Category Archives: Archives 5764


Tammuz 5764 – A Time For Tears – by Aviva Feiner

1 Tammuz 5764

Aviva Feiner

As women, many of us are quite accomplished criers. While the end-of-the-year maelstroms of tears are fresh in our minds, let us attempt to swim deeper into the sea called dimah and bechi.

Tamuz: While the rest of the world rejoices in the freedom and revelry that accompany the summer months, we Jews prepare to grieve and to mourn. It is well known that the current names of the Jewish months do not have their origins in the Torah. So from where does our new month receive its name?

Yechezkel, in his epic Maaseh Hamerkavah, recounts sins that he envisions during this revelation:
“Vayavei osi el pesach sha’ar Beis Hashem asher el hatzafonah v’hinei sham hanashim mivakos es haTamuz” – So He brought me to the northern gate of the house of Hashem and see there! The women sit causing the Tamuz to cry OR crying for the Tamuz (Yechezkel, 8:14).

One might wonder: What is a “Tamuz” and how does one make it cry or cry for it? Rashi informs us of a mannequin idol, named Tamuz, with eyes of lead that would appear as if it were crying when a fire was lit inside of it, causing the lead to melt. Thus the lead rolling from the idol’s eyes would make it appear as if it were begging for sacrifices. The women would then come and attempt to pacify this sorrowful deity. The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim, 3:29) speaks of a “prophet” named Tamuz who was executed by the idolatrous king due to his differing views regarding pagan worship. The first day of the month of Tamuz was his memorial day on which specifically the women would mourn his loss. Finally, the Radak avers that Tamuz is a noun that depicts burning; in this case, the burning of children for the sake of sacrifice. The women would cry over the loss of those children.

Regardless of the opinion followed, all of the scenarios mentioned depict what we might call “crocodile tears,” or tears cried in foolishness and vain. And by whom are these tears shed? You got it– none other than by the women!

Interesting then, that the midah of this month is that of sight and its element is water (Glazerson, Above the Zodiac). The Zohar, at the beginning of Parashas Shelach, writes that the Jewish people blemished their power of sight with the sin of the miraglim. The miraglim returned to the desert after forty days of clouded vision to spearhead the ultimate night of bechiyah l’chinam- crying for nothing. We know that this night was the night of the 9th of Av which tragically became a night of bechiyah l’doros – crying for generations. A little bit of quick mathematics reveals, then, that this ill fated mission took place almost entirely in the month of Tammuz!
Is this month indeed all about tragedy?

In his Ohel Dovid commentary on Yechezkel and Rus, R’ Dovid Cohen expounds on the koach of the month of Tamuz. This is the month in which the luchos were both given and subsequently broken. It is a month in which the hisorirus mil’malah- the G-dly awakening to extend His benevolence- is aroused, but remains latent in the hands of mankind to bring to fruition. It is in Tamuz that we observe the harvested crops sitting in the fields and awaiting their future selection. Using these concepts, he turns our attention to the story of the Book of Rus. Naami did not immediately attempt to betroth her newly widowed daughter-in-law Rus, but waited instead for three months to pass from the date of Machlon’s demise. Chazal teach us that the time of ki’tzir hachitim, the harvest season- when Rus’ husband Machlon died- was the 16th of Nisan. Therefore, Naami spoke to Rus about her prospective idea on the 15th of Tamuz. It was then on the night of the 16th of Tamuz when Rus paid that surreptitious visit to Boaz. Finally, it was the night of the 17th of Tamuz on which Boaz married Rus, upon which she conceives. The Midrash notes that, unbeknownst to Boaz, Rus actually had no womb and it was on that night that Hashem miraculously gave her one. She received her hisorirus mil’malah that night and it was brought to fruition only nine months later with the birth of her son Oved… and later on Dovid HaMelech. We thus see that Tamuz is, ultimately, a month filled with koach, potential, waiting to be brought out li’poel- into the realm of action.

We all know that bringing out potential is always challenging, often painful and confusing. As the power of sight holds within it the potential of leading us astray (“what a great looking movie”) it is also one that builds futures (“that’s my kallah under that veil!”). And while water has the ability to wreak havoc and destruction, it is also the precious liquid that sustains the world.

