BY KRC RABBI STEWART WEISS
Anyone who owns a smart phone or PC or tablet or notebook – and that just about covers everyone on our planet – knows the importance of a “reboot.” As soon as something goes amiss, before we completely freak out and start to shake, shiver and shriek, we simply turn off the device and start again. And more often than not, to our overwhelming relief, we find that the system is back on line and we can continue to breathe normally.
Yom Kippur is the “spiritual reboot” for Am Yisrael. It’s our opportunity to face God and say, “Yes, I admit it; I screwed up. I made promises that I failed to keep, I had opportunities that I never acted upon; I let You – and most of all, myself – down. But I’m here! And I’m ready to try again, to do better, to make the right decisions and redeem myself, if only You will give me that second chance. Because I know that You never give up on us; just as You are eternal, so we, the Jewish People are eternal, with the unique ability to rise from the lowest of lows to the greatest of heights.”
One of the great blessings that God has bestowed upon me is the good fortune of serving as the rabbi for kosher cruises over the last three decades. God created a magnificent, beautiful world and invited us to experience it. Doing just that, via the seas or rivers – which are themselves a wonder to behold – soothes the spirit and reinforces our assurance that there is a benevolent, Master Artist whose brilliant landscape is our planet.
On a recent riverboat cruise to the Netherlands, we stopped for Shabbat (when sailing on ships that hold a majority of Jewish passengers, Jewish law prohibits sailing over Shabbat) in the small town of Middelburg. A quaint, picturesque city of 50,000 just up the river from Antwerp, Middelburg dates back to the 9th century; it serves as the capital of Zeeland and has a rich history. It is mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and, as a center of lens crafting, it was here that the microscope and telescope were invented.
Middelburg also has a fascinating Jewish history that began in 1668. The influential rabbi and author Menashe ben Israel – who helped to convince Oliver Cromwell to readmit Jews back to England – is buried here, and there were both Ashkenaz and Sefardic communities that flourished. Though few Jews now reside in Middelburg, it has a famous synagogue that has now been reconstructed, and there lies our amazing story.
This synagogue was built in 1705, the first synagogue to built in the Netherlands outside of Amsterdam. It was occupied in 1940 by the Nazis, who brutally occupied Holland, which had the highest percentage of Jews murdered of any Western European nation, due to the widespread collaboration of the local populace with the Germans. Virtually all the Jews of Middelburg were sent to the death camps, never to return, and the synagogue was struck by a British mortar in 1944 and almost completely destroyed.
Fifty years after its destruction, the Middelburg shul – reduced to piles of stones, covered in weeds – was reconstructed. Dr. Aad Vos, who is not Jewish, began a drive to rebuild and restore the synagogue. He felt that this place was an important historic edifice, and it deserved its own prominent place in the city. He reached out to the city council as well as the local churches and they joined his efforts; the synagogue was finally re-dedicated in 1994.
But it was missing only one thing: the Jews!
Enter Luuc Smit. Luuc’s mother, born Jewish, had escaped the Nazis by going underground during the war. When she emerged at war’s end, she married and, fearing that such a catastrophe could happen again to the Jews, decided that she would raise her children as Christians. Indeed, Luuc’s brother is a Lutheran minister. She begged Luuc to hide his lineage, but Luuc was of a different mind. When he was told that he was actually a Jew, he began to reclaim his heritage, baby steps at a time. He lit candles on Friday night. He found books on Judaism and self-taught himself to read Hebrew. He learned blessings, and said “Hamotzi” on Challah each Shabbat. He eventually prevailed upon a rabbi from a nearby city to come and teach him Torah.
And then Luuc decided to come to the deserted synagogue. “If there is a shul,” he said, “I must pray there, even if I am the only one.” And so he did, praying by himself, until a handful of other Jews heard about the synagogue and joined him. “We sang Adon Olam – it took us 55 minutes!” he told our group, but eventually more than 20 people came and they created a minyan. They officially dedicated the synagogue as an Orthodox shul, with a (ital)Mechitza – as it originally was constituted – and they now have regular Shabbat and holiday services. And on Friday night, Luuc – having studied to become a Chazan – came on board our ship which was docked nearby.
He told his story and then he beautifully led Kabbalat Shabbat prayers. We cried and cheered at the very same time.
Said Dr. Henry Abramson, the celebrated historian and resident scholar on our cruise, “The story of the Middelburg shul’s renaissance is a remarkable example of the incredible power of the Jewish People to continually regenerate.”
Readers of my column know my strong belief that the arrow of history is clearly pointing to Israel. It is here, and only here, where the culmination of our people will be carried out. From the moment that God told Abraham, “To your offspring I will give this land,” and bid him to pull up stakes and move to Israel, this is the dream and the destiny that crowns our faith and powers our spiritual energy. Indeed, the amazing fact that Israel has just been named the world’s 11th strongest country, and that Israel’s population is now approaching 10 million – at a time when most of the world’s Jewish communities are shrinking – is a testament to the fulfillment of God’s promise.
But until that immutable prophecy is completely fulfilled – may it come soon! – the spark of Judaism also burns in a million other places on Earth. Some of those places are long-time centers of Jewish life, while others are unexpected corners of the world where the embers of the past have been stirred until the flame finally reappears. As the prophet Shmuel (my namesake!) so powerfully said,”Netzach Yisrael lo Y’shaker,” the eternity of Israel can never be false.
Yom Kippur is the single-greatest opportunity we have to rekindle the flame within us, to rededicate ourselves to the holy mission each and every one of us share. ”Teshuva” means to return, but it also means “to turn,” in the direction of the place where we belong. Yom Kippur is our second chance; it’s our reboot. It’s “our turn” to make the right move.
May you and all of Israel be inscribed for health, happiness and Peace.