they need mattresses.


And yes, they need blankets.


– – – – –


On that heartbreaking note, with devastation at home and war in Eretz Yisroel, did the month of Cheshvan end. And as goes the story of our people, the notes of tragedy were followed by the inevitable notes of hope.


Kislev, a month when tzaddikim rebuilt a Bais Hamikdosh that had been sullied and defiled, was ushered in with a resounding song of promise; a mass event dedicated to paying tribute to a man who embodied resilience and hope, who did the ultimate rebuilding in the aftermath of ultimate destruction.


Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l arrived on these shores to confront an organized Jewry that was, in most cases, apathetic, and sometimes even cynical and mocking. Europe, with its values and customs, was over, they assured him. America was different.


Rav Aharon looked them in the eye, and with the tenacity that defines an am keshei oref, he told them otherwise.


For us, today, it is difficult to imagine that, in his day, Rav Aharon was in the minority on so many levels, philosophically and in other ways. It’s hard to imagine what the world looked like after the war. Torah Jews were mocked and given little chance. Musmochim took shtellers in Conservative and Traditional shuls because they wanted job security and Orthodoxy was about to perish. The anti-Kotlers, as they referred to themselves, occupied almost every position of power in Judaism.


But Rav Aharon wasn’t deterred. He didn’t see them. He didn’t hear them. He stood up to them. He had the courage to tell them to their face that they were resho’im, that they represented the force of evil. He didn’t see them, because he had true vision. He didn’t hear them, because he heard the eternal word of Hashem and followed it.


Think about the amount of Torah studied and the lives of Torah being lived today thanks to one man’s mesirus nefesh to carry on an unrelenting battle for the truth, never bending to conventional wisdom, to what everyone said and to what everyone thought. He was never influenced by the times or by the air of churban that surrounded him.


He laid the groundwork that allowed tens of thousands of ehrliche people to come forth. He inspired those of his generation to seek greatness, not compromise, growth and not regression. He breathed life into a nascent group which was sputtering. His fire gave light and warmth to those who had none. It lit the path which led to what we see today.


As the flame of Torah in his day flickered because it didn’t have enough fuel; and only weak wicks with which to draw the small amount of oil, he touched them with his torch and flames shot forth, lighting up the entire continent and bringing to life the embers of a Jewry decimated by the Holocaust.


He taught everyone to hear the bas kol and ignore every other sound. He taught a generation that if they could withstand the tide and let it wash over them, they would triumph. They did.


And so, on Sunday, there was a sea of people who gathered at the yeshiva Rav Aharon established. The people just kept coming, thousands upon thousands, one after another. They came to celebrate a legacy. They came to celebrate the triumph of truth, the triumph of Torah. They came to say no to compromise, no to negativity, and no to cynicism. They came to say yes to greatness, yes to growth, and yes to the future.


During these days, when we face oppression on so many fronts, with forces of hate in Eretz Yisroelandthe after-effects of a hurricane in New York, Sunday’s gathering in Lakewood could not have come at a better time. It announced that we will persevere. We will overcome. We will triumph. We are an eternal people. The great soul that breathed fire into Bais Medrash Govoah and Yahadus Hane’emonah both here and in Eretz Yisroel knew it. Our growth is proof of it.


The Israeli Jews under attack live with that truth, as do the good people of Sea Gate, Far Rockaway and all the other communities that are rebuilding their homes and lives.


It is incumbent upon us to demonstrate in every way we can that we care about them.


Lakewood reached the pinnacle at which it stands today because of people who care enough about Torah to support it.


Rav Aharon couldn’t have done it alone.


Rav Shneur couldn’t have done it alone.


Rav Malkiel can’t do it alone.


The victims of Sandy can’t rebuild alone.


They need our help and support.


Netzach Yisroel lo yeshakeir.



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