As women, we possess the ability to keep our tears in check. After all, who didn’t cry on that fateful night in the desert?! The Radak, in his commentary on the posuk from Yechezkel quoted earlier, grammatically compares the word “mivakos” to “Rachel mivakah al bane’hah” (Yirmiyahu, 31:15). What a contrast: The tears of these women over what appeared to be meaningful but was truly a farce, and the tears of our mother Rachel which will enable the eternal salvation of her children!

That great-grandson of Rus, Dovid HaMelech, promises us that, “hazorim bedim’a b’rena yiktzoru,” “those who plant in tears will harvest in joy” (Tehillim, 125:5). Let us use our koach of dimah wisely, recognizing that we do not want to “plant” in vain for it will surely produce weeds and thorns. Tamuz is a time when we can use our gift of vision to see all the beauty and kedusha that is waiting to be gathered in. Let us remember the great Rus who demonstrated that patience and faith can stir HaKB”H to set the stage for Moshiach Tzidkeinu. All the more so, let us emulate the persistence of our Mama Rachel who was promised “Vi’shavu banim lig’vulam”. Let us daven for the day soon when Hashem will declare, “My cup is full!”, and there will no longer be a need for any more tears.

“U’macha Hashem Elokim dimah mei’al kol panim” (Yeshayahu, 25:8).

All my love to my special friends from Sharfman’s – always thinking of you!
Hatzlachah with everything!
Mrs. Feiner


