When I was invited a few months ago to lecture at a European retreat in Davos, Switzerland, that was hosted in the same luxury venue where the world economic leaders (including former president Bill Clinton) had met for their own economic summit a few years ago, I knew there was no way I’d refuse. The resort weekend was organized by Rabbi Sholom Liberow, director of the European Jewish Study Network (EJSN) and his wonderful wife, Leah.
Aside from their sterling care and exceptional attention to details–both material and spiritual–the setting on the postcard picturesque Swiss Alps couldn’t have been more awesome.
But truly, for me, there was an additional incentive to attend.
My father was born in Switzerland where, for many years, my grandfather served as chief rabbi in the city of Basil. Switzerland became a haven of refuge for my father’s family during the perilous Holocaust years and one of the very few islands of normalcy in a sea raging with anti-Semitic hatred, persecution and death for European Jewry.
For me, in a tiny way, being a part of this program was almost a way of somehow paying back a debt of gratitude to my father’s homeland.
A retreat weekend is always interesting, full of meaningful programs, and saturated with learning and spiritual growth. But for me, the most inspirational part of these weekends is meeting so many different people, from all over the world-in this case, from places as diverse as London, California, Tel Aviv, Italy, Amsterdam, Ranana, and Brussels.
Somehow the anonymity of a diverse group of strangers, old and young coming together from far and near, opens the channels of communication, awakens sleeping hearts and forges new bonds. Personal life stories begin flowing freely just as the choice wines at each meal.
Somehow, it’s easier to open up to and share with someone who lives in another country, who in all likelihood you won’t be meeting up with again sometime soon. And so, in hushed private conversations in corners of sumptuous rooms, or in open gregarious table talk over a Shabbat luncheon, you learn incredible stories about people’s lives.
What never fails to impress me from these conversations is how extraordinarily special our people is. If you seek, you will discover that everyone has a story.
A story of heroism and bravery. A story of courage and faith. A story of inconceivable kindness. Or a story of return. But always a story with a rich and vibrant history.
Whether the story occurred to a parent, a bubby orzaidy, or a great-grandparent, our people’s history is rich and replete with meaning.
History and present life choices intersect seamlessly as a beloved parent, bubby, orzaidy becomes instrumental in forging us into who we have become.
Here’s a little story of how I was reminded of my own grandfather right on the Swiss Alps, in his homeland–in Davos, Switzerland.
One of my lectures over the weekend was on “relationships.” I was more than a little taken aback when I noticed that one of the participants was a very elderly, married gentleman who could probably have lectured me on relationships! (There was another concurrent, more relevant workshop but he chose instead to attend mine).
The puzzle was solved, however, when he approached me gratefully after my talk.
“I knew your grandfather very well,” he said, delighted. “Your grandfather was my rabbi and my teacher.” He paused. “I still remember him well. It gives me great pleasure to hear his granddaughter lecturing.”
I have often met people who knew or learned from my grandparents. But to meet someone there, in Switzerland, who knew them from so long ago, at a period in their lives when they were just beginning to build their family and when my own father was just a young boy, seemed particularly special. I wanted to ask him so much about my father’s family, but in his typically reserved Swiss manner, he wasn’t very forthcoming.
He shared only one bit of wisdom before the weekend was over. “Do not be so modest,” he admonished me during one of the meals. “Remember who you come from. Walk upright, with great pride.”
I think of his words. And I think it is a message that must reverberate within each of us. We each hold the treasured keys to a rich history. We each have a bubby orzaidy-or a bubby andzaidy’s bubby orzaidy-in whom we can, and must, take pride.
Search deeply and you will uncover your own personal saga of courage and heroism. Cherish the stories and lessons from your past. Take pride in your personal stories and allow them to forge you into the person you wish to become.
And, at all times, remember from where you have come.