When Tragedy Strikes
A horrific tragedy took place within the community of Boca Raton, Florida, last April. A 12-year-old girl, Shoshie Stern, was killed in a traffic accident. At an emotional communal gathering, one of the rabbis summed up everyone’s feelings:
We reel from this tragedy. It feels like it was just moments ago, hours ago, that we received a phone call or text message informing us that a 12-year-old girl -- a precious neshamah -- has been lost. The pain is still so acute, the grief is so overwhelming -- and it could not have happened to a more special family.
As those who spent time in the shivah home have come to realize, Rabbi Michael Stern and his Rebbetzin, Denise, are incredibly special people. Tonight, at their home, they spoke to two people from our community who saw the entire horrific event unfold. I heard Rabbi Mike turn to Denise and say, “We need to be here for those who witnessed it. They really went through a very difficult thing. We have to lift their spirits; we have to give them comfort, because they are really going through a horrible time.”
Can you imagine! What extraordinary people -- to think of others even as they are going through this themselves.
Nothing is coincidental. Rabbi Paysach Krohn had been called to perform a bris in Boca Raton. Incredibly, the bris turned out to be during the shivah for Shoshie Stern. He was thus asked to address the community the night before the bris. A large crowd gathered in one of the community shuls. The following is taken from his words.
We have come together in a week of anguish and in a week of heartbreak. What happened this past week will affect all of you forever. As a New Yorker, I can tell you that years ago, 9/11 affected us, and it still affects us to this day. Similarly, all those who live in Boston will be affected forever by what happened at the Marathon. And all of you here in Boca Raton will be affected forever by the sudden terrible, tragic loss of that special girl, Shoshie Stern.
In Boca, the sun set prematurely, and it cast a pall of darkness on the entire community. The shadows of this darkness spread across Jewish communities throughout the world. So many of us who do not live in Boca feel your pain and share your grief, because whoever we speak to tells us about the greatness of Shoshie’s parents, Rabbi and Mrs. Stern.
As I was being driven here from the airport, a friend who knows the Sterns called me and said, “Rabbi Stern was my closest friend growing up. He is the embodiment of Avraham Avinu. He has an organization called Rabbi Without Walls, which does just what it says: He does not wait for unaffiliated Jews to come to him. He goes out to people and is mekarev them.”
I want to tell you a very painful lesson I learned as a young man. My father passed away when I was only 21. I am the oldest of seven children. I had known for a while that he was sick. One day, my father was taken to the hospital in Washington Heights. He had been a talmid of Rav Shimon Schwab, so my brother, Kolman, and I stayed in the Rav’s home for Shabbos. After having visited my father in the hospital, we went back to eat the seudah with Rav Schwab and his wife. The Rav asked how our father was. I answered, “I have bitachon (faith) that he will get well.”
Rav Schwab became very serious, and taught me a lesson for life. “Bitachon in Hashem,” he said, “does not mean that your father will necessarily recover and get well. Faith in Hashem means that we understand that Hashem has a master plan, and He knows what He is doing. It does not mean that only good things happen.”
Tragedies happen, r”l. Bitachon means having faith that Hashem knows what He is doing, and that perhaps one day we will understand. That is why we get together to give each other chizuk, so that we will not be broken. At the end of time, we will find out why it happened, but until then, we face the reality that difficult things occur.
A New Person
A neighbor of mine, Mrs. Gitty Lipsius, teaches in Shevach High School in Queens. She had a number of children, and then it was a few years before she was expecting another child. She went through a full-term uneventful pregnancy, but tragically, the child was stillborn. She was devastated and sank into depression.
Mrs. Lipsius told me that her father, R’ Gershon Yankelowitz, had lost his entire family in the Holocaust, and after the war, he and his wife had trouble having children. After years, they had their first child, a little girl -- who died only four months later. He had suffered so much. Eventually, he and his wife had a family. Now, years later, he called his daughter Gitty and asked her how she was doing. She replied that she was doing terribly; she could not find herself and did not know how she would ever be the same again.
Rabbi Yankelowitz said, “My dear daughter, you will never be the same. You are a new person. Find your newness. Get used to it, and live with it. When you accept your new situation, you will be able to go on.”
When her father gave her that insight and direction, Mrs. Lipsius realized how right he was. She told me that once she accepted her new reality, she felt liberated. From that point on, she was able to return to being a functioning, accomplishing person.
That is what we must learn to accept here in Boca. We will never be the same. Once we learn to accept that, and live with that newness, we will be able to grow.
A Cup of Blessing
A while ago, I got a call from Rabbi Yisrael Rosenfeld who had been a wonderful mechanech and principal in Denver, Colorado for many years. I personally have a great debt of gratitude to him because he was the teacher of my wife, Miriam, who grew up in Denver. Rabbi Rosenfeld said to me, “In the past, you have done the brissen of a number of my grandsons who live in New York. But now I have had my first great-grandson! Please come to do his bris at the White Shul in Far Rockaway.”
