We know from Pirkei Avot that Shimon the Righteous was among the last members of the Great Assembly, the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah. He would say, “On three things the world depends, on Torah study, on the service of G-d, and on bestowing kindness” (Chapter 1, Mishna 2).
I was not brought up very observant, but after a family trip to Israel in 2011, I started to return to Judaism, to get myself on the right path. 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 Rabi Nachman of Breslov, zt”l, who taught us to never give up and to always look for the good in others and in ourselves. I developed “deveikus,” closeness to Hashem, creating my own “Sulam Aliyah,” my Ladder of Growth. I was told that if Rabi Akiva could learn after age 40, it was not too late for me. Hashem had been with me since birth, now it was up to me to know Him.
I knew my great grandparents were from Pinsk, part of the Pale of Settlement, in Russia, and, like so many, had escaped the pogroms, the brutal killings, the persecutions, the poverty, and the laws separating the Jews from religious freedom. It was my great Grandfather, Meir (meaning “one who shines”) who came alone in 1896 and later sent for his wife Nachama (meaning “comfort”) and their three children, Augustus, Irving, and Samuel in 1900. Meir became Morris and Nechama became Anna.
I later learned that Meir had a pushcart, a beard and a kippah, and davened in the Stoliner shul on the Lower East Side. A few years later, my great grandparents moved to Brooklyn and 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, staying in Brooklyn until just after my bar mitzvah in 1976. We then moved to Florida.
It was the memories of my family living in Brooklyn, particularly the Passover sedarim that never left my mind. And so after a 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 and davened: “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the World, help me help others.” I went online and did a search for “Mitzvah” and “Brooklyn.” My search led me to Brooklynite Michael Cohen. Michael had a video talking 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. Michael’s suggestion turned out to be a real blessing. 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.
In addition, on Thursday nights for almost six months, I volunteered at Aishel Shabbat by delivering boxes of food for Shabbat to needy families. When driving from Long Island became too difficult during the winter months, I decided to step up my visits to the Holocaust survivors, later meeting over 23 of them, mostly on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings. At some point, I began visiting Orthodox synagogues all over Brooklyn and taking photos intending to someday make a book of 100 orthodox synagogues of Brooklyn.
My great-grandparents began their life in America 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 he was sent to live with his older sister in the Bronx (he was a 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 five 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 five 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 about a book talk and reached Young Israel of Jamaica Estates in Queens. I tried speaking with its President, Avram Blumenthal, more than once, but was always told, “We’ll get back to you.”
Honestly, I started to question myself, who was I, why I was trying share my story, why I couldn’t just thank Hashem for the book, etc. After about two months, I tried reaching Avram again. This time he said, “Before you say anything, let me tell you what happened.”
It seems that the shul was 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 founders, Lucille Rosenberg (Liebeh Tziviyeh bat Shmuel) who served as the chairperson of the Interior Design Committee, was in a hospice. Lucille was an artist, had a Masters degree in art and had taught art at Solomon Schechter schools. Avram bought the book, inscribed it and gave the book to Lucille’s husband, Abe Rosenberg, who brought it to Lucille.
By the time the book was brought to the hospice, Lucille was mostly unaware and non-communicative. However, the Rabbi and Rebbetzin showed her the photos. 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, and that her designs were now part of a book that was seen by people in Israel and that her works are now known throughout the world.
Abe later told me that Lucille’s smile showed that “she knew the good that she accomplished.” He also told me that Lucille had designed a beautiful cover, mantel, for a Torah scroll from Czechoslovakia rescued after the Holocaust and it is on display at the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates. In the end, Lucille was aware of the kindness of others and Abe expressed his gratitude to all involved.
I am thankful to Hashem that there are good people like Avram, like Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hochberg, and, of course, Lucille’s family and friends, as well as the staff at the hospice, It confirmed what Shimon the Righteous said about the importance of chesed.
May the memory of Lucille Rosenberg, Liebeh Tziviyeh bat Shmuel, always be for a blessing.