Iyar 5764 – Ahuvah’s Story Part 2 – by Sheina Medwed

15 Iyar 5764

Ahuvah’s Story, Part 2: An End and a Beginning
By Sheina Medwed

It was a long, hard journey fraught with discouragement. But Dolores was determined to be accepted by the Beis Din. Finally, after over a year’s time of intensive study and at least two more rejections, the day that was to become Ahuvah’s Jewish birthday arrived.
She took a very close friend with her. Before she left the seminary, her Rebbetzin, the principal of the school, said to her, “Please come directly back here. I really don’t want you to miss the Rosh Chodesh seudah.”
“Okay Rebbetzin, I’ll come right back.”
For the weeks preceding her conversion, Ahuvah had been very somber.
“Ahuvah,” a friend asked, “is everything okay? You look sad.”
“Well, I think the seriousness of my decision is weighing on me. There are six hundred and thirteen mitzovs. Right now I only have to keep seven. But you know what, I know that the same G-d Who brought me this far, will help me keep those mitzvos.”
The long-awaited day dawned clear and bright. It was Rosh Chodesh Nissan, a day that is crowned with ten crowns. For Ahuvah it was the day she would be crowned with a Jewish soul.
After the conversion procedure, Ahuvah went directly back to the seminary but when she went to the Rebbetzin’s office, no one was there. Then she remembered that the Rebbetzin had said she would see her in the study hall. When Ahuvah turned the corner, she saw the bright pink-and-green sign saying “Mazal Tov, Ahuvah” and the brightly colored balloons.
“What wonderful people,” she thought. “What a fantastic way to start a new life!”
She placed her fingers on the mezuzah and walked through the door for the first time as a Jew. The scene that greeted her was an overwhelming outpouring of love. The whole student body and many of her friends from the neighborhood were waiting for her. As she entered, they stood up and began singing “Siman tov u’mazal tov.” Before she knew it she was pulled into a circle of dancing well-wishers. Ahuvah felt a joy she had never felt before, a joy rooted in holiness and purity.
She made it. Her long journey was both over…and just beginning.
Cries of “Speech! Speech!” went up. The Rebbetzin led Ahuvah to the podium and adjusted the microphone for her. “Ahuvah,” she said, “this is a special day for us. We are very grateful that we were able to be a part of your decision.”
Ahuvah cleared her throat and tried to regain her composure. “You all know,” she began, “that I have traveled all over the world. I’ve conducted seminars and given hundreds of lectures and I’ve had many incredible experiences, but my decision to join the Jewish people has been the most quality decision of my life. There are some people who aren’t’ here today because they are in the next world. I feel I would like very much to thank and acknowledge them and also to share a little bit more bout how I came to be here, how Hashem guided me on this path without my even knowing it.
“I’d like to start with my grandparents. My grandparents lived in Mount Bayou, Mississippi, on a one hundred and twenty-five acre piece of land bought by my grandpa. They wrote in their will that any of their descendants can go do and build the land and live there, and that holds good right up to this very day.
“I used to spend my vacation time in their home and I want to tell you that my grandparents introduced me to two things that I see even more of in your homes: shalom bayis and the sanctity of the Sabbath. Now I know that non-Jews don’t keep Shabbos, but when I describe what went on down there you will understand what I mean.
“First of all, my grandparents were gentle and refined people, married from their youth. I never heard a harsh word or a raised voice. They were interested in two things: the word of G-d and helping people. The Sabbath in their house was unlike anything I have seen anywhere else except in a Jewish home. My grandmother prepared everything in advance. She would braid our hair, set out our clothes, and cook all the food. My granddaddy would kindle the stove the day before because Grandma didn’t touch a fire on the Sabbath. After we came home from services, we would eat our meals and study together. Grandma would sit at the table and say, “Today is the L-rd’s day. Everything we do we must know we are doing it for Him.’
“I just loved to go visit them, and even when I was into my forties I would use my vacation time to fly down there.
“I also want to share something with you about my parents. My parents were always extremely supportive of my studies and my travels. But I was, to be honest, a little apprehensive about how they would react when I told them I was becoming a Jew. After I had been in Jerusalem for my first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I went home to visit my parents and tell them my decision. We were sitting at the dinner table and I just said, ‘Mother, Father, I have something I have to tell you. I’m going back to Israel and I’m planning to become a Jew.’
“My mother looked at me with a smile and said, ‘Dolores, that’s just fine with us,’ and my father said, ‘Dolores, I hope there is something I have done in my life that influenced your decision. You have our blessings.’
“I have always loved the story of Ruth. And during this time of preparation I have thought about it very often. That little exchange with Orpah and Ruth and Naomi was extremely emotional. Orpah cried too, but she turned back. That shows us that tears are not always a prime example of sincerity.
“How does a person like me connect with a Ruth? I connect by coming into your homes. I connect by coming into a Jewish home and seeing the love and kindness generated there. I watch parents bless their children on Friday night. It just brings such joy to me because I think, what would it have been like if I had been raised like that? To have someone actually pronouncing the blessings of Hashem on me week after week – that is spiritual nurturing. Where else do you get it? That is living Torah.
“In the Jewish woman’s home I see the Name of G-d being sanctified daily. I marvel at how you women can have a family, a husband, a career and do your davening and fulfill all your halachic responsibilities with Shabbos…and with simcha!
“Whenever I walk through the door of a Torah home, I know I am entering a place of sanctity that is also a sanctuary and place of protection from the outside world. It is a place where my weariness can be refreshed and replenished. I was drawn to Judaism like a magnet. And I want to thank you all for welcoming me with such love, for taking me into your homes and for allowing me to be an intimate part of your life.”

In the book, The Bridge of Life (p. 49), Harav Tucazinksy, ztz”l offers an interesting explanation of the morning blessings, “…Who has not made me a gentile.” He asks, “Why don’t we say ‘Who has made me a Jew’?” and answers: “Because to really be a Jew – the epitome of what Hashem intended us to be – that is something we must make ourselves into.”
Yes, a Jew essentially “makes himself,” and Ahuvah Grey had made and continually makes herself into a Jew. Let us learn from Ahuvah’s story to cultivate an even deeper appreciation for our heritage, and to understand that the Jewish home is a place where individuals can, with support and nurturing, “make themselves into Jews” on a daily basis.


You can read more about Ahuvah in her book, My Sister, The Jew, published by Targum Press. Ahuvah will be in America, November-December, 2004, and is available for lectures. You can look up her website at, or contact her directly at
Look for Ahuvah’s new book, The Gift Of A Stranger, published by Targum Press.

