A little over a week ago, I did something that I never did before; I politely turned down the request of a gabbai to do “hagbah”. As you know, hagbah is the honor of picking up the Torah and it is one of my specialties. Baruch Hashem, I have been blessed with strength and I have always tried using it for ways to serve Hashem. Back in the 70’s I was fighting the “Falcon Boys” gang in Kew Gardens Hills but those days are long over so for the last 30+ years it has basically just been lots of hagbahs. I must have done this beautiful mitzvah over 500 times and Baruch Hashem – I have never met a Torah I couldn’t pick up. So if I enjoy this honor so much, and actually prefer it over receiving an Aliyah, why did I turn it down? Here’s the story.
It happened on Monday, May 5th. I was in NY for the annual Manhigut Yehudit dinner and I was davening in the morning in a shul in Cedarhurst. That day was “Yom Ha’Zikaron” – Memorial Day for over 23,000 fallen Israeli soldiers. Unlike Memorial Day in America which is basically a happy day filled with amusement park openings, baseball games and sales in Macy’s, the day in Israel is a very somber one. All coffee shops, restaurants and most stores are closed and the focus of the day is the siren and visits to military cemeteries. In the religious world, the day is filled with prayers and Torah study. During the morning davening, the special “Kel Maleh Rachamim” is added for all those who paid the ultimate price in defending the land. While we don’t know over 99% of these holy men and women, we take a minute out of our busy lives to say this tefila in remembrance of their sacrifice.
Even though I was 6,000 miles away from home, I felt the need to have this prayer said on Yom Ha’Zikaron. I must state that “Kel Maleh Rachamim” is said throughout the year, except during certain months, as people always have yahrzeits to commemorate. The prayer is usually said by the gabbai and the congregation listens and simply answers “Amen”. So, on this day in Cedarhurst, I walked up to the gabbai and asked him to please say the “Kel Maleh” for the fallen IDF soldiers. He said that he has no problem saying it (as a matter of fact, this gabbai attended the Manhigut Yehudit dinner later that evening when Yom Ha’Zikaron ended) but that he would have to ask permission from the Rabbi. 30 seconds later he returned with a negative answer.
Saddened by the response, but not surprised by the apathy, I sat down in my seat. A few minutes later as the reading of the Torah was coming to an end, the gabbai approached me and asked me to do hagbah. I politely told him that I will not accept any honor in a shul such as this. Yes, I am part of the minyan, but that is where it ends. Simply put, I asked that he leave me alone and allow me to daven in my seat, with no honors or responsibilities. It was the first time in my life that I gave such a response.
Without going into why this shul forbid saying the “Kel Maleh” for the soldiers I want to ask all my readers one simple question: Did your shul say a “Kel Maleh” that morning for the 23,000 soldiers who died on Kiddush Hashem? Unfortunately, I know the answer. My guess is that 80% of the shuls in KGH, 5 Towns and Forest Hills did not say this prayer and my heart breaks when I think of it. We have all become used to the fact that most shuls in Brooklyn, Monsey and Lakewood are not Zionistic. This is not new to us and we have accepted this sad reality. But Queens and the Five Towns? What happened? When did these neighborhoods adopt this anti-Israel ideology? (Note: I wrote anti-Israel and not anti-State-of–Israel because in our day, there is no difference. You cannot support “Israel” while denying the existence of the “State”. Many try this approach but it doesn’t work – the two are intertwined and are one)
I remember growing up in KGH when every Shabbat, Rabbi Schonfeld spoke about Israel, Menachem Begin and what was happening there. The entire neighborhood went to the Salute to Israel Parade and Israeli flags flew on Main Street on a regular basis. The Five Towns was also very Zionistic with Israel playing center stage in everything they did. Today? Yes, there are pockets of those who care deeply about Israel but most of the Jews in these areas are indifferent, and when the adults are indifferent the kids become anti. That is how life works. We see this in our observance of mitzvos as well. When the parents are excited about Shabbos and davening and connecting to Hashem – and set up a home that pursues these dreams – then the children naturally follow along but when the parents are bored about Yiddishkeit, robotic in their observance of mitzvos and indifferent to being a member of the Chosen People, the kids don’t rush to adopt this heavy, dry burden. On the contrary, they look for every way out of it!
This is what has happened to our connection to the land. Instead of embracing the state of Israel and doing everything we can to help make it a strong and proud Jewish state we have pushed it aside and made it the place we go for bar-mitzvahs and Sukkos. Think about it; Pesach in Florida and Sukkos in Israel. When this is done, the younger generation equates the two and knows no difference. Why should they run to defend Israel? Does anyone run to defend Miami Beach? Why should they get involved in the politics of Israel? Do they even know the name of the Mayor of Orlando? Think I’m crazy? Talk to your kids. Have them tell you what they know about Israel and how they feel about the land. Just don’t be shocked when they speak the truth because this has come from the home, the schools and the shuls.
The good news is that it’s not too late. In next week’s article I will give practical advice how this situation can be reversed and how Israel can once-again be at the top of our list. Am Yisrael Chai!