“They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and richness.” (Psalm 92:15)
In August 2013, I began my year as a rabbinic fellow for The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati. My placement was with the Mayerson Jewish Community Center. Although it is a beautiful facility with a devoted, professional staff, my year began in fits and starts. At first, I was going to teach adult Hebrew classes, but then the Hebrew program folded because too few adults were interested. Then, I thought I might teach some basic information about Judaism to local non-Jewish children who visited the Center. This program, too, was scrapped, in part because my schedule as a rabbinical student made it difficult for me to be available during the necessary hours.
At the same time, the JCC was in the midst of some self-assessment and restructuring. Within a few months, I saw some individuals with whom I had expected to be working change departments, change hours, or even move to different organizations altogether. In time, however, I was approached by Tsipora Gottlieb, the director of the Senior Center. I soon discovered that, rather than teaching, my placement would entail a great deal of learning—primarily from my contact with the Center’s older visitors and from the people who provide them with a number of indispensable services.
As I became acquainted with the helpful, friendly, and patient staff, I admired their dedication in dealing with senior citizens in the Cincinnati area. They coordinate transportation and meals for the home-bound and the sick, organize classes and activities, and even include a licensed social worker. What impressed me most, however, were the respect and the personal relationships they foster with their clients. Every employee seems to know all the seniors by name, recognizes them when they come in, and wonders and worries about them if they are absent or ailing. Watching the staff of a professional organization committed to helping the elderly has already been a great help to me on a few occasions in my student rabbinate.
Ms. Gottlieb (Tsippy, as I came to know her) gave me an opportunity to get to know a few of these seniors myself when she asked me to help her with an oral history project. In addition to helping area high school students to conduct their own interviews and do related research, I interviewed seniors who frequented the JCC and review previously recorded interviews. It was in this capacity that I met Edith, a longtime Cincinnati resident and a Holocaust survivor.
After reading a little about her, I conducted a preliminary interview with Edith, and I was greatly moved by her story. She had clearly been interviewed many times about her experiences, but she brought a genuine sense of pathos, presence, and connection to our conversation. She vividly recalled the events of her childhood and adolescence—happy, blissful memories as well painful recollections of the horrors which she and her family were forced to endure. Although I found myself tasked with sorting out a clear sequence to these sometimes scattered anecdotes, I did my best to remain patient, emulating the attitudes of the Senior Center staff. I was particularly inspired by Tsippy’s statement that both these seniors’ stories and the seniors themselves were precious treasures.
Working with Edith was the first time I had ever sat down privately to hear a survivor talk about her experiences. Of course, the subject matter itself made a profound impression on me; the ever-dwindling number of Holocaust survivors in the world lends a certain preciousness to their personal testimonies. There was also, however, something of great value in the fact that I was simply speaking with a person who had been born in a world which long ago ceased to exist. To add to all of this, in the intervening decades, she had lived in a wide variety of places. In short, she had lived a long, full life. As a result, she had much that she was ready to teach and share, from family recipes to personal reflections about Jewish tradition.
Shortly before Yom ha-Shoah 5774, I found myself faced with the task of explaining the unexplainable: teaching the students of my pulpit’s religious school about the Holocaust. How could I teach young children, five to eleven years of age, anything meaningful about the Holocaust? What could I say to make the events seem real to them, without diminishing their hope that they themselves would go on to live long, happy lives? As I looked at them, thinking how best to choose my words, I could not help thinking of young Edith, the girl I never met, the girl who saw her own father shot by Nazi soldiers. I thought of the girl who became a strong woman, who survived to live a long life with its own ups and downs.
In the end, I decided simply to tell the truth. Rather than say the Holocaust represented “ancient history,” or that it had occurred in a time and a place that was remarkably different from our own, or even that six million lives was the price which we had paid to establish Israel as an independent, Jewish state, I told my young students that there was a period of time not so long ago when people in some places were imprisoned and killed for being Jewish. I told them that there were many people who had perished, but that there were many people, like one woman I knew, who had not. After all that they had endured, they had gone on to live their own lives. I said that we needed to learn their stories, and to tell them over and over, lest we forget, lest we give an excuse to those who would deny the truth of what had happened.
My participation in this fellowship placement left me with a number of new skills, including practice interacting with older people, active listening, and piecing together a series of memories into a narrative of a person’s life. The single most profound impact which my placement had on me, however, was that it put me in direct contact with people like Edith, whose long lives have much to teach us about joy, tragedy, and what it means to live. As the Psalmist says,
עוֹד יְנוּבוּן בְּשֵׂיבָה – “They shall still bring forth fruit in old age.”