About the Author

Sheina Medwed is the author of A Mother’s Favorite Stories, (Mesorah, Artscroll, 1998). ISBN 1-57819-298-6,
She is presently completing Live, Remember, Tell The World, The Story of Leah Kaufman, Hidden Child Survivor of Transnistria. (As told by Leah Kaufman, written by Sheina Medwed), to be published by Mesorah, Artscroll Publishers. Look for it in the bookstores before Chanukah. You can meet Leah Kaufman on the Aish HaTorah website. Look in the Holocaust Studies section in, where you will find her audiotape, “A Nine Year Old Beats The Nazis,” and her story, “Bubbie Tell Me Your Life,” as it appears in A Mother’s Favorite Stories.


Iyar 5764 – Ahuvah’s Story Part 1 – by Sheina Medwed

15 Iyar 5764

Eadie’s Story: Part 1


It is a few weeks before Shavous – the time of year that brings back memories of a very special woman called Eadie. I would like to share with you a special story of my friendship with Eadie. A story that will hopefully be a spiritual inspiration for all of us.

The story goes back over a decade ago. I live in Zichron Yaakov, a small Israeli town where I teach Torah in an American Yeshiva. One day a friend approached me with the following problem. He had met an older American couple who had moved to town and were in dire need of counseling with an American rabbi – a commodity not easily available in this neck of the woods. Realizing that I could perhaps fit the description I offered my services and agreed to meet the couple. I will never forget my first meeting with Bert and Eadie. Here was a woman in her early 60’s with very serious health problems. I could see the agony and pain in her eyes filling me with a great desire to listen to her story and hopefully bring her some relief.

She told me the following story. She and her husband were children of Russian Communists, having migrated to the States after the Communist Revolution. Her father as a staunch Communist loathed religion, and did his best to give over that legacy to his children. She described to me the following scene-on Shabbos morning she would watch from her Lower East Side, N.Y. apartment Yidden going to Shul. Her father would point his finger at those Jews and tell his daughter “Eadie, do you see those Jews? They are doing the very worst thing that a Jew could do for his people, attending Synagogue!” (What an interesting form of chinuch, training a young child to despise Yiddishkeit.)

And so she continued living a life totally devoid of anything Jewish, not even Yom Kippur or basic Bible stories were part of her life. Miraculously, she met a Jewish man with similar background and married him, raising a family where Yiddishkeit was nonexistent. They were active members of their local Unitarian Church (which incidentally was almost entirely Jewish!) Not surprisingly two of their three children intermarried. One daughter made her way to Israel – the Finger of HaShem was preparing the road of return…

In her late forties, Eadie was diagnosed with cancer and it drastically changed many aspects of her life. She began to think about the purpose of life and to struggle with the meaning of her existence. At some point her daughter in Israel suggested that she should come to Israel for a visit – to see the land of the Jewish People. She told me then that she had no idea why Israel was connected to the Jews, having never read the Bible. But when she stepped out of the plane at Ben Gurion Airport she felt something in her heart that she had never felt before. During her entire stay in Israel she felt deep emotions without understanding where these feelings were coming from. She described her first visit to the Holy Wall – she could not stop crying, although she had no idea what was so special about the Wall to the Jewish People.

She told me that after that first visit she knew that she would never be happy living anywhere else. She did return to the States, basically to deal with her health problems, but she was in a constant state of depression-a yearning to return to the land of the Jews without any understanding of its true meaning. To make a long story short, she and her husband decided to move permanently to Israel and eventually ended up in Zichron Yaakov, my town.

So I asked her “Dear Eadie, what do you need from me? How can I help you?” She answered me with tears in her eyes. “Reb Shmuel, I need to understand why I am compelled to live in this country. Why am I depressed each time I leave? Why did I cry uncontrollably at the Wall? Am I crazy? Can you help me to understand what is happening? Please help me, because these feelings have been with me for over 15 years.”

