Every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our Hineni organization is privileged to hold the most spectacular services. We take over one of Manhattan’s grand hotels and convert the ballroom into a beautiful synagogue. The davening, the ambience, the entire atmosphere is something so awesome that there is no way that I could possibly describe it and do it justice.
In our generation, synagogues, congregations and minyanim have come to reflect the many hues of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. And even when within the Orthodox there are so many shades: Chassidishe, Yeshivish, Modern Orthodox, to the totally assimilated, our Hineni minyan is refreshingly all-inclusive. Like the lulav and the esrog that encompass the four species, so our congregation embraces every Jew. We are all one, and it is as one that we stand before G-d during these holy days.
My sons, Rabbi Yisroel and Osher Anshil, who are the rabbis of Hineni, and my son-in-law, Rav Shlomo, who is our ba’al tefillah, never have to stop to call the congregation to attention or wait until everyone quiets down. Everyone is enveloped in genuine, heartfelt davening, be they newly returned Jews or Torah educated, their prayers soar. The prayers are explained and over the years, I have found these explanations very helpful – not only to the uninitiated, but also to the well schooled.
Just because one may be well versed in our tradition does not mean that he/she perceives the depth, sensitivity and beauty of the tefillos. We all need reminders so that we may be ever mindful in front of whom we stand. Nor is knowledge of the Hebrew language a guarantee of kavannah. Genuine prayer that flows from the heart needs help and inspiration.
A couple of years ago, I shared with you the story of Hendryk, a man in his late 90s who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust and had not heard the sound of the shofar for over 65 years. His daughter prevailed upon him to come and attend our services. When he heard the awesome sound of the shofar, his heart melted; tears gathered in his eyes and later, at our seudah, we welcomed him with Shalom Aleichem as the men danced around him and celebrated his return to our people. This year, as he reached his 100th birthday, he was called On High, and he ascended with the sound of the shofar in his neshamah.
I could write a book about all the people, young and old, and the shidduchim that have come about over the years. But I would like to share with you just one story of a beautiful young girl from New Caledonia – a faraway, French-speaking island off the coast of New Zealand. There is almost no Jewish life there – not even a synagogue – but someone gave her my book in French translation and it penetrated her heart. She discovered her Yiddishe neshamah and made her way to New York to study Torah with me.
In no time at all, we enrolled her in Bais Yaakov of Montreal and one of our devoted Hineni members became her New York surrogate Jewish mom, so for Yom Tov, she too was with us. She was among the first to be in shul and it was a nachas to see her daven. Baruch Hashem, we have many such stories of Jews coming home.
At our minyan, we also have people who were nurtured in Torah homes, who have in-depth knowledge, and it is truly inspiring to see how one group interacts with the other and together creates a magnificent symphony in praise of Hashem. There is no factionalism at Hineni. We are all Hineni – Here I am, ready to serve my G-d. It is not by coincidence that in the Holy Tongue, Hineni is a word that connotes both the male and female gender. Hineni applies equally to individuals as to the many. Hineni represents a beautiful unity, warmth and love, and it is that which permeates our minyan and Please G-d, penetrates the Heavenly Gates.
In one of his drashos my son related a difficult-to-believe story that was circulated on the Internet before Yom Tov. An Israeli rabbi traveled to Munich to visit his daughter who works as an Israeli emissary in Nuremberg. As he went through security, chaos broke out. The German officials were thrown into disarray when they found a shofar in his suitcase. Soon, guards surrounded and questioned the rabbi, wanting to know exactly what that item was. Agitated, the rabbi tried to explain that it was a shofar that he was carrying and asked a fellow Jewish passenger from England how one could say “shofar” in German.
The rabbi’s answers didn’t satisfy the Germans and they escorted him to a customs area for further questioning. The rabbi began to lose it and told them in English, “Sixty years ago, you knew exactly what this was as you liquidated us because of our religion.”
As the conversation became more intense, the fellow Jewish passenger from England became concerned that the rabbi would be arrested. To diffuse the tension, he suggested to the customs officials that they google “shofar.” After further investigation, the guards asked the rabbi for one final test to ensure that the shofar was safe and ordered him to blow it. The rabbi was more than happy to oblige, but he did not do so by blowing one quick toot. Rather, he blew a whole Tekiah, Shevarim Teruah, and Tekiah Gedolah.
As the sound of the shofar reverberated through the Munich airport, people looked up in awe, and there was even applause.
The irony behind this story struck me. How can one logically explain the fuss the Germans made over the shofar? After all, even a simpleton could see that there was nothing menacing about a horn. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to realize that a shofar is nothing more than a ram’s horn. There is nothing mysterious, nothing hidden in that ancient, primitive instrument nothing that the naked eye could not detect. And yet, these educated, high-tech Germans were thrown into disarray, felt constrained to google and investigate. How could one possibly explain it?
As my son concluded the story, some people smiled and chuckled, but different thoughts ran through my mind. That story took me back to Rosh Hashanah in Bergen- Belsen.
More than anything else, we wanted to blow the shofar, so at great sacrifice and risk, my father and the other rabbanim in our camp arranged for a shofar to be smuggled into our compound. With tears and trembling, we blew the shofar, and as the sound echoed throughout our camp, the Nazi guards, yemach shemam, came running to beat us, but not before we pronounced the brachah, “Lishmo’a Kol Shofar – Blessed art Thou, O L-rd our G-d, who has commanded us to hearken to the sound of the shofar.”
Many years later, I was speaking in Eretz Yisrael in the Shomron, in a small community called Neve Aliza. It was before Rosh Hashanah, so I related the story of the shofar from Bergen-Belsen. A woman in the audience stood up. “Rebbetzin Jungreis, the story that you just told – I know it well. We were in the Polish camp adjacent to yours and the shofar from your camp was smuggled into ours, and my father was the rav who blew the shofar for us.” And then she added the incredible words: “I have that shofar with me.”
With that, she ran home and returned with the shofar in her hands – and there we were – two women who were children in Bergen-Belsen holding the shofar from Bergen- Belsen in Eretz Yisrael. If you just think about that you must see the miraculous Hand of G-d.
Yes, the Germans at the airport were quite correct. They sensed that that shofar had power – power that defies time; power that is mightier than all the tyrants and armies of the world; a power that can outlive the Hitler, yemach shemo, of each generation and century. Yes, that is the power of the shofar. It is the call from Sinai. It is the call of the Jew. Yes, that is the shofar that has the power to announce the coming of Mashiach and soon, its sound will reverberate throughout the universe as G-d gathers His holy flock from the four corners of the world and brings them home to Jerusalem.