Category Archives: Brooklyn Jews

The Rebbe’s Blessing

by Steve Meltz (Clifton, NJ)

It was a 98° Tuesday night in the summer of 1974 when my mother parked her green Ford Pinto along Eastern Parkway at the corner of Kingston Ave in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  

My mother, brother, sister and I were headed to 770 Eastern Parkway, the world headquarters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of blessed memory) with whom we were about to have a one-on-one meeting called a Yachidus (Yiddish for “At one with”).   

This was arranged by a friend of my brother Dan’s named Yossie who he had befriended at a religious summer Camp we had both attended in the Catskills called Gan Israel. The camp was run by the Lubavitch (also known as Chabad) who are a Brooklyn-based Chassidic group whose leader we were about to meet.          

Dan had casually mentioned to Yossie, that I was unable to have my bar mitzvah in our own synagogue. I was 12 at the time and had also met Yossie at Gan Israel and was taken by how kind, gentle and genuine a person he was and at summer’s end we said our goodbyes.   

What I did not know at the time was that he was from one of the most prominent families within the Lubavitch community and had arranged for this meeting, a great honor. Normally one would have to wait over three years to have an audience with the Rebbe and Yossie had arranged it in less than three months.

I later learned that among the Lubavitch community, having a one-on-one meeting with the Rebbe was like having an audience with the Pope and was among the highest honors one could be given within that community. I suppose because it was arranged so quickly and easily, I did not realize at the time just how big of a deal it was. 

770 Eastern Parkway (referred to as just “770”), was originally a three-story Gothic revival mansion built in the 1920s. Over the years, as the Lubavitch community had grown, this building and a large apartment house next to it on the corner were joined. Thankfully this original structure had remained intact and had been added to rather than torn down and replaced.  

The evening sky had turned dark, and the only available light came from a few evenly spaced streetlights. As we approached 770, the light grew stronger as it came into view in all its splendor. It was dramatically lit from below and looked like a structure from a medieval university. 

As we entered the upper level, we walked through a small vestibule with a 15’ ceiling and a single naked bulb high above our heads. To our right were two adjoining rooms each with long wooden tables and benches that had clearly seen better days. The tables we piled high with books of all kinds scattered everywhere. At those tables were 35-40 men engaged in the study of Torah, Talmud, and other sacred texts. Typically made up of small groups of 2 to 6 men who ranged in age from 20 to 70, these study sessions often turned into debates about interpretations of passages and texts and were often loud and lively and at the same time very passionate and exciting.

I had only been active within the community for about two years and in that time had visited Crown Heights many times for Shabbat weekends and had prayed in 770 many times before, but being here now felt very different. 

As we walked through that entrance usually reserved for men, I could feel the eyes of those around us. Looking in our direction and no doubt thinking, they must be important if they’re getting to meet Rebbe, and I was thinking the same thing.

The Rebbe’s private office was on the floor just above ground level and he usually met people on Tuesday evenings throughout the year. 

As the leader of a worldwide religious movement who was also a brilliant rabbinical scholar and fluent in 17 languages, he was consulted regularly by his followers on virtually all matters affecting their future.  

Questions like: “who should I marry?” or “should I start a business?” or “what profession should I pursue?” or “what course should I take in life?” were just some of the questions the Rebbe was requested to answer six days a week.

Because this was (and still is) a society in which arranged marriage is practiced, anyone within the community who was contemplating marriage (both male and female) would write to the Rebbe for both his guidance and his blessing. 

We were led to a dimly lit corridor with some 20-30 other people and were left standing in a 5’ x 25′ hallway meant to accommodate no more than 15 at most. There we waited with Yossie who had met us on our way in. For close to an hour and a half we stood in relative silence and only whispered so as not to disturb the meeting currently under way as a steady flow of men and women were ushered in and escorted out of the Rebbe’s office in 15-to-25-minute intervals. As I stood there, my mind turned to… What if?

I had noticed on several prior occasions when praying in the great sanctuary hall on the floor below that every time the Rebbe entered or left the sanctuary, men of all ages would scatter and hide from his gaze. When I asked a friend why, he said it was believed that the Rebbe had the ability to see into a person’s soul just by looking into thier eyes.  