I was honored to get that call, and so on the designated day, I arrived early to the White Shul to prepare for davening and the subsequent bris. Before davening, Rabbi Rosenfeld showed me the becher they would be using. He told me that it was very special to him, because when his parents married in Chust, Hungary, the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, zt”l, gave them that cup as a wedding gift.
I was impressed, but Rabbi Rosenfeld was not finished. He continued and told me that he had been in Auschwitz. I was shocked. I had thought that he was born in Denver. No, he told me, he had been born in Chust, and when he was 15, the Germans surrounded Chust and turned it into a ghetto. The Jews learned that they had four days until they would be deported. Rabbi Rosenfeld’s parents thought they would be sent deeper into Hungary; they had no idea that they would be sent to Auschwitz.
Yet despite the fact that he was a teenager, Rabbi Rosenfeld realized that they would not be allowed to take their valuables with them, so he asked his father to allow him to bury some of their family’s precious possessions until the time when he would hopefully return and dig them up. His father consented. He took the atara of his father’s tallis, his mother’s candlesticks, his father’s pocket watch and the becher, and ran with them to the area behind his grandmother’s house, where the ground was very soft (because they had chickens there). With his hands, he dug as deep a hole as he could and buried those four items.
Four days later, they were sent to Auschwitz where they stayed for a year and a half. Rabbi Rosenfeld’s father and brothers were murdered there. He, a sister, and his elderly mother survived. It took months for him to return to Chust, and when he finally got there, he ran into his home -- but he was thrown out and threatened with arrest if he came back.
He ran behind his grandmother’s house and tried to remember where he had buried those precious articles. The ground had hardened, but he took a piece of wood and started digging. Sure enough, he found all four of the possessions. The becher had been flattened by the weight of people stepping on the ground above where it lay near the surface, but sometime later, Rabbi Rosenfeld had it repaired.
“This cup,” Rabbi Rosenfeld exclaimed, “has been used for every wedding and every bris in the family! Today, for the first time, it will be used for the bris of my first great-grandchild. That’s why it’s so special.”
I took the becher and kissed it, and asked Rabbi Rosenfeld to give the cup to me before the bris because I wanted to address the crowd before we even started. Thus, after davening but before they even brought the infant in for the bris, I held the becher up for all to see and told them its story.
“I believe this becher represents Klal Yisrael,” I said. “This becher was buried. This becher was trampled on. This becher was given up for lost -- just like Klal Yisrael. We have been thrown out of so many countries, we’ve been beaten and we’ve been given up for dead after pogroms. But today, here we are, stronger than ever. To me it would seem that this kos shel brachah is so special that after the bris, everybody should line up to sip some wine from this precious becher.”
Sure enough, after the bris, close to 20 people lined up to drink from that cup of blessing.
And that is what I believe each of us here in Boca tonight must do. We must strengthen ourselves and become like this kos shel brachah. That is our obligation. From tonight on, each of us must make a commitment that we will be a cup of blessing for others in Klal Yisrael. Each of us has certain talents. Each of us is accomplished in his or her own way. Tonight, we must look into our hearts and ask ourselves, “How can I become a blessing?”
None of us would have wanted this to have occurred, but each of us will now become a kos shel brachah, because now we will feel pain for others as never before. Now we will become more compassionate people. We will do more chessed. We will understand what it means when a community comes together and the people give chizuk to each other.
Let me give you an example. There is a fellow named Shabsi in London who has a job as the head of the tuition committee of a local yeshivah. It is a job nobody wants. Shabsi told me that as the tuition committee leader, he called a wealthy fellow, Feivel, a few days before Pesach to remind him that he owed the school £2,000, which the school needed desperately to pay the staff before Yom Tov. Feivel said that he would take care of it that day and promised that he would come to Shabsi’s home later that afternoon. Shabsi waited, but Feivel did not show up.
A few weeks passed. Now it was a few days before Shavuos. Shabsi made another phone call to remind Feivel of their previous conversation. Feivel protested that he had indeed come to drop off the money that day, but he had not been able to find parking, so he gave an envelope with the money in it to Shabsi’s eight-year-old son who had been playing outside the house. Shabsi went to ask his son about it. The boy said that he did not remember any envelope.
Shabsi called back Feivel and said that it was pretty irresponsible to trust a youngster with so much money, but before going to a din Torah to work it out, he would go up and down his block to see if anyone found it. The block was full of frum families, and he asked everyone if they had found a white envelope. Finally one neighbor, Henoch, responded by asking, “Do you mean the one with £2,000 in it?”
“Yes, exactly,” said Shabsi. He went on to tell the finder the whole incident.
