the European Jewish Retreat - the third
Standing on the edge of the Mediterranean, at the southern tip of Spain, I look out to sea. A flotilla is beginning to appear in the distance, with a hostile world about to launch another attack on Israel for defending itself…
But let’s not rush things; there is something more. With Jewish music playing in the background, I close my eyes and try to envision the boats sailing over these waters carrying Jews expelled from these shores 518 years ago.
What secrets do these ancient waters carry? What mysteries lay beneath the surface of this “great sea,” the Biblical name for the Mediterranean?
Elsewhere in the Bible – in Moses’ final words – he calls the Mediterranean the “final” (or “last”) sea (yam ha’acharon). Rashi, the great commentator, explains (from Midrash) that ad ha’yam ha’acharon should be read ad ha’yom ha’acharon, which means “until the very last (final) day,” meaning that G-d showed Moses all the incidents that were destined to happen to Israel until the end of days.
As I gaze at the dark sea, glittering with the reflections of countless twinkling stars, I wonder what Moses felt that final day of his life when he saw all that would transpire through the ages.
No doubt, Moses was deeply distressed by the tragedies that would befall his people – in 1492 in Spain, in 1942 in Europe, and through all the travesties that ravaged the cities and countries surrounding the Mediterranean – Greece, Rome (Italy), Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, France, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt.
But as Jewish melodies waft over these waters on this particular Sunday night – I cannot help but wonder what Moses was thinking when he saw the Jewish renaissance that would come at the end of days.
Did Moses see us standing here – a hundred Jews or more – celebrating our heritage?
Did he see an extraordinary cross-section of the Jewish people gathering together on this retreat: People from across Europe – Munich, Brussels, Milan, Rome, London, Tel Aviv, Geneva, Budapest, Bucharest, Paris, Strasbourg. Leaders representing millions of Jews are here with us: Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger of Israel, Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar of Russia, Chief Rabbi Sholom Lipskar of The Shul in Balle Harbor, Florida.
Some are Holocaust survivors (or their children), others are survivors of different challenges – each with his own fascinating story. From a Tel Aviv fund manager to a Rome business leader, from a Munich major exporter to a Brussels giant metals CEO – executives and leaders of different industries joined together for a very heartwarming weekend, everyone united in the effort of discovering new ways to integrate Judaism and our modern society, which will undoubtedly bear many perpetual fruit.
In its third year, the European Jewish Retreat, under the auspices of the European Jewish Study Network, has brought together an impressive group of leaders and influential individuals. The Director of the Network, Rabbi Sholom Liberow and his colleague Rabbi Eli Edelkopf, assembled a quality team who ran a seamless operation on every possible level.
Besides for the excellent cuisine and venue, the retreat showcased dramatic talks, lectures and discussions. Throughout the weekend you could see passionate conversations taking place – one-on-one or small groups debating everything from the definition of G-d to Israeli politics, Jewish divisiveness to homosexuality, Israel’s economy to the role of Rabbis.
Chief Rabbi Lazar shared deeply moving stories about the radical and even miraculous changes Russian Jewry has experienced in the past two decades. “When my wife and I came to Moscow over twenty years ago, we personally met those few hidden tzaddikim that were fighting to keep the Jewish flame alive under the harsh Soviet regime – a commitment that placed them at constant risk to their own lives. We could not believe their utter commitment. To the extent that when I suggested to Reb Getche Wilensky, an elder Russian chassid, that he should go for a few days to visit the Rebbe in New York, he refused, explaining that he cannot leave his post even for a moment. “What will happen if during these days some woman, for example, would be seeking out a Jewish need and I will not be there to serve her.”
“And then we witnessed with our own eyes,” continued Rabbi Lazar, “how the Soviet Union crumbled, and with it came a new birth of Jewish life in Russia, with the complete support of the former Soviet regime – something simply impossible for anyone to ever imagine.”
Rabbi Lazar contrasted a prescient talk given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the early ‘80s, showing how these exact events took place ten years later. Several days before Shavuot the Rebbe – speaking mysteriously in Russian – declared that children in the Soviet Union have the full right, guaranteed by the Soviet constitution (“kanstitutziya” in Russian), to attend Synagogue on Shavuot, and by law the government and militia (“melitziya”) must assure their safety. At the time no one understood to whom the Rebbe was speaking and what he intended to achieve. A decade later his words were fulfilled to the tee, as Jewish children in Russia were allowed to take off school and attend Shavuot, and the government dispatched militia to protect the children!
Chief Rabbi Metzger related his meeting with the King of Spain, and presenting him with a gift of a Shofar. “When the King asked me what the shofar was – wondering whether we too have toreros – I explained to him that this is the instrument Jews use to begin their new year. I then proceeded to tell him the story of a Marrano who served as a conductor in the Spanish court. In order to perform the mitzvah of Shofar, he convinced the King – your ancestor – who loved music dearly, to schedule a special performance in which he blew the Shofar after reciting the blessings and explaining that this was a mitzvah preformed by the Jews who once lived in Spain before they were expelled.
“With this shofar that I present you today,” the Chief Rabbi told the King of Spain, “we complete the circle that began when the Jews lived here under your predecessors.”
The Chief Rabbi went on to share other fascinating stories of his encounters with world leaders, in countries that once were hostile to Jews, and how they today are helping rebuild Jewish life. One example that stands out is the slashing incident that took place several years ago in Moscow, where a 17-year-old Russian youth went on a rampage in a Synagogue stabbing several Jews. As the young man was going on trial, Moscow's mayor Yury Luzhkov explained to Rabbi Metzger that the teen's defense lawyer was claiming that the teen was grabbed by members of the congregation and brought inside. His defense was that it was just a month prior to Passover and that it's well known throughout Russia that Jews require Christian blood as an ingredient in their Passover matzos. They claimed that when the boy realized what was taking place, he pulled his knife and began to defend himself.