It had suddenly occurred to me that in a few minutes would be looking directly into those eyes. What if it is true? What if he could see into my soul?  What would he see? Even at the tender age of 12, I knew I was no angel and was certain I had broken at least two of the ten Commandments. Seeing the righteous flock scurry like cockroaches as he entered and exited a room only magnified those fears. After a quick and reassuring look from Yossie, the Rebbe’s office door opened, a couple exited, and we were waved in.

My mother and I sat in the two chairs directly in front of the Rebbe’s desk and my brother and sister sat in two chairs placed against the back wall of his office. The Rebbe was standing as we entered the rather small room with a 1950s style florescent desk lamp as its only source of light which gave the room an eerie, film noir quality. With him were two assistants who stood in the shadows. 

As he began to speak to my mother, he looked directly at me. I found myself focused not so much on his words, but on his face which looked like the face of Moses. He had piercing blue eyes and a very full, almost entirely gray beard that fell to the middle of his chest.

Even all these years later, it’s hard to explain what I was experiencing. I knew instantly that I was in the presence of a truly great man. He gave off an aura that was nothing short of holy and angelic and wore a traditional long black coat (1860s style), a white shirt, and the signature Fedora worn by nearly all his male followers.  

While still looking at me, the Rebbe, in a fairly deep and slightly Yiddish-accented voice, said, “So, Mother… You look like you have a heavy heart.” It was at that moment that I began to believe that he really could see inside a person’s soul.

I should explain that the reason I could not have my bar mitzvah at my hometown synagogue was that my mother, a divorcé and mother of three, had been engaged in a long-term affair with the rabbi of our congregation in a small town in northern New Jersey. We had been active members of the synagogue and been welcome at all religious and community events until the affair was made public. Once it was discovered, we found ourselves virtually excommunicated from the synagogue and the Jewish community. As a result, I was without a place to have my bar mitzvah. 

In my mother’s defense, the rabbi (who was also a practicing psychologist) had been “counseling and comforting” a fairly large number of divorcees within the community and many years later it came to light that he was by legal definition a serial sexual abuser and had taken advantage of both of his positions as a rabbi and therapist by having had many such affairs with similarly vulnerable women. Many years later, I found out that he had been defrocked and his titles (both rabbinical and doctoral) were stripped away from him. Sadly, there were no apologies to any of those he had wronged or to the families whose trust he had for decades betrayed.  

In trying to respond to the Rebbe, my mother spoke in a restrained and strictly measured, barely audible voice, no doubt trying to figure out how she would explain the salacious and sordid details of the situation to the Rebbe… 

“Well, you see there is a problem…,” she began, pausing to take a deep breath as though she were taking a looooong drag of the cigarette. She was entirely on her own. I sat about two feet to her left facing the Rebbe’s desk and dared not look at her. I had held my breathe for so long that I was forced to take in a breath so deeply that I sounded like I was genuinely stunned. 

The room was so still and quit, it suddenly seemed even smaller to me. What could she reveal in front of her children and what, if anything, did we know? 

What could she admit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe about the affair she had had with our Rabbi at home? She was an adulterer and had to own up to it. 

Would she have the courage to confess to the sins she had committed, even if it was by coercion? This was an absolute defining moment for my mother and might have signaled a turning point in her existence. I glanced to my left ever so quickly and saw only the silhouette of her chest rising and falling rapidly. 

After what seemed like an eternity, she slowly began… “You see,” again a long pause… “My son cannot have his bar mitzvah at the shul in the town where we live, because…  because… “

 I shot a quick look over my shoulder and saw my brother and sister out of the corner of my eye, but there was not enough time or light to make eye contact. 

It was obvious that she was struggling to carefully choose what to say next when the Rebbe who had sat down behind his desk, leaned forward, placed the palms of his hands on his green desk blotter, slowly pushed his chair backward, and once again stood up. His measured and deliberate movements seemed to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. Slightly slumped, he walked slowly to the front of the table and leaned against it in a decidedly reassuring and connected way. Standing only a few feet from us both, I could barely see his face but there was a glow that reminded me of Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments standing at the burning bush as God spoke to and through him. 

