Do you remember the pivotal moment that led you to where you are today? Do you remember the moment that changed your journey? I didn’t know it then, but for me it was the interactions I had with 2 educators from my synagogue, Congregation Beth Am, when I was in 8th grade. My 8th grade religious school teacher, Jack Weinstein, and the Cantor, David Unterman, changed my journey.
At my public middle school I was assigned to write a biography and chose to interview and write about Cantor Unterman – he graciously agreed and we spent several afternoons together. He survived Polio as a child, including spending time in an iron lung, being carried around on a pallet, and then building back strength through wearing braces on his legs. He pursued an acting career and even played a small role in The Pirate of Penzance on Broadway. Unfortunately, the effects of Polio ravaged the muscles in his legs as an adult and he was not able to continue performing. He realized that connecting with others through music was what gave him meaning, and so he became a cantor.
At the same time that I was listening to Cantor Unterman’s story, I was reading Night by Elie Wiesel, in Jack Weinstein’s class. As a public school student, I had never studied that topic nor heard a story of a survivor. I am still haunted by his description at the end of the memoir of Elie looking at himself in the mirror and not recognizing his own face.
I was reminded of this time as I listened to Sophie Weinzimmer this week at the Silicon Valley Yom HaShoah service. A child of two survivors, Sophie spoke about what we can learn from the current pandemic. She said that this crisis is an opportunity to develop our resilience because personal growth comes out of times of struggle. If we find what gives us meaning through the gifts that we bring to the world, we can be a force for good.
Next week on Yom HaZikaron, we will honor Israel’s fallen soldiers, those who paid the ultimate price to establish and help protect the State of Israel. We will acknowledge that sacrifice at a ceremony on Tuesday morning as well as hearing from community members who are former members of the IDF, Israeli Defense Force, in our classes. We will also honor their achievements, as well as those of many others, by celebrating Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’Atzmaut the next day as a virtual community, with special activities designed by our teachers and projects shared by our eighth grade students.
As Sophie stated, there is always a beginning, middle and end to each story. Our 8th graders are at the end of their Yavneh journey – it looks much different than we all anticipated. While still at Yavneh, we are finding virtual ways for them to be leaders and teachers; however, it’s not the same as traveling to Israel or leading the whole school in a Lag B’Omer celebration. As we grieve for the opportunities and experiences wrenched away from us due to this pandemic, we remember that through determination and resilience we can become a light for others in their time of darkness.