I looked at her and I said “Eadie, I think I understand and I will try to explain it to you. All your life you have been taught the rules of a healthy body-with all its requirements for healthy existence. Proper nourishment, vitamins, exercise — all necessary elements for healthy living. We Jews, however, believe that the physical body is just half of the story – that each Jew has a spiritual reality greater and deeper than the physical part of his being. The spiritual part is connected to HaShem (to which she exclaimed that the term HaShem was so foreign to her vocabulary, having never heard G-d mentioned during her upbringing. She said it would require a special effort to relate to that term and understand its meaning.) Just as our physical existence requires sustenance, food, vitamins to stay alive, so we believe that our spiritual part requires special nourishment. HaShem gave us a rich life with 613 forms of sustenance covering the gamut of our lives. Each of these unique items—called Mitzvahs, in Hebrew—bring life-sustaining energy to our spiritual being. A life void of these Mitzvahs is totally comparable to a physical life without proper nutrition or exercise—the person inevitably suffers from malnutrition, vitamin deficiency, and all sorts of health problems.

Eadie, your father deprived you of this information. He never told you (perhaps I should judge him favorably that in Communist Russia he never knew himself!!) that we have a spiritual soul with special needs.

“Eadie, you have been starved for half a century with no spiritual sustenance, not even realizing the damage taking place. When you decided to take a trip to Israel, you thought you were visiting a country like any other place-England, Honolulu, the Bahamas. But the truth is that there is no place in the world that compares to Israel—because Israel is the only place that living there is a Mitzvah—that every step on its Hallowed Soil is another vitamin added to our spiritual self. The Land of Israel is the holiest place on Earth, the closest place to the Divine Presence. So, dear Eadie, when you stepped foot into this country, it was like a starving woman coming out of the Sahara Desert to a beautiful shady oasis full of luscious fruits and fresh water. Your soul came to life for the first time and those precious feelings have never left you. Each time you left your soul was pained, feeling the void and desiring to return. Eadie, does this make sense to you?”

She was enraptured in my words-begging me not to stop, to tell her more. I continued-“Eadie, do you know what the Holy Wall is? It is the Holiest spot in Israel, and therefore the Holiest spot on the Globe! All the prayers of Jews world over first are directed to that spot before traveling to the Heavenly Throne of Hashem—it the HOTLINE TO HEAVEN, and any Jew standing there feels an incredible connection to their Spiritual Reality. So you were connecting to your Neshama without realizing the dynamics taking place!

This was my first meeting with Eadie and Bert-I promised to return, and fulfilled my promise. Each time we would discuss another aspect of Yiddishkeit, and each visit I felt inspired watching the delight in her eyes, the joy and pleasure of a carefully guarded secret now revealed.

We started with Shabbos candles. We went from there to Mezuzah-I wanted Bert to make the Bracha and attach the Mezuzah. I’ll never forget the tears of joy in her eyes watching her husband bang the nail in attaching the Mezuzah—the loving touch to the box each time she would enter the house.

I started bringing my children with me on my weekly visits. One time I thought she might enjoy hearing them sing Shabbos Zemiros. Again, there are no words to describe the effect–or shall I say IMPACT–the holy Yiddeshe Negunim made on her starving Neshama. We made a tape and presented it to her as a gift–not realizing just how much that little tape meant to her. (Several weeks later she flew back to the States, for medical attention. I called her one afternoon to hear how she was feeling. She answered in a deeply emotional voice “Reb Shmuel, Bert and I are sitting here in California, listening day and night to the beautiful songs of your zeesa kinderlach–I cannot tell you how much inspiration and spiritual strength it gives us!)

I’ll never forget the first time I brought to her home a Lulov and Esrog. She asked me innocently “What in the world is this ?”I told her “Dear Eadie, this is a very special Mitzvah that comes to us once a year. I want you to hold these four species in the following manner, say after me the Blessing-and then we are going to shake them, and wave them in all the directions–Trust me that this Mitzvah is so healthy for your Spiritual wellbeing–the Talmud says that shaking in all the directions is a catalyst for Divine protection, for healthy winds and life-giving rains, opening the channels of Blessing to ourselves and the World! She held on to that Lulov like her existence depended on it–after making the rounds one time she asked if she could do it again!