He slowly crossed his right arm over his left and wrapped his right hand around his voluminous gray beard and began stroking it in a downward motion. His hand was slow and soothing as if he were petting a cat or caressing a loved one. 

Though he was not particularly tall, looking up at him from my seated position he seemed larger than life with his shoulders slightly slumped forward, but despite his less than perfect posture he had a very real presence about him and it was clear to me that this was indeed an honor.

It was obvious that my mother was struggling for the “right” words and the Rebbe picked up on it. 

“So,” the Rebbe said in a low empathetic tone deeply connected to the obvious difficulty my mother was having. “So,” he again repeated, “he’ll have it here,” he said in a tone of voice so matter of fact that it seemed to answer a great ancient riddle. 

“Excuse me?” my mother said in a voice that immediately betrayed her surprise and relief at the same time. Her voice, which was usually very deep and akin to Lauren Bacall’s, jumped a full two octaves higher. 

“When you say here, where exactly do you mean?” she asked slowly and deliberately in an effort to clarify what she was sure she could not possibly have heard. 

“He will have his bar mitzvah here at 770,” the Rebbe repeated. And in those nine words it was as if all of her problems were resolved and in some odd way she was absolved of the sin which which led to our being here, at least for the moment. 

With those nine words, she was effectively let off the hook, and with that realization she began to cry uncontrollably.

In my mind I was thinking, did this just happen? Did the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the head of a worldwide Chassidic movement with thousands of followers, just offer to let me have my bar mitzvah at 770? 

The enormity of this kind of honor is difficult for one who is not Orthodox or Chassidic to grasp and would be equivalent to the Pope offering to perform my confirmation himself.

 I too felt the sudden urge to cry as I looked into the Rebbe’s eyes with abundant gratitude but held back my tears knowing that it would not be befitting for a boy who was soon to become a man. 

My mother’s tears finally subsided and the meeting, which has lasted for only about 15 minutes and which felt like suspended time, came to an end. It was during those 15 minutes that I knew he was going to be my leader and that I was going to be one of his disciples.

For almost a solid 5 minutes of the full 15, the Rebbe stared directly into my eyes, but I didn’t feel exposed or scared. I felt connected to him in a very real and spiritual way as though he were my grandfather or King Solomon the wise. His eyes were the kindest and most compassionate I have ever seen before or since.

At the meeting’s end, my brother and I stood and shook the Rebbe’s hand as we turned to walk out the door. My mother had to use all of her power to restrain herself from throwing her arms around the Rebbe and giving him a giant kiss (which was strictly forbidden). 

The irony was not lost on me that I was going to have my bar mitzvah at 770 instead of in the town where I grew up because that rabbi couldn’t keep his hands off of women who were not his wife.

As we left the office, I felt physically lighter, as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I could tell that my mother was still in shock as I saw Yossie standing in the hallway with a big smile on his face. 

I smiled back but couldn’t speak. “So, nu? How was it?” he asked as he escorted us out of the vestibule and through the doorway that led back out onto the street. 

“He’s absolutely w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l”, my mother answered with a genuine hint of awe in her voice that I–and I’m certain no one else–had never heard before.

“Steven will have his bar mitzvah here at 770,” she said, with a voice still in a relatively high octave, which betrayed the fact that she was clearly still in shock. 

I could see that Yossie had a hard time comprehending what my mother had just said and he too became silent. As he walked us back to the car through the humid night air, the look of surprise and happiness for me never left his face as we said our goodbye’s and drove off into the night. 

It wasn’t until several years later that I came to fully understand why. In all his years as Rebbe, he had only done this a handful of times and it was usually an honor reserved for lifers (those born Lubavitch) so, as it turned out this was a VERY big deal.

And so it was that on Thursday, September 28, 1975, my actual 13th birthday according to the Hebrew calendar, at the regular weekly Thursday morning prayer service at 770 that I, Simcha Yosef Ben Dovid Levi Meltz, was called up to the Torah and given the aliyah just before Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson… the Lubavitcher Rebbe (may he be of sainted memory). 