“You won’t believe this,” Henoch said. “A few days before Pesach, I was laid off. I had no idea how I would make Pesach. I didn’t want to go home and tell my wife. I walked around, trying to decide what to do, and there on my lawn was an unmarked envelope with money inside. Like manna from heaven. That’s how I covered our Pesach expenses. However, now that you tell me that it is money that belongs to the yeshivah, of course I will pay it back. But it can only be in increments as I still don’t have a job.”
Shabsi called Feivel to tell him what had happened. What Feivel said was remarkable. “Tell him to keep the money. I’ll give you another £2,000. I was once in his position as well, and I can understand what he is going through.”
And indeed, Feivel brought the money over right away. Why did he do that? Because he had gone through a similar terrible experience of being without an income and had learned from it. He had become a kos shel brachah.
That is how we grow. From adversity we feel pain, and that helps us relate to others in a similar situation. This, then, is a moment of growth.
Of Chariots and Horses
Finally, I believe that when a tragedy of this scope occurs, we need perspective. I had a friend in Detroit, Elya Shoenig, who had a son named Chezky. In the winter of 1966, shortly after his bar mitzvah, Chezky became very ill. He was a wonderful, respectful child, loved by everyone. By January 1967, the doctors realized that Chezky had leukemia. Everyone was especially frightened, because Chezky had had leukemia when he was two. For ten years, it had been in remission, but now it had returned with intensity.
Chezky’s father did everything he could to pursue treatments for his son. One day, someone approached him in shul and said, “Elya, I want you to know that your son will be fine! He’s going to be healthy again!”
“How do you know that?”
“There is a pasuk,” the man said, “‘Eileh varechev v’eileh vasusim, va’anachnu b’sheim Hashem elokeinu naskir -- Some [the non-Jewish world] with chariots and some with horses, but we, in the name of Hashem our G-d, we call out (Tehillim 20:8).’
“The pasuk says that non-Jews rely on ‘chariots and horses’ to fight their battles, but we call out to Hashem; we’re on a higher level. It’s the same in medicine. Your son is fighting a battle with leukemia. Perhaps for a non-Jewish child, leukemia would seem hopeless because of the limitations of medicine, but your son will get better because Hashem is fighting his battle.”
Elya was moved. The more he thought about it, the more encouraged he became. Soon, he felt positive that Chezky would get better. Every day, he kept saying the pasuk over and over and convinced himself that this temporary nightmare would soon be over. Even after Chezky became more ill and needed a bone marrow transplant at the Harper University Hospital in Detroit, Elya Shoenig did not lose hope. Interestingly, when the doctor said to Elya, “Mr. Shoenig, your son is doing better than everybody else on the ward,” he thought, “Of course, ‘eileh varechev v’eileh vasusim….’”
Tragically, Chezky’s situation got worse, and a few months later, on an erev Shabbos, he passed away. The whole Detroit community was devastated. They had a heartbreaking funeral, just as you had here in Boca. Every child who knew Chezky was crying, just like every girl here who knew Shoshie cried.
For weeks afterward, every time Elya Shoenig said that pasuk during Shacharis it pained him. And every day the pain grew worse. Wasn’t that the pasuk that assured him of healing? He was distraught until one morning, he suddenly came up with this understanding: What was Dovid Hamelech telling us in this phrase? It is not the battle plan during the war, but the approach after the war that Dovid was emphasizing.
After the war, when a non-Jew loses, he says, “If only I would have done something different. If I’d had a different strategy or different weapons, I could have won.” “Eileh varechev v’eileh vasusim” -- if only this, if only that…
However, a Jew does not look back. He does not say, “If only I had used a different doctor, different hospital, different treatment…”
Now, he understood the next pasuk: “Heimah karu v’nafalu -- they slumped and they fell,” because they thought that they controlled it and could have caused a different outcome. But “Anachnu kamnu v’nisodad -- we got up and felt invigorated,” because we knew that no matter what we would have done, the outcome, which was the will of Hashem, would have been the same.
Some people may think that maybe Shoshie should not have crossed that street, maybe she should not have been in that area at that time or maybe she should have stayed home. But that is not how we should look at it. No matter what she would have done, and no matter where she would have been playing, it was going to happen. We can look at the Sterns and say that they raised a beautiful child. They and their precious daughter did everything they were supposed to do. We can all be proud of her, proud of her family and proud of her community.
That’s why we can say with confidence, “‘Ananchnu kamnu v’nisodad’”; we rise and are invigorated, because she was raised in the most magnificent way. The Sterns did everything they were supposed to do. And if you do everything that you are supposed to do, you cannot feel inconsolable about it. You should be proud that such a child was raised in your wonderful community of Boca Raton. The family, the school and the community should be proud.
Hashem should help all of you continue to be that kos shel brachah, that lev tov to each other, and know that though you have gone through a difficult time, you will not be broken. You will build yourselves and rebuild the Stern family; you will give them and anyone, anytime, who may find themselves in their position chizuk. May Hashem bless all of us with strength and perseverance, for they are the hallmarks of Jews through the ages.