For many years Hineni has had the zechus of holding Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur davening in the beautiful ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. As if by magic, we quickly transform the banquet room into a majestic synagogue. By the time the Aron Kodesh is in place, one has difficulty remembering that just hours earlier, this was a wedding hall.
What is amazing about our services, however, is that they attract Jews from every walk of life, and all are equally impacted. The davening, drashos (sermons) learning and explanations of the prayers that my sons and son-in-law offer are electrifying and inspiring. Everyone embraces the day and reaches new spiritual heights.
No one goes out to the lobby to schmooze or needs to be shushed, and no one leaves early. Even during the brief break on Yom Kippur, people stay in order to study the Book of Yonah – an experience that is truly astounding when understood through the interpretations of the Vilna Gaon.
Only the crying of infants and toddlers breaks the silence in our shul, but to me, that is not noise, but music. Whenever there is a disturbance of this sort during prayer, I recall the words of the Klausenberger Rebbe, zt’l, who lost his Rebbetzin and all his 11 children in the Holocaust. On the first Rosh Hashanah after that terrible Churban, his voice choked up with tears, he wept and said, “Where are the children? Why do we not hear their voices? Where are the babies? Why do we not hear them cry?”
Those questions were laden with pain, and echoed in every displaced person’s camp where survivors gathered in prayer. “Why? Why don’t we hear our babies cry? Where are all our children?”
There were no answers forthcoming. The agonizing questions reverberated in the air. So, if today, I hear babies cry, I say, “Baruch Hashem!” a thousand times and marvel at the miraculous rejuvenation of our Jewish people.
Our Hineni Congregation is composed of people from every segment of society: young singles, families, parents, children, grandparents, visitors from abroad, secular as well as the very observant – people who normally have nothing in common, yet are fused into one through prayer and the sanctity of Torah.
That common denominator connects our people, but in our fractured society, we have failed to harness its magic, to banish the yetzer ha’ra with its fire. Baruch Hashem, at our services, that magic does take place. As the Torah envelops us, our souls open up and soar. We bond as a people…reach new levels of emunah – faith in our G-d.
On these occasions, we have the pleasure of hosting seudos (festive meals) after each of the services, providing us with an opportunity to get to know one another on a more personal level. Last year, we met Mr. X, who was 99 years old at that time. His daughter brought him to our davening. It was remarkable that this gentleman, a survivor of the Holocaust, who had experienced that nightmare in all its horrific dimensions, had totally renounced his faith and had not been in shul or heard the sound of the shofar for more than 69 years. But something tugged at his heart… a small inner voice whispered to him and demanded that he listen to the shofar, and for the first time in 69 years, he came to shul.
At the seudah, I asked everyone to stand up for him, and in his honor our chazzan sang Shalom Aleichem and Ani Ma’amin. We all joined in and the men formed a circle and danced around him. We marveled at the miraculous power of the “Pintele Yid,” which never dies.
I wondered if our friend would return this year. I was not kept in suspense for long. His daughter told me that he was anxiously awaiting Rosh Hashanah. Once again we welcomed and feted him, and as we sang, we wished him a happy 100th birthday…. biz 120!
Allow me to share with you two more vignettes of people who davened with us, as testimony to the invincibility of the Yiddishe neshamah.
There was a beautiful young woman who once heard me speak in a far-off very assimilated community. She held a lucrative position there, but I challenged her to leave it behind and come to New York. “Join us,” I said, “study Torah with us and meet a great Jewish guy.”
It was just one meeting, one little invitation, but the “Pintele Yid” in her awakened, and a few months later, she showed up at our Hineni class in New York. And she also convinced her sister to join her. In no time at all, both she and her sister were immersed in our Torah classes, and shortly thereafter, both were married to wonderful young men with whom they built true Jewish homes.
Then there’s the story of a young woman from Budapest who had read my book in its Hungarian translation. It awakened her Yiddishe neshamah and she told her family that she had to go to New York for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Overnight, a magical transformation took place. I was privileged to see her walk under the chuppah and establish a true Jewish home.
She wasn’t content to keep this treasure to herself. She and her husband organized a spectacular gathering in Budapest so that I was able to bring the message of Torah to our Hungarian Jewish brethren. And now this young couple flew in for our davening with their new addition – a beautiful little baby girl.
I could share dozens more stories with you – testimonies to the invincible eternal spirit of our Jewish people that neither Hitler, y”s, nor the forces of assimilation could destroy.
As we come to the conclusion of the Yamim Tovim, and appeal once again on Hoshanah Rabah for G-d’s forgiveness, compassion and blessing, I would like to publicly proclaim that it was not only during our 40-year sojourn in the desert that we followed Hashem, but throughout the millennia, the long dark torturous years of our exile. Generation after generation we declared, “Here I am! Yes, Hashem, we are here. So please bless us with your presence. Say ‘Hineni – Here I am’ to us and bring an end to our long, bitter exile!”