All in all, there was very little pomp and circumstance or fanfare as I completed this central and essential rite of passage in the Jewish religion which officially signified my becoming a man. I would from that point forward assume full responsibility for my actions as an adult according to Jewish law. 

I was not dragged from a hut and banished to the bush to fend for myself against wild and ferocious animals for a week with nothing but a dagger, nor was there any body-piercing involved whatsoever. I had not crossed a physical line between childhood and adulthood, but a spiritual one and I felt somehow different, like I was closing a chapter on my my old life and was beginning another as a Lubavitcher Chassid.

Unfortunately, the service was conducted in the upstairs section of 770, which I had glanced only a few months earlier when we came to meet the Rebbe. Because it was in the Men’s Only section of 770, neither my mom nor my sister were allowed to attend. 

It still saddens me that after all the struggles and crosses my mother had been forced to bear that she was denied the right to see her own son become a man according to Jewish tradition. I knew how proud she was of me, but I can only imagine how much prouder she’d have been had she been able to actually see it.

As I look back now, that was the day I officially “became” a Lubavitcher Chassid, a member of the largest Chassidic group within all of Judaism. And it was on that day that I took a leap of faith and landed squarely in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Steve Meltz was raised from the early age of 11 in the Chabad / Lubavitch community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn receiving a traditional Orthodox education while attending yeshivot in Brooklyn and in Baltimore, Maryland. Parting ways with the Orthodox community while in his late 20s, he began a voyage of self- discovery, and in 2007 (at the age of 45) received his smicah as a Reform rabbi and teacher. He presently serves as an affiliate rabbi in a norther New Jersey synagogue where his voyage of self-discovery continues to this day. 

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My Father’s Holocaust

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father escaped the Holocaust,
but suffered for it, and when, as a kid,
I pointed out he never actually
spent time in Auschwitz or Dachau,
he stared at me, “Same thing,” he said.
“You’ll see,” he added. When I pressed
him further, he said only one word: “Family.”
I didn’t see, the Holocaust becoming 
just one more historical fact.
I began my own very secular career.
Then I saw a picture at a lecture
given by a famous art historian.
Thumbprints of dirt, blood, ink, 
mounted upon rows of stripes
in different colors, an abstract
suddenly becoming very real— 
a line of prisoners awaiting the 
morning roll call in the freezing cold.
I looked closer at the thumbprints
and could see my father’s face.
“I am here, remember me, never forget.”
A generation later I am still safe, still free, 
but the picture still haunts me.
“I escaped,” I said to the thumbprints.
“Oh, no, you didn’t,” I heard my father say. 
And finally I understood his words.

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Elegy for a Man I Hardly Knew

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

I had met him just once

a week before his sudden death.

I hardly knew him at all,

an afternoon’s conversation, 

no more.

We had spoken for hours,

and I felt there was a connection,

saw him as a possible new friend.

(You know now difficult it is for older

men like me to make new friends.)

So, even though I barely knew him,

his sudden death shocked me, and

I felt compelled to attend his funeral

where I heard the usual — the 23rd Psalm, 

“turn, turn, turn,” and a few desultory speeches

—ending with the Mourner’s Kaddish.

His life was described in twenty minutes.

Surely, a human being rates more time.

Surely, there is more to be said about a life.

Was his soul in a hurry to get to heaven?

Did the rabbi want to prevent excessive 

crying over the casket?

If the soul hovers at the grave site, as rabbis 

say, waiting to hear words of praise, words of 

sorrow, before making its journey to higher realms,

then perhaps I could see the need for such urgency.

But maybe I was being momentarily insensitive

taking notes in effect for my own demise, not

understanding why the funeral was so truncated,

or why my friend’s soul wasn’t allowed a final communion

with all the mourners at the place of his eternal rest.

Shouldn’t all souls be granted this indulgence?

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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A Day at the Ball Park

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Feeling the need to catch the ocean breeze,

I went to a Brooklyn Cyclones game

in Coney Island, a minor league team 

of my beloved New York Mets.