Rabbi Metzger was quite taken aback and asked the mayor if this is what he, too, believes. The mayor explained that up to this day, this is what is routinely taught in Russian schools. At that point, Rabbi Metzger, together with Rabbi Lazar, turned to the mayor of Moscow and proposed that it was long overdue to have a Jewish museum in Moscow so as to better explain and display Jewish life to the average Russian citizen. The mayor agreed to set aside land for just such a project, but asked the rabbi who was going to pay for it. “Lev Leviev,” Rabbi Metzger recounted, referring to the internationally renowned diamond merchant and philanthropist, “happened to be at the meeting and he pledged to put the resources together to make this happen.”
Chief Rabbi Lipskar passionately discussed the unique mystery of Jewish survival and influence throughout history. “The law of history dictates,” he said, “that within ten generation every minority either assimilates or becomes the majority. Jews have always been and always remain a minority, ‘the fewest among nations.’ And yet they have survived through the ages.” He expounded on the nature of Judaism: “Is it a religion, a culture, a race?” he asked, challenging the audience. “It’s way of life,” the rabbi declared, “a force that transcends conventional definition and one that has shaped civilization and virtue as we know it.”
Not to be undone one other speaker – though not a chief rabbi – presented the universal wisdom of Torah on various contemporary issues, including divisiveness, pain and suffering, love and relationships. The pinnacle of the retreat was the impassioned call for discovering relevance of Judaism in every aspect of our lives.
Sitting in Spain – a country that once expelled all its Jews – listening to the powerful influence that Jews have today on world leaders is quite overwhelming. We sure have come a long way.
Sunday night we were entertained in an inspiring Jewish concert, which featured music from all Jewish segments and sub-cultures – Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Israeli, ancient, modern, sung in all languages, including Yiddish, Hebrew, Italian, Hungarian, English and French. The songs and melodies got everyone singing and dancing in one glorious celebration of Jewish unity.
With the Mediterranean as a backdrop – connecting Israel, Europe, Asia and Africa – the sight was remarkable.
No doubt that Moses felt incredibly proud when he was shown the “final sea” and all the events that would take place “until the final day.” Seeing not only the expulsion and the suffering of Jews, but also their dancing and celebration over these waters – is nothing less than a total miracle.
Now yet another “libel” on the Mediterranean waters – this time in the form of a flotilla – is being hurled against Israel by Europe and the international community. Can’t avoid thinking about all the other attacks on Jews that originated from these very same waters…
But with all this Mediterranean turmoil, we remain standing tall and proud. Despite the Spanish expulsion decree of 1492 stating that “we, with the counsel and advice of prelates, great noblemen of our kingdoms, and other persons of learning and wisdom of our Council, having taken deliberation about this matter, resolve to order the said Jews and Jewesses of our kingdoms to depart and never to return or come back to them or to any of them” – here we Jews are celebrating Jewish life in Spanish Andalusia, in full glory.
Standing at the edge of the “great sea,” with Jewish melodies drifting across these ancient waters, I cannot help but smile as I recall the memorable and prophetic words of the Midrash: “All nations that reign over the Jewish people will rise to greatness,” and the Midrash elaborates how this was true with all the great empires, the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman Empires (Midrash Mechilta Exodus 14:5. Zohar II 6a. See Chagigah 13b. Toras Chaim Lech Lecho 92a). As a slight Mediterranean wave slithered to the shore, I could detect it telling us that the converse is also true: When the nations expelled the Jews from their kingdoms, they fell from power. Every one, without exception. Where today is Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome?!…
Another Mediterranean wave seems to be sighing and grinning at the same time, sending the message (when you stand long enough at the water’s edge, all types of messages, delusional or not, enter your consciousness…) – that the same is true with Spain. Spain was propelled to greatness from that rich and vibrant time we call the Golden Age. The transformation of that energy into a a lust for power and conquest corresponded with its turning on its Jews. All that life, brilliance and energy morphed into a worldwide quest for land, gold and slaves. Spain would indeed dominate the Western Hemisphere for centuries and even today, just witness the number of countries in the American hemisphere that speak Spanish. And for all that, where is Spain today in the global arena?
1492 – the year that Spain expelled its Jews – marked the both the beginning of the end of the great Spanish Empire. That same year Spain sent Columbus sailing to America, marking the highest point of Spanish glory – the discovery of the new world. Yet, that conquest was based not on respect and convivencia, as the happier days of earlier Spain were called, but by the exercise of raw power, rapacious, intolerant and destructive.
As always, there is a Divine plan that bends the will of tyrants to its own use. Think about it: Just as Spain was expelling its Jews from the shores of the Mediterranean, it was also – as its crowning achievement – sending its explorers from these same waters to discover the American shores that would welcome and offer haven to the Jewish people and to people of all faiths. And in turn, The United States, would become the next superpower…
Yes indeed, the waters of this “great” and “final” sea have many stories to tell…
Now, 518 years later, celebrating Judaism on the Spanish shores, who prevailed?
But we don’t gloat nor demean; we march ahead with dignity and pride. We bring the majesty of time-tested and war-hardened – yet refined and compassionate – wisdom and experience, not to do battle with those that oppressed us, but to illuminate them: Spain – Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Persia, Rome, England, France, Germany… – with kindness and virtue, infused with Divine knowledge that will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.