(In interesting contrast, as I left her home I noticed her secular Israeli neighbors relaxing in their backyard. Having the Lulov in hand, I felt it would be an insult to walk away without offering them the opportunity to fulfill the Mitzvah of NETILAS LULOV. So I approached them with the following statement, “Dear Friends, I’m not a card carrying Lubavitcher, but I happen to have with me my Lulov, and today is the Holiday of Sukkos. I would be honored to have you all make a Blessing on my Lulov. The father of the family gave me a very strange look, and then said “Thank you for the offer – but we’ve managed quite well without this Mitzvah until now, we’ll continue to manage without it!! – I don’t think a Reform Jew in America would have refused my offer…)



Nissan 5764 – Singing in the Rain – by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

1 Nissan 5764

Singing in the Rain
Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

Everyone’s talking about Perek Shirah these days. But a lot of people don’t seem to know what it’s about. I’d like to tell you a little bit about what Perek Shirah is – and about what it isn’t.

You can find Perek Shirah at the beginning of certain siddurim, such as the Miller “Beis Tefillah” siddur. Nobody really knows who wrote Perek Shirah. Some suggest that it was David HaMelech, many date it from the period of the Tanna’im, and some date it to around a thousand years ago. It lists just over eighty different elements of the natural world, including features of the sky and earth, plants, and creatures. Each is described as “saying” a different pasuk from the Torah. (You can download for free the text of Perek Shirah with a translation at

There are various understandings as to what Perek Shirah is all about. Some explain it as a mystical work, with the verses of each creature being the songs that their respective malachim recite in Heaven. But the simplest understanding is that it is a list of lessons for man. Each creature is telling us a message for our lives, a message that is contained in the verse that it “says.”

What catches peoples’ eyes about Perek Shirah is the prefatory text, which describes a variety of blessings that are bestowed upon people who recite Perek Shirah. It states that someone who recites Perek Shirah daily is assured of a portion in the World-to-Come, is saved from harm, and is granted all kinds of good things.

But here’s the catch. One can’t mindlessly zip through the text and expect Good Fortune to come knocking at the door. Perek Shirah is not a magic spell. It is teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah that change a person’s fate – things that involve genuine spiritual growth. If one wishes to reap the rewards of Perek Shirah, it must be understood and internalized as the powerful means of spiritual growth that it can be.

How does Perek Shirah help us accomplish spiritual growth? One way is as we’ve described – by enabling us to use different elements in nature as teachers of the Torah’s lessons. When we leave the environment of the Beis HaMedrash or seminary, when we leave our rebbeim behind, it can be hard to grow spiritually – or even to survive. By learning the lessons of Perek Shirah, and internalizing them every time we see a sparrow perching on a tree, or the raindrops splashing on the sidewalk, we can continue our spiritual growth in all environments.

Yet it is not just the individual elements of Perek Shirah that help us on a one-by-one basis. There is also a holistic perspective that we can take from it. Perek Shirah is a powerful presentation of the concept of ain od milvado – that Hashem’s Glory permeates the entire universe.

If you take a look at the overall structure of Perek Shirah, you’ll notice that it begins with the most obvious displays of Hashem’s grandeur. The first elements mentioned in Perek Shirah are the Heavens, followed by other spectacular features of the natural world – the wilderness, the seas, the stars and the rainstorms. Then come elements that, although still inspirational, are somewhat less grand – trees, plants, and birds. Following these come elements of the natural world that we would not think of as especially spiritual – wild animals and mundane farm animals. And finally, Perek Shirah lists creatures that we would see as spiritually repugnant – snakes and rats and all kinds of vermin. Yet all of these are shown to be teaching important spiritual lessons. Perek Shirah shows that from the spectacular Heavens to the lowly rat, all are part of Hashem’s creation and all can enhance man’s spiritual growth.