The game was sponsored by Hadassah,

the world-wide Jewish service organization.

Seated comfortably in the stands,

I was surprised to receive

their free gift: a baseball cap

emblazoned with the Star of David

surrounding the team’s logo.

A flash to the Jews of the 1940s

who were forced to wear such a star,

my relatives for one, plus countless others.

How wonderful America is

that Jews can gather at a ball game

and proudly display their heritage.

The next batter up is Jay Gordon.

Is he Jewish?

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

Author’s Note: It is the practice of many minor league ball clubs to offer their fans free giveaways like hats, shirts and game passes. Different organizations sponsor these events.

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My First Anti-Semitic Experience

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Growing up in the cooling shade

of a predominantly Jewish neighborhood,

I had been totally unprepared for the

hot sun attack of anti-Semitism.

They say the first time it happens

it leaves a lasting sunburn on your skin,

and now, some 50 years later

it still singes my soul.

First time? Indiana, I was in the

bucolic fields of the Midwest.

I descended the plane and

a passenger near me said, “You Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said, dumbfounded at the question.

“Where are your horns?” he asked.

I could only manage a weak, “What”?

I had no reference point, no rebuttal,

and that lack of response

has haunted me all these years.

I have assuredly witnessed much more since,

but my silence then and failure to answer

was and is anti-Semitism accepted.

How I wish that Indiana passenger

were in front of me right now.

I believe I would know what to say.

Even with standing in the shade now

my sunburn still remains,

as indelible as the numbers

on my grandfather’s arm.

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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“What do you want?”

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)
Unscathed, I live comfortably in hibernation, 
my larder stocked, my outlook optimistic.
The morning air wafts through my open window,
and I can hear the call and response of birds
punctuated by the screams of ambulances.
Then there is a knock at my door.
It grows louder, and, finally, I say,
“What do you want?”
I peer out my window and go downstairs 
and see a strange man dressed all in black.
“I have some terrible news,
about your friend, Tony, I believe.”
“Tony?”
“Yes, I see you and Tony at the diner most days.
You often eat breakfast together. Is that not true?
And he’s a paramedic and loved by many?”
“He is a good friend. What’s wrong? Tell me!”
“He is in the hospital with Covid-19.”
“Oh, my God, Is he OK?”
“I’m sorry to say he’s on a ventilator.”
“Which hospital? Can I see him?”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible. Can I come in?
Perhaps we can pray together.”
“No, no, go away. You’re scaring me.”
“But there is more.”
“Don’t tell me he’s gonna die.”
“Most probably, but there is even more.”
“Are you coming for me?”
“Yes, possibly, and quite soon, I might add.”
Panic-stricken, I double-lock the door and shut the window.
I collapse in a chair and start praying for my friend,
but, upon reflection, I begin to say Kaddish for myself,
somehow hoping these words might save me.

 

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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The Ultimate Truth

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

At a recent and joyous Orthodox wedding,
surrounded by dancing men all dressed in black
with most stylish hats, I was asked by a young scholar
why was I not singing in Hebrew.
“I don’t know Hebrew,” I said, embarrassed,
owning up to my lack of Jewish education.
“So why don’t you learn?” he said,
“The words are  the ultimate truth, the one truth,
the word of God given to His people.”
“But don’t other religions have their truth?” I countered.
“Spoken like an American,” he said. “Ours
is the only truth. We know this for thousands of years.”
Hard to argue with someone so convinced
of the certainty of his belief, while admitting to myself
I was jealous of his steadfast conviction.
Better not, I thought, to get so engaged
into such a theological discussion while
celebrating with cheers the bride and groom.
The search for truth continues for me
long after the final toast is offered.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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The Light in the Window

