When bank president Leonard Abess, a member of Temple Israel of Greater Miami, decided to sell shares of the Miami-based City National Bank of Florida (the bank his father, Leonard L. Abess, co-founded in 1946), he distributed $60 million as a bonus to all 399 employees and another 72 former employees. He also kept the matter to himself. When a local newspaper reporter asked Abess about his generosity, he said simply, “I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old. It didn’t feel right getting the money myself.”
On January 24, 2009, President Barack Obama invited Leonard Abess to the capitol and introduced him to the nation as an American hero, declaring: “I have learned that...inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.”
How do you make a large synagogue more personal and intimate? At 1,100-member Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania, Rabbi Gregory Marx’s solution is “Torah-To-Go”: Congregants may reserve the Torah for one week—ark and all—which includes an evening of home Torah study on that week’s portion led by Rabbi Marx, Rabbi Craig Axler, or Cantor David Green.
Rabbi Marx values bringing the synagogue into people’s homes—“The Torah belongs to the people, not locked behind the ark”—and as one congregant, Phyllis Finkelstein, explains: “It’s lovely to have the rabbi to yourself!”
There is a waiting list for the privilege. Some congregants have made reservations for their children’s bar or bat mitzvahs, others for the anniversary of their own bar or bat mitzvah. Torah-To-Go families then become emissaries of Judaism, sharing their heritage with others. Family and friends, including non-Jews who may never have seen a Torah, are invited to the Torah discussion and the clergy tailor the conversation to the particular participants.
Rabbi Marx recalls one Torah discussion in which a member honestly challenged many of the Torah’s fundamental assertions. Eventually, other attendees offered their own responses, resulting in an honest exchange of ideas about what makes the Torah sacred and relevant. “You can’t do that from the pulpit,” Rabbi Marx points out. “This kind of conversation doesn’t happen in the sanctuary.”
Sustaining Judaism in Slovakia
When Alice Gingold, a member of Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield, New Jersey, turned 71, she retired and joined the Peace Corps. Every day on her way to her new assignment in Zvolen, Slovakia—a short distance from her own Austrian birthplace—she passed a Jewish cemetery in deplorable condition: a mass grave covered in weeds and trash, gravestones overturned. Alice’s grandparents had perished during the Holocaust and she vowed to bring dignity to the cemetery. Perhaps her grandparents’ burial place was in a similar chaotic state.
First, a local young Jewish couple and a handful of Jewish students from the Czech Republic volunteered to help Alice clear out the debris and restore the cemetery. Later, the municipality of Zvolen joined in, resetting fallen gravestones in cement, and returning others that had been inexplicably strewn around the city.
The recitation of Kaddish at the cemetery’s opening ceremony in 1994 rekindled in a small group of estranged Jews the desire for Jewish connection and community that had been lost after the Holocaust and Communist occupation. They formed a synagogue called the Jewish Religious Community and began meeting in a converted warehouse.
Alice suffered a slight stroke and returned to Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. Now an ocean apart from Zvolen, she still made sure the fledgling congregation had seder plates, recipes for holiday foods, and more. Her rabbi, David Weis, sent transliterations of holiday and Shabbat prayers. A woman attending one of the holiday celebrations in Zvolen gave the young congregation a Torah that had been concealed underground near her village. The scroll was kept in a glass case until the congregants learned they were permitted to touch the Torah!
Now, 14 years later, the nearly 100-member Jewish Religious Community is self-sustaining. A national monument stands at the site of the mass grave. And this September, Alice will be attending the dedication of the Park of Generous Souls (adjacent to the Jewish cemetery) in honor of those who risked their lives to speak up for Jews at a time when Jews couldn’t speak for themselves.
When members of Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia learned that poor children attending a local elementary school were squirreling away the free meals the school provided on Fridays in order to tide them over until Monday, they created “Backpack Buddies.” Since November 2008, 200 congregants are donating money and/or individually sized portions of non-perishable foods, stocking shelves, assisting Shalom Sunday school classes in packing individual bags of food, and transporting the food to the school, where it’s placed in more than 40 backpacks provided by the temple. The students in need then take the full backpacks home on Fridays and return them every Monday. One child was overheard saying, “You mean I’ll have something to eat this weekend?”