Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Greatest Jewish Generation

I'm not bashful at shiva houses. After years paying shiva calls as a shul rabbi, I no longer beat around the bush. I'm not there to talk about politics or neighborhood issues. So I sit myself down as close as I can to the aveil and simply say, "Tell me about your mother."

And they always want to do exactly that. And sometimes I find myself in awe of what I learn. Take yesterday.

Last week, I received an email from Orot about the passing of Mrs. Sarah Lev, the mother of Mrs. Shoshana Feuer, who works in the office of the President of the College, and I paid a Shiva call yesterday afternoon. Nowadays, when an older Israeli passes away my first question is always, "Was she born in Israel?" (After all, so many were not, which leads to fascinating aliyah stories). So, when Shoshana told me that her mother was born in Europe, I wasn't surprised. But what Shoshana told me next moved me greatly. (I didn't write everything down, so I'm sharing from memory.)

Mrs. Lev grew up in Lodz, Poland. As a child, she studied in a Mizrachi school where she learned Hebrew, and even traveled to the United States as a Mizrachi representative to promote the values of Zionism. (I didn't even know that they sent such missions before the War!) When the Holocaust broke out, her entire family moved east – and continued to move east, until they found themselves in a Russian work camp in Siberia, where they remained until the war ended. After the war, she returned with her family westward, and eventually ended up in a camp in Germany, where she met her future husband.

In Germany, she and her husband began to care for a group of some sixty children who were orphaned during the war, many of whom knew nothing about their families. (Later in life, one refused to marry an Ashkenazi girl, for fear that she might somehow be related to him.) She taught the children Hebrew, and together with her husband became their de-facto parents, accompanying them to Israel when they made Aliyah in 1948. While they didn't remain close to all of them, they did remain quite close with a group of them, and many would bring their future husbands and brides to the Levs before getting engaged. During the shiva Shoshana pointed out an elderly-looking gentleman, about seventy years old now and said, "He made aliyah with my mother." Even now, so many years later, he came to honor and remember the only real mother he had ever had.

Thinking about the stories Shoshana told about her mother, I cannot help but find myself in awe of the tremendous suffering that Mrs. Lev and her generation endured on the one hand, and their amazing fortitude and strength on the other. By and large, they didn't talk about how hard things were (and I'm sure things were no picnic when they got to Israel either). They didn't complain. They did what had to be done. And they – their entire generation, built the country that I am blessed to live in today.

In America, we refer to the generation of Americans who fought in World War II as the "greatest generation" for similar reasons. They fought and suffered and endured, and built the country that the United States is today. The same is true of the heroes that fought Israel's wars and defeated the enemies bent on our destruction.

But we don't talk often enough about a different type of greatness; that of the thousands of Sarah Levs, who gave their strength and dedication to helping others because that's what needed to be done; who accepted their lot in life – the tremendous loss and terrible pain – often with tremendous fortitude, and literally built the country and rebuilt the Jewish people on their backs.

That generation is, inevitably, moving from this world to the World to Come. We must remember them, honor them, and cherish them – and commit ourselves to pass on their shlichut and mesirut nefesh for Klal Yisrael to the next generation who did not have the zechut to know them.