Sunday, April 27, 2014

Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day thoughts, 2014

Tonight begins Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

For the last several years, I have sent a note to the congregation noting the survivors from our community who have died since last yom HaShoah.   As we know, those who survived the Holocaust as adults are now in their 90’s or older, and the youngest of the survivors -- those too young to remember anything about the experience -- are nearly 70.  Each year, we note the losses of survivors in our community, who were our links to a world destroyed.

This year, I think especially of Gerda Stuiver z”l, mother of USH member Jake Stuiver, who died last April in her 80’s, and Lee Berendt z”l, father of USH member Chuck Berendt, who died just a month ago at age 90.

Gerda Stuiver was originally from Vienna.  When she was 8 years old, in 1938, she was one of the approximately 10,000 Jewish children from Europe who were brought to England as part of the Kindertransport rescue mission.  She was fortunate to be reunited with her mother during the war, as her mother managed to become a chaperone or escort for the children on the Kindertransport mission, but she lost many other relatives and childhood friends.  She married her husband Elko, who also survived the Holocaust in the Netherlands, and they lived in Israel and then in Philadelphia until she died almost one year ago, immediately after Yom HaShoah 2013.

Lee Berendt was from a town in Poland called Sompolno.  As a teenager, he was taken by the Nazis from Sompolno as a slave laborer to Germany. He would later learn that his slave labor helped to build the German Autobahn.  Meanwhile, most of his entire family was murdered at the Chelmno death camp.  Lee was fortunate to be one of the very few survivors from Sompolno.  He came to the United States, where he married and raised his  family.

One particular incident in Lee’s life seems especially relevant on this day of Yom Hashoah.  Around the year 2000, still relatively early in the history of genealogical research on the internet, Lee Berendt came upon a photo taken in 1941, a group photo of over 100 Jewish men from Sompolno.  Apparently this photo was taken immediately before a deportation. With Lee's prodigious memory, he realized that he remembered the names of many of the people in the photo.   His son Chuck told me about how he assisted his father in painstakingly labeled each person in the photo with a number, and then listing the personal information that he remembered for 98 of them.  This labeled photo and Lee Berendt’s list are now online on the Internet (see , and I presume they have been used by many people seeking to gather information about their relatives.  Of those in the photo, fewer than 20 survived the war.  For many of the men in this photo, it may be the only surviving photo of them, anywhere in the world.   Thanks to Lee Berendt’s commitment to bearing witness, their relatives are able to locate their image on this photo - and in a small way, the memory of those who died in the Shoah is being perpetuated.

A survivor in our community of a different kind was William Jurman z”l, father of USH member Karen Jurman, whose funeral took place this morning; he died on Thursday evening at age 90.   William Jurman grew up in the United States, and as a teenager he was drafted into the US Armed Forces.  He fought against the forces of Nazi Germany, showing significant heroism and bravery in combat even after being wounded, for which he was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart medals.   At his funeral today, his nephew described how William Jurman returned from the war with significant physical pain and mental torment; it took him four years to truly re-enter society.  But he quickly recaptured his courage, pursuing a successful career as an ironworker who walked fearlessly on the girders of structures like the Verezzano Bridge and the World Trade Center while they were being built.  (Our dear friends and USH members Bernard Kammer z”l and Joe Israel z”l, who also died this year, were also World War II veterans and also played a role in bringing the Holocaust to its conclusion.)

May the memories of Gerda Stuiver and Lee Berendt be for a blessing, together with the memories of all those who died in the Holocaust, and all those who endured it and survived until more recent years, and all those who played a role in bringing the Nazi death machine to its conclusion.  As the responsibility to transmit their stories is gradually shifting to us, may we fulfill this sacred obligation, in tribute to their memories.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Iron Chef Passover Edition at USH! -- results

On March 30, we had an amazing Pre-Passover program for the USH community - Iron Chef Passover Edition!

Two teams of chefs from our community competed to make delicious Passover food using some secret ingredients they were told about only immediately before they began to cook.  (Secret ingredients were:  dates; fennel; mint.)

Simultaneously, we had workshops on Matzah baking and Haroset making and a seder trivia game.  Then we ate some amazing food and voted!  (Of course it's too late to vote now, but you can see the ballot at

And the winners were:

Best appetizer:    Team Emiril L'Chaim - BAM! -- Deep Fried Matzo Balls w/ dipping sauces!
Best side dish:   Team MGSRR - Symon - Same Kukhers -- Vegetable Saag w/ Fennel & Mint!
Best dessert:    Team MGSRR - Symon - Same Kukhers -- Matzah Bark!

Most creative use of secret ingredients:   Team Emiril L'Chaim - BAM! 