As we approach Pesach, we should remember that Shiras HaYam is also about this idea. When Moshe was complaining to Hashem about the continued suffering of the Bnei Yisrael in Egypt, he used the word “az” – “u’me’az ba’asi el Paraoh… heira le’am hazeh – and from when I came to Pharaoh… things have become worse for this nation…” The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 23:3) states that Moshe said, “I sinned before You with az and I shall rectify this with az.” The same word “az,” is used in Az Yashir Moshe to express the recognition that everything which happened was an essential ingredient for the ultimate salvation. We have to see Hashem’s Hand in everything.

That’s why Perek Shirah, which lists so many different things that nature is singing to us, is called “A Chapter of Song” in the singular. It’s not a music festival of eighty different performers – it’s an orchestra. Just like a single instrument might not sound so remarkable, but contributes immeasurably to the entire orchestra, so too does everything in nature, even the lowest of creatures, play an important role in Hashem’s Creation. It is the single symphony that is created when man sees how every part of the natural world – yes, even rats – teach us an important lesson and are part of Hashem’s grandeur. If we internalize this concept, then we can truly elevate ourselves spiritually. And then we render ourselves truly worthy of Perek Shirah’s blessings.

Rabbi Slifkin’s book on Perek Shirah, entitled Nature’s Song, is available at Jewish bookstores and online at Rabbi Slifkin is leading Torah Tours of the Bronx Zoo in March and May; for more details, see


Adar 5764 – Looking Backward, Moving Forward – by Mrs Shaina Medwed

14 Adar 5764

By Mrs Shaina Medwed

Gila Moskowitz, a teacher in a Hebrew Day Academy and young mother of three, lives in the Southeast. In this story we see how a trip to Poland’s death camps as a teenager forced her to take a good, hard look at her lifestyle and evaluate whether her commitment to Judaism was real or superficial. This vivid account of her very moving experience on the last day of the tour shows us how one young woman forced herself to wrestle head-on with the fact of the Holocaust, and what it meant personally for her life choices. Her turning point is a story that will be handed down in her family for generations to come.

It had been a difficult year for Gila. She felt as though she were caught between conflicting worlds. Her parents were modern Orthodox in their observance but very, very liberal in allowing her to make her own choices, especially when it came to school and friends. So, although she always went to Jewish day schools, she had a wide spectrum of friends. Sometimes when she came home from one of their social events she felt like she was living a schizophrenic life.
Now she stood at a major crossroads in her life. She had just received her letter of acceptance to a Teachers Academy. Going there meant a deeper commitment to a Jewish way of life. She was sure that it also meant losing some of her friends. She decided to postpone her decision. She requested a month’s extension from the school and asked her parents if their offer to send her on a Jewish history tour of Poland was still feasible. The previous year when they had first mentioned it, she hadn’t wanted to go, more out of fear than anything else. But now she felt that the trip might help her put her decision into perspective.

