Two recent experiences served to drive home the point to me that – with apologies to the popular Disney musical boat ride “It’s a Small World” – it really is a small Jewish world.
On August 23, together with five other members of Kesher Israel Congregation, my wife Layala and I attended the Cantorial Council of America’s 52nd annual dinner at Kutsher’s Country Club in New York’s Catskill Mountains. At the dinner, KI’s beloved cantor, Seymour Rockoff, was awarded the Dr. Karl Adler Memorial Award for the Preservation and Enhancement of Jewish Music Education.
Everything about the program was wonderful, especially hearing Cantor Rockoff’s childhood friends and cantorial colleagues reminisce about their shared yeshiva experiences of so many years ago.
The evening began with the Minchah service. I was a bit surprised when one member of our shul’s contingent handed me a Hertz Chumash instead of a siddur. Seeing my confusion, he opened it and pointed to the Kesher Israel Congregation dedication sticker on its inside cover.
What on earth was an old Chumash from KI (donated by one of our shul’s most beloved Sisterhood presidents, of blessed memory) doing in a Catskills hotel?
Then it hit me. About four years ago, the shul decided there was no reason why hundreds of our older Hertz Chumashim should remain unused and stored away in boxes. KI’s board authorized me to find Jewish institutions that might be able to put them to use. Eventually I found homes for most of those Chumashim in synagogues, college campuses, Jewish camps, and retreat centers across the country.
That night in the Catskills, KI’s contingent had chanced upon some of our old Chumashim, the pages of which were once again being turned by worshipers eager to follow the weekly Torah reading.
I know that books are inanimate, but it was almost as if our KI members heard those Chumashim saying, “Thank you for taking us out of those storage boxes and putting us back into circulation. We were meant to be held and used by Jews of all ages. We’re enjoying the Catskills, and some of our friends are having a great time at the Princeton Hillel. Thanks for realizing that we still have plenty of life left in us.”
That same month, my wife and I enjoyed a visit to the beautiful state of Colorado. The vistas around us were breathtaking, and it was wonderful to recite together a special berachah while gazing out at God’s magnificent Rocky Mountains.
Near the end of our stay, while taking in the sights of Cheyenne Canyon Park (near Colorado Springs), something caught my eye. There are so many sheer rock faces in Colorado that it attracts many rock-climbers, and we saw them everywhere.
But what was it I had noticed? We had just driven past a group suiting up to climb a canyon wall. Like all the other climbers in the park, they were loaded with gear: ropes, packs, carabiners, helmets, etc. However, each climber in this particular group was wearing an OD (olive drab) green military uniform. I knew right away that those uniforms were definitely not current U.S. issue. I had a hunch they were Tzahal (Israel Defense Forces) uniforms, but what would Israeli chayalim be doing in the middle of Cheyenne Canyon Park?
We turned the car around and pulled up to them. I quickly spotted the embroidered “Tzahal” tabs above their breast pockets. I jumped out of the car and began shaking their hands.
“I’m Akiva and this is my wife, Layala,” I said. I told them about my two brothers living in Israel; they told us where in Israel they lived, and we enjoyed a short, friendly chat.
We asked them why they were in the middle of Colorado. They were pretty tight-lipped; and all they told us was that they were in the park to practice rock-climbing skills. As they clearly were not able to share too much information, we wished each other well and parted ways.
I immediately called my brother Josh in Israel (he served as an IDF combat medic) to ask if he could make any sense of why we had just stumbled upon a group of uniformed Tzahal chayalim in the middle of Colorado. He told me that after a helicopter full of IDF personnel had crashed in Romania a few years ago, Israelis demanded to know why their husbands, sons and brothers were training in a foreign country. At that point word got out that the IDF sends select units of soldiers all over the world to train (unarmed) in the environments of friendly nations.
A squad of IDF soldiers was the last thing we would have expected to see in Cheyenne Canyon Park that day. May God look after Israel’s brave chayalim wherever they may be.
About the Author: Rabbi Akiva Males is rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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