Grand prize winners: 
Team MGSRR - Symon - Same Kukhers:  Monica Plotka, Shamira Malekar, Ruby Kurulkar, Gene Steinhart!
Second place finishers:   Team Emiril L'Chaim - BAM!:  David Swirnoff, Mike Blumenfeld, Elissa Aaronson, Samantha Myers, Susan Klein-Cohen!
Special thanks to

Grace Gurman-Chan for conceiving of the project and directing every aspect of it;

Alessa Kreger for logistical coordination of each aspect of this project;

The Losos/Weaver, Plotka and Myers families for opening your homes;

Marilyn Freiser and Louise Kurtz for coordinating matzah baking, and Max Ohring / Anya Steinhart / Hannah Plotka / Joshua Myers for assisting and helping to transport kids from place to place;

All our chefs for your extraordinary food and your culinary creativity!  (and wishing full recovery to Rhonda Strosberg who was unable to cook with us on Sunday)

We are delighted that USH Learning Center teacher Eytan Stern-Weber took video of the event and will be editing it into a brief highlights video, so we can share with others what we learned, what we ate, and how much fun we had.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"Dayyeinu"? "Enough"? -- For Passover 2014 / 5774

One of the best-known parts of the Seder is certainly one of the most unusual:  the song or prayer called “Dayyeinu.”  It is perhaps the best known of all Passover melodies.  
This is the song that expresses thanks to God for each of the various steps of the process of the Exodus from Egypt.  After each step, we say “Dayyeinu - It would have been enough for us.”  “If God had taken us out of Egypt, but not imposed justice upon the Egyptians - It would have been enough for us.  If God had given us the Mannah in the desert, but not given us the gift of Shabbat, it would have been enough for us.”  Etc.
The problem is that some of the lines of Dayyeinu just seem completely illogical.
For example, I think of the line, “If God had split the Red Sea for us, but not led us through on dry land, Dayyeinu.  It would have been enough for us.”  Really now!  I’m not sure that would have been quite enough for me.  To have the opportunity to see this dramatic miracle - the splitting of the Red Sea -  but not to actually cross the sea. I imagine that would have been somewhat disappointing.  Somewhat insufficient.
Then again, perhaps a line such as this highlights the very counter-intuitive nature of the attitude expressed in Dayyeinu.  It may seem like one of the simplest of all Passover songs – and it is a perennial hit with the toddlers and pre-schoolers in our community! - but like most of Jewish liturgy, it packs a sophisticated message.
The Dayyeinu mentality is a counter-intuitive mentality.  It’s hard to say ‘it would have been enough.’  I get the sense that most people have a hard time saying that anything that they have is really enough for them.  Whether we’re talking about money, or possessions, or honor or prestige, or love and affection, or happiness or good fortune, couldn’t we always use more?  And as long as we could use more, it’s not really enough yet.
A prayer like Dayyeinu reminds us to do as honest an assessment as possible of what we truly need, and of what we merely desire.  If we have what we truly NEED, then we can say Dayyeinu, it would have been enough.  And we can express honest appreciation for everything we have that is in excess of that bottom-line need.
It takes some degree of effort to train ourselves to see the world as a collection of blessings for which we are grateful rather than as a collection of disappointments and unfulfilled expectations.  This is one of the most important concepts in Jewish prayer.
You may know that I love to quote from the Talmud:  “hayyav adam levarech me’ah brachot be-chol yom.”  “Each person ought to say 100 blessings each day.” (Menahot 43b)     The talmud asserts that we can discipline ourselves to identify 100 miracles in our lives each day, and even on a difficult day we can find moments of happiness and satisfaction, wondrous moments that surpass our expectations.
A problem with this Dayyeinu perspective is that when we reduce our expectations of what we are going to get from the world, we have the potential to inhibit our reaching and striving.  We have the potential to become complacent, merely taking whatever life circumstances are thrown to us.  I have certainly met some people who take the Dayyeinu ideal to an extreme.  Their attitude is always, “God will provide.  And whatever God will provide will be enough.”
I would say, however, that Dayyeinu is not about reducing our desires or inhibiting our dreams.  Rather, it reminds us that we ought to express gratitude whenever our dreams ARE fulfilled, just as it reminds us that in our lifetimes, a good portion of our dreams may NOT be fulfilled.  For example, we each probably set out to achieve far more  than we will actually be able to achieve in our lifetimes. But when this happens, we ought to still express gratitude even for our partial blessings.
You may know that one of the traditional Jewish names for God is “Shaddai.” In the Talmud (Hagigah 12a), one rabbi, Resh Lakish, explains that the name Shaddai is related to the Hebrew word “dai,” which means ‘enough.’   (This is the word that “Dayyeinu” is based upon.)   Resh Lakish explains, God says, “Ani hu she-amarti le-olam dai.”  God says, “I’m the one who said ‘dai’ to the world.   I’m the one who said ‘enough’ to the world.”
God could have continued the process of creation, making a bigger world, or a more elaborate world.  But I imagine that on that first Friday afternoon, as Shabbat approached, God said “dai.”  Enough for now.  Perhaps not everything is exactly as I might have preferred.  Perhaps there is still much work to be done.  But it is still a world full of blessing.  Despite its lack of perfection, it will suffice.  It is enough.
Perhaps when we sing “Dayeinu” at the seder, we are emulating God’s capacity to look at something incomplete or imperfect, and to see it as incomplete or imperfect, but also to see it as saturated with blessing. 
Perhaps this is part of what we mean when we refer to looking at the world with Jewish eyes.