The best vignette of Superstorm Sandy I witnessed was the Red Cross Disaster truck. The truck, which looked like a metal fortified ambulance, came rolling through my neighborhood distributing food. The older gentleman, with a mop of curly grey hair and a mid-western twang, was calling everyone to come out to the street for food and water. Never having been a resident of an official disaster zone, my curiosity got the better of me; besides, I was hungry and the power had been off for a week.
The water was cold and delicious. He gave me a sandwich wrapped in white paper with a big smile of his face. He obviously enjoyed helping people in distress. My neighbor across the street joined me; she is a member of Young Israel Congregation, an orthodox shul. In fact, I estimate that at least a third of my neighborhood is Orthodox.
My neighbor gave me a raised eyebrow as I showed her the sandwich. I unwrapped my gift and sure enough, it was ham and cheese on white bread, with mayo no less. I said “thank you” with as much sincerity as I could muster and the driver waved before toddling further down the street.
A lot of good people with the best of intentions, operating at the best of their abilities and some of their efforts were terrible miscues. Even so, I wanted to kiss the lineman from LIPA who turned on my power. I shook the hand of the volunteer fireman who approved my electrical inspection. Please do not ask me what I would do if I met a LIPA executive.
A large number of us were temporarily made homeless; some of us were even more unlucky. My thanks to everyone who opened their homes to those of us in need. A hot meal for dinner and sometimes a warm bed in a heated room was a heart-melting luxury during the most crushing days. Moses Montifiore Congregation in Bloomington, IL sent us four boxes of prepared frozen meals packed in dry ice. Some have been distributed and some are being held in our freezer. As I wrote above, some of us were even more unlucky.
No words can express my gratitude. I was one of those people in need. When Lenny Thaw and Wes Peskin were organizing and distributing food and goods on the second Sunday after Sandy, I was hauling the debris out my basement while waiting for the electrical evaluation. I should have been at the synagogue but I needed to be in my house.
Yes, I felt like a free ham & cheese sandwich in an Orthodox neighborhood.
There are many lessons to be discussed over the coming months, many observations to be digested. Let the outpouring of help from our congregation inspire us and the words of concern and encouragement raise our spirits. May God bless us and keep us.
This is the season for miracles in many traditions. Hard hearts often and cruel circumstances transform into hope and blessings. The fictional character of Scrooge embodies all that we uphold as morally reprehensible. His views of the poor – condescending and coldly calculated – contradict what is preached on bimahs, pulpits and altars across the land.
In many traditions, including our own, this compassion for the poor was not always so clear cut. In the midrash on Ecclesiastes we find a disturbing passage where a rabbi is explaining wisdom by means of an example.
A Roman noblewoman challenged R. Yose (Yoh-see) ben Halafta, saying to him, “What sense is conveyed by ‘He gives wisdom to the wise’ [Dan. 2:21]? Should the verse not have read, ‘He gives wisdom to fools’?” R. Yose replied, “Have you any jewelry?” She said, “Yes.” R. Yose: “If two persons, one rich and the other poor, should come to you to borrow your jewelry, to which would you lend it?” The noblewoman: “To the one who is rich.” “Why?” “Because the one who is rich has the means to repay should he lose it; but the one who is poor–how is he to repay?” R. Yose: “Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying. You would lend your jewelry only to a person who is rich. Shall the Holy One, then, give wisdom to fools?”
According to the rabbi, a wise man does not lend to the poor. His opinion is not the last word on the subject, not by a long shot. However, we do see how prevalent this attitude was and why we recognize this point of view in our own day.
The hope and the blessing is the historical view. We can compare the words of Rabbi Yose some 1700 ago to our own developed sense of communal responsibility. Rabbi Yose believed in tzedakah but he had no concept of a middle class or how to raise up the economic standing of households and communities through business loans or the micro-loan system. Some may still play Scrooge but their actions are loudly broadcast. One cannot hide such public moral choices from the public square any more.
There are miracles and then there are the miracles that bring profound change for all of our society. This is the season to recognize the miracles that surround us all, large and small.
When Am Echad was created, we inherited three rabbis emeriti: Abram Vosen Goodman z”l, Harold I. Saperstein z”l, and Stuart M. Geller. The abbreviation z”l stand for zichrono livracha – “May his memory be for a blessing,” an important phrase in our tradition indicating someone who has died. This December marks the anniversary of Harold Saperstein’s 100th birthday. To commemorate this significant moment, Rabbi David Saperstein, one of Harold’s sons, will join us for services on Friday, December 3rd, and preach in memory of his father.
Why does Rabbi Saperstein’s anniversary matter?
The short answer is history and legacy. Harold Saperstein was still a student at the Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan when his uncle Adolph Lasker, who was the rabbi in Lynbrook, died of an unexpected heart attack in December of 1933. Harold assumed the pulpit and didn’t retire until 1980. What started as a small congregation of eighty families became a powerhouse of 800 to 1000 families and an incubator of two new generations of rabbis, civil rights leaders, and Jewish lay leaders who served at regional and national levels.
Harold took a leave of absence during World War II and served as a chaplain “somewhere in Italy” and “somewhere is France” as the battles raged. In the 1940’s Harold, already an ardent Zionist, emerged as a voice in the public square in support of the State of Israel. In the 1950’s Harold turned his attention to civil rights and the plight of the disenfranchised. Despite threats of termination of employment, He flew down to Mississippi to protest for civil rights. Together with his wife, Marcia, they traveled to dozens of countries to visit Jewish communities. He fought for Soviet Jewry and he fought for social justice on many fronts.
He was preacher of great renown even though Harold didn’t perceive himself as an original thinker or as a first-rate intellectual according to his son, Rabbi Marc Saperstein. (Marc, one of the leading Jewish scholars today, may disagree with his father’s self-assessment.) Harold saw himself as a teacher making ideas and information come to life from the bimah and in the classroom. He preferred clarity and directness to cleverness and deft turns of language.
The legacy of Harold Saperstein is first, his two sons who are both rabbis who taken their father’s integrity in new, ever more important directions. His thirst for social justice still imbues Am Echad with its passionate core of activists. The high standard of preaching from the bimah and teaching in the classroom still goads the congregation and the leadership to strive to do better.
Harold’s other son, David, is coming to preach. David is director and counsel of the URJ’s Religious Action Center, our Reform lobbying arm in Washington DC; he is our chief lobbyist. As the most influential rabbi in the United States according to Newsweek (2009), when David speaks, it is always significant.
David is returning to his childhood home to honor his father and together we shall remember a considerable and influential voice in the history of American Jewry and Long Island history.