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Rosh Hashanah, 5780 –
I’m sitting in the synagogue
listening to the rabbi preaching
the importance of listening
with eyes, ears, heart and soul,
to be part of the congregation
that says hineni, “Here I am.”
But I am a bad listener,
drifting in and out of the rabbi’s words.
My eyes wander up to the stained glass windows
where I see and sense the sunlight pouring in.
This light fills me with awe and comfort,
giving me the feeling there is hope
in these times of conflict and uncertainty.
The rabbi finishes his speech,
but it’s not his words I take away;
it is the language of light
that offers me His presence instead,
and I become  a most complete and faithful listener.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Unexpected Chesed

by Michael J. Weinstein (Syosset, NY)

“On three things the world depends: Torah study, the service of G-d, and bestowing kindness.”— from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers

I was not brought up very observant, but after a family trip to Israel in 2011, I started to return to Judaism. I have worked as an Investment Advisor for over 20 years and after the financial crisis, I became a survivor of sorts. I found a refuge in learning Torah, particularly the works of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, zt”l, who taught “Never Give Up” and to always look for the good in others and in ourselves. I was told that if Rabbi Akiva could learn after age 40, it was not too late for me.

I knew my great-grandparents were from Pinsk, part of the Pale of Settlement in Russia, and like so many they left to escape the pogroms, the persecutions, the poverty, and the laws separating the Jews from religious freedom. It was my great-grandfather, Meir, who came alone in 1896 and later sent for his wife, Nachama, and their three children in 1900. Meir “Americanized” his name to Morris, and Nechama became Anna. I later learned that Meir had a pushcart, a beard, and a kippah, and davened with the Stoliner shul on the Lower East Side. A few years later, my great-grandparents moved to Brooklyn. It was there that my Grandmother Belle and her sister Dorothy were born. Years later the family was able to afford a two bedroom apartment on Ocean Parkway, and the family stayed in Brooklyn until 1976, just after my bar mitzvah, when they left for the Sunshine State of Florida.

It was the memories of my family living in Brooklyn, particularly the Passover seders at 101 Ocean Parkway, that never left my mind. And so after the trip to Israel, I started to learn Torah, to reconnect with the ways of my grandparents and great-grandparents, and the generations before them. I wanted to do something positive but did not know what to do, but prayed to Hashem: “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the World, help me help others.”

Somehow, I turned to Google and typed two words, “Mitzvah” and “Brooklyn,” and pressed the enter key. That’s how I found the Brooklyn “Mitzvah Man,” Michael Cohen, who had produced a video about the importance of mitzvah and helping others. “Providing Chesed to those in need” was his motto, and I volunteered to help.

I didn’t know how a guy like me with a full time job as an investment advisor, living and working about an hour away on Long Island, could help anyone in Brooklyn, but Michael suggested I start by visiting one Holocaust survivor, Ludwig Katzenstein. Michael’s suggestion turned out to be a real blessing, and one mitzvah led to another mitzvah as I volunteered at Friendly Visiting For Holocaust Survivors, a program of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island.  Also, on Thursday nights for almost six months, I volunteered at Aishel Shabbat by delivering boxes of food for Shabbat to needy families, but it became too difficult for me to drive from Long Island during the winter months.

Instead, I decided to step up my visits to the Holocaust Survivors, later meeting over 23 Holocaust survivors, mostly on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings. At some point, I visited not only the Holocaust Survivors but nearby Orthodox synagogues all over Brooklyn, in neighborhoods such as Borough Park, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Flatbush, and Midwood, and I started taking photos, first with my Samsung Galaxy phone and later with a Nikon camera, intending to someday make a book of 100 Orthodox synagogues of Brooklyn.

I thought about it and realized that my great-grandparents started on the Lower East Side, and later moved to Brooklyn. My grandfather was born in a tenement on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side, lost his mother when he was 7, and was sent to live with his older Sister in the Bronx and became a lifetime New York Yankees fan.  My father married and moved from Brooklyn to Briarwood, Queens, where I was born and lived until age 3. I later learned that my great-grandparents are at rest at the United Hebrew Cemetery in Staten Island. So I actually have roots in all 5 boroughs and decided, with Hashem’s help, to make a book, “Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City,” a coffee table style photo book with 613 color photos of existing Orthodox synagogues.