Gila stood at the entrance to an Auschwitz barracks. It was empty. The entrance was hidden by overgrown bushes, and a small windowpane was covered with cobwebs and dust. It was the last day of her high-school tour of Poland and she still felt like her heart was a heart of stone. “What’s wrong with me?” she thought. “I’ve stood in the actual gas chambers where the walls were scratched by the fingernails of dying Jews, and I haven’t shed even one tear.” While most of her friends were having a very emotional, tearful experience, she was beginning to wonder whether or not something was wrong with her. She kept trying to arouse her emotions, screaming inwardly, “Look where you are standing! Look at what you are seeing!” But try as she might, all she felt was a complete blank.
Even though she had been “touring” concentration camps for the last ten days, the fact that six million Jews had perished was something that had not yet moved Gila’s heart. Yet, being the sensitive, thinking person she was, it was impossible for her to just shrug off the experience. She knew she had to break herself open to feeling. But how? She decided to wander off on her own, far away from the other sin the group. Maybe then the experience would have more of an impact.
She walked through the mid-afternoon summer air, past barrack after barrack, until she found one almost totally covered by a tangle of vines. She felt sure that no one else would go in there. Scared, but determined to jolt herself awake emotionally, she pulled some of the growth away from the door and walked in.
Inside, the air was hazy with thick dust. Dirt was everywhere. Layers of decades-old dust covered the beds, where bits of straw and decaying blankets still lay. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and clung to the walls. Dim light filtered in through the tiny cracked window. Gila stood there in silence, taking in the scene in front of her, trying to imagine this prison that she had forced herself to enter as it had been 50 years ago, full of Jews. But no – she stopped herself – it was more than that. “It wasn’t full of Jews, Gila,” she said to herself. “That’s just a cliché. It was filled with people. Each and every person who was killed was a whole world. Mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and aunts and uncles. Think of your own family. Think of all the generations of people who were never even born because their mothers and fathers died here.”
Just as she was beginning to feel a tiny stirring in her heart, she heard the door open behind her. “Oh, no,” she thought, “someone else is in here.” She turned around and sure enough, a friend from the tour had walked in and was equally surprised to see Gila standing there. They had both come for the same reason: to be alone. They stood there, saying nothing.
All of a sudden a loud crash of glass broke the silence. They both froze for an instant and then ran out. The other girl was closest to the door, so she got out first. Once Gila was safely outside, though, she caught herself and said “Don’t you dare run away. You are running from the sound of glass shattering? The people who were here had to life and suffer in these very barracks with no escape. You go back in there and prove to yourself that it was nothing.” She felt that if she ran away she would be rejecting her collective history as a Jew, her ability to somehow bring into her young heart a thread of connection with the people who had died there.
Shaking with fear, her hands cold, she reopened the door. She felt she had to prove to herself that what she had heard was not a ghost. She was walking around the barracks slowly when suddenly she heard another crash, this time not as loud. She followed the sound. It was coming from the far side of the barracks. Between two beds, a bottom bunk and a top bunk, there was a square window. She stood in front of it and saw a little baby bird. The bird was sitting on the windowsill. The baby bird jumped up and hit the window and fell back down onto the windowsill. Then it jumped again and hit the window, and fell back onto the sill. She watched, fascinated by the stubborn persistence of this tiny bird. Then in one final attempt to get out, it jumped up, and flung itself with force against the window. The force of the blow repelled the bird and it fell backwards through a crack in the bed onto the floor.
Gila felt panic rising within her. She knelt down to look under the bed, but could not bring herself to reach through the thick net of cobwebs that spanned the length of the bunk.
At that moment, every emotion she had wanted to feel, every emotion buried so deeply inside of her, came pouring out. She fell on the ground and started crying like she had never cried before, sobbing and sobbing without being able to stop.
It was then and there that it hit her – the bird represented her people. They too had been trapped inside, desperately longing for freedom. They too had seen the sun and the world outside that tiny window, yet all they had been able to do was throw themselves against it in vain, only to fall back down into darkness.
She, Gila, was free. But really, she asked herself, how free was she? Free to go to parties and dances and shopping malls with her friends, free to wear the latest fashions and trade glossy magazines with her girlfriends, free to take long walks and do nothing but think about the meaning of life….
What kind of freedom was that?
Sitting there on the fetid, filth-ridden floor of the Auschwitz barracks, she realized for the first time in hr life that, as a Jew, she had a responsibility to herself and her soul. Being a Jew was something those six million had died for. It didn’t matter if they were religious or not. Anyone with a drop of Jewish blood was taken, not matter how assimilated they were. They died for their Judaism! Not it was up to her – she had the chance to get out of this barracks and go back into the real world and life for it.
Slowly, she rose and dusted herself off. She wiped her face with a tissue and rubbed her eyes. Now she knew with absolute certainty that somehow, within this incomprehensible suffering, G-d was hidden. He was hidden, but He was there.
She stood at the doorway looking back down the length of the barracks at the tiny cracked glass in the window. No one else was there, and in a few minutes she would leave this place forever.
“Shema Yisrael,” she whispered. Then she said it louder and louder still, finally shouting at the top of her lungs, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!”
She walked up and down the length of the barracks crying and shouting. And she knew that she would never look at life in quite the same way again.
Sure, she couldn’t wait to get home to her family and her own room. But she now knew that as a Jew she had a responsibility and an obligation not to take her life for granted. She had to go and learn…because that was the only way she was every going to be able to fly.