Two Inspiring Stories
SAM AND DEDE/LAURAL AND ARNIE This is the story of Laural and Arnie Sigal and Dede and Sam Harris- how they became friends, how that friendship grew, and how we can all be inspired by their story. Making guests feel welcome is a fundamental Jewish value. In Hebrew we call it, “hachnassat orchim.” We see this value evidenced in the earliest chapters of the Torah, when Abraham runs to greet his visitors. Various midrashic sources suggest that Abraham and Sarah specifically designed their tent to be open in all 4 directions so that they would never miss an opportunity to welcome guests. The Talmud (Brachot 17a) praises Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai for the fact that he was always the first one to offer a greeting to anyone he encountered, and Pirke Avot (1:15) reminds us that we should always receive people with a pleasant expression. “Hachnassat orchim, welcoming guests, takes precedence over welcoming the Shekhinah, God’s Holy Presence.” (BT Shabbat 127a)
Making people feel welcome is a foundation of community life. Rabbi Dan Alexander writes of his challenge to greet as many folks as possible at Shabbat services, recognizing “the potential power of a mere greeting.” “A greeting,” he writes, “underscores the essential worthiness of that person.” Wow- that IS powerful. Laural and Arnie exemplify this principle of hachnassat orchim. They are always among the first to reach out to visitors, ask their names, and learn their stories. I personally lean on them when I see someone I don’t know, and ask them to help me welcome our guests. Thank you, Laural and Arnie! So, once upon a time, Arnie was attending a Shabbat morning service when Dede and Sam Harris walked into Temple Chai. As is his way, Arnie introduced himself and engaged them in conversation. When he asked if they had plans for Thanksgiving, the couple was surprised. “Don’t you need to check with your wife?,” they inquired. Arnie replied, “No, I don’t- I know my wife and I know that she would love to have you join us.” Now, how many of us, honestly, would invite people that we had just met to join us for Thanksgiving? I’m guessing not too many. Yet, from that seed of an open heart and a deeply generous welcome, grew a profound friendship.
Laural and Arnie learned Sam’s story, as a child survivor of the Holocaust and now the driving force behind Chicago’s Holocaust Museum, where Sam is featured in a hologram answering questions about his experience, a hologram that will ensure his enduring legacy for many generations. Laural and Arnie’s hospitality, Sam and Dede’s generosity, these inspire us with a vision of the best of humanity. But it doesn’t end there. Among the many things I have learned from these two couples is the value of caring concern among friends, as well as the value of lifelong open-ness to learning from every situation. Last year, the two couples honored us with their presence at a Kabbalat Shabbat service, with plans to continue their time together over dinner. When Laural and Arnie did not arrive at dinner, Sam and Dede were, naturally, quite concerned. Dede reached out to me and I was able to let her know that, in fact, Laural had not felt well and the couple had gone to the emergency room. Thank God Laural was okay, and the next morning I called to share the good news with Dede. Here is where it gets profound for me. With the greatest of humility, Dede shared that, actually, she already had heard the happy news. She was chagrined that SHE had not called ME to let me know that our beloved mutual friend was well.
Here is what she said, that touched my heart and I hope touches yours. Dede is not a young woman. She is a mature woman of age, experience, and wisdom. And yet, her immediate response was, “I guess I am still learning.” What a remarkable example to still be growing spiritually, to still be learning at every possible moment. I was overwhelmed by her example and wanted to share this story today. Welcoming guests, Caring hearts, Generosity, Life-long learning- what an inspiration as we enter this new year.
YONA WEITZNER Yona Weitzner was my children’s Hebrew teacher when they were growing up. I hadn’t seen her for many years until she recently moved back to Phoenix and began putting her talent on the accordion to use playing music with my husband Ron and his friends. We were all guests for Shabbat dinner at the home of Dr. Michael and Livia Steingart, and, following the meal, was spontaneous music and singing. Yona shared a song that reminded her of her family lore, and told us this remarkable story of courage and survival. We can only pray to have the strength to make impossibly challenging decisions as was demonstrated by Yona’s mother, even as we pray that, God forbid, we should never find ourselves in such extreme circumstances.
The story takes place in a small town in Poland, some time in the 1940’s, where Yona’s parents, Adella and Avram lived with her grandparents, Ora and Chayim, and her siblings, Miryam, who was then 2 years old, and Tzvi, who was one. Every Monday and Thursday, her father, Avram, would take the 3-hour carriage ride to Krakow to sell eggs in order to support the family, while Adella and her mother ran a fabric store from their home. It happened while Avram was away. Adella dressed in Polish attire and spoke Polish well enough to pass as Polish. She engaged some local German soldiers, who informed her that, as of tomorrow, the town would be Judenrein, that is, free of Jews, as the entire Jewish population of 150 souls was to be rounded up and transported to a concentration camp. They would “go away and never come back,” he said with satisfaction.
There was no time to think. Adella packed a few valuables and gathered the family to hide in the cellar, covering the opening with a carpet. They huddled together at the sound of heavy boots and the menacing words, “Juden raus- Jews, get out.” In the dead of winter, with snow up to their waists, they fled to the woods. Ora and Chayim died of exposure within a few days, while Adella struggled to reach the Russian border with her two young children. When Yona’s father Avram returned from the market, the house was empty and a neighbor warned him to flee immediately. He miraculously survived as a partisan, fighting in those same woods for 4 long years, alongside two Russian comrades. His friends said, “You are our brother,” and the 3 partisans found their way to a work camp in Siberia.
Adella survived her camp by claiming to be a cook, smuggling food to sustain her starving co-workers. One day, Adella’s friend was allowed to visit the work camp down the road to see her own husband. She spotted Avram, who said, “I thought you were dead.” No, the friend replied, not only am I alive, but your wife and children are with me only a few miles down the road. The couple were reunited and Yona was born in a refugee camp in Austria sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee. The family settled in Israel, where, as Yona put it, her dad went, “From the boat to the battlefield.” The family survived and triumphed- what incredible role models! Think about it. A young wife and mother, her husband away, having to make the heart- breaking decision to run for her life.
I am reminded of the midrash of the Israelite slaves, poised on the edge of the Red Sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit. The rabbis teach that the waters of the sea did not part until one courageous individual, Nachshon ben Aminadav, strode into the waters. When the waters reached his nostrils, it was only then that the miracle occurred. When Alex Borstein was awarded an Emmy several weeks ago, many of us were touched by her words, “My grandmother turned toward a guard — she was in line to be shot into a pit — and said, ‘What happens if I step out of line?’ and he said, ‘I don’t have the heart to shoot you, but somebody will.’ And she stepped out of line,” Borstein explained. “And for that, I am here. And for that, my children are here. So step out of line, ladies. Step out of line.” We live our lives from day to day, oblivious to the great challenges we may face. Tests of courage come in many forms- a frightening diagnosis, the loss of meaningful work, the tragic death of a loved one. The heart knows its own pain; each of us has our own struggles and our own journey. We never know what tomorrow may bring We pray that the challenges be few and far between, even as we pray that when we need strength and courage, when we need faith and perseverance, when we need to step out of line, that we may plunge forward into the waters like Nachshon ben Aminadav, and cling to the inspiring vison of young Adella’s amazing legacy.