At some point, I decided to talk to congregations about my visits with the Holocaust Survivors, my journeys into over 60 neighborhoods in the 5 boroughs, and discuss some of the architectural beauty and history of many of these synagogues. Nothing led me to believe that my book would change anything until a few months ago.

I was contacting various synagogues and synagogue presidents and rabbis to see if there was any interest in having me do a free book talk. Upon contacting the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates in Queens, I contacted the synagogue president, Avram Blumenthal, and I was told “we’ll get back to you” more than once. I started to question myself. Who was I? Why was I trying to share my story? Why couldn’t I just thank Hashem for the book, etc? After about two months, I called Avram and was told, “Before you say anything, let me tell you what happened.”

I was told that Avram and members of the synagogue were planning a 30th anniversary event to honor the original founders of the congregation and those who designed the sanctuary in 1987. Avram was too busy to buy the book and went on a trip to Israel, where he saw my book on a friend’s coffee table in Jerusalem. When he returned to New York, Avram learned that one of the synagogue’s founders, Lucille Rosenberg (Liebeh Tziviyeh bat Shmuel) who served as the chairperson of the Interior Design Committee and who was battling cancer, was now in a hospice. Lucille was an artist, had a Masters degree in art, and had taught art at Solomon Schechter schools. Avram bought a copy of the book, personally inscribed it to Lucille, and gave it to Lucille’s husband, Abe Rosenberg, who brought it to Lucille.

By the time the book was brought to the hospice, Lucille was non-communicative. Lucille’s loving husband Abe gave the book to Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg and Rebbetzin Karen Hochberg of Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, who were trying to comfort Lucille, talking about Lucille’s accomplishments and showing her the photos of her work. With help from Hashem, Lucille opened her eyes for about a minute and smiled in appreciation. All those present told Lucille that her work was a vital part of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates more than 30 years after its founding. Lucille was also told that her designs are now part of a book that is seen by people in Israel and throughout the world. Abe later told me that Lucille’s smile showed that “she knew the good that she had accomplished.” Lucille was aware of the tremendous chesed, the kindness of others, and Abe expressed his gratitude to all involved.

I am thankful to Hashem that there are good people like Avram Blumenthal, Rabbi & Rebbetzin Hochberg, and of course Abe Rosenberg, Lucille’s loving husband, their friends and family, as well as the staff at the hospice who cared for Lucille in her last days of life. Everyone’s kindness confirmed how important it is, as Pirkei Avot reminds us, to bestow chesed for the world to become whole.

Michael J. Weinstein, grew up in Jericho, Long Island, New York, attending a Conservative Synagogue, the Jericho Jewish Center, and had his Bar Mitzvah in 1976, with his blue velvet leisure suit.  He graduated from Cornell University in 1985 and has had a career as a financial advisor, starting with Merrill Lynch and currently serving as a Director – Investments with Oppenheimer & Co. He continues visiting Holocaust Survivors as a Volunteer.

For more information about Michael Cohen’s project, The Mitzvah Man, in Brooklyn, visit: http://www.themitzvahman.org/

For more information about Friendly Visiting for Holocaust Survivors, visit:  http://www.connect2ny.org/

For more information about Michael J. Weinstein’s book of photographs, Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City, visit:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1612549268/ref=cm_sw_r_em_apa_HhsyBbCEEB794

And to read more of his work, visit: https://www.jewishlinknj.com/features/21952-ten-times-chai-takes-readers-on-a-pictorial-tour-of-the-shuls-of-nyc

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Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

In the Matter of….

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

In the matter of prayers
the jury is still out.
Some say these prayers ride the express
straight up to heaven.
Others opine they are but
bootless cries to the same place.
Do they cross terrestrial borders
on their way upwards?
Do they weather translation
in a myriad of languages?
Do Jewish prayers work
for those of another faith?
Do they, in turn, work in reverse,
a Catholic paean for those un-Catholic?
These prayers serve to ask timeless questions:
Who will hear us?
Who will see us?
Who will save us?
People in the camps waited for the answers.
People today flock to their churches
and synagogues seeking the same.
Maybe the jury will come back soon
with its celestial verdict.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, poetry