Traveling from Tel Aviv to Toronto on El Al for work, to pass the time away I leaf through the weekly Canadian Jewish News. A number of articles are dedicated to the memory of an outstanding entrepreneur and philanthropist who was one of the most prominent and respected Jewish communal leaders in Canada and who was passionately dedicated to making the world a better place – both in word and deed.
While I am reading the various tributes, the passenger sitting beside me is peering over my shoulder rather unsubtly, trying to read my paper. I eventually offer her the paper and we begin to speak. Suzie is from Korea and has been living in Canada for 16 years with her husband, Steve, who is seated next to her. He is an accountant and she is a pharmacist.
The three of us continue to speak and it transpires that Suzie and Steve are Evangelical Christians who have just made their first visit to Israel – a pilgrimage they call it – and they were, to put it colloquially “blown away.” They love the Jews and Israel now even more, and they plan to make an annual visit.
They quote Genesis chapter 12 verse 3, where God says to then Abram: “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
This verse is Suzie and Steve’s guiding light and beacon.
They ply me with all sorts of questions about my family living in Israel and about all matters Jewish. On an 11-hour flight there’s lots to talk about.
I tell them about how we as a family have fulfilled the Zionist dream by making aliya and that all our children, their spouses and our nine grandchildren live in Israel. I relate this to the fact that the Shoah almost destroyed my personal family chain and in Israel, we have managed to rebuild from the ashes. I can see they are moved.
I tell them as well that in my work as an executive for a nonprofit that helps vulnerable and disadvantaged Jews in Israel and all over the world, I am also “in the business” of rebuilding families and Jewish communities. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of living in the long shadow of the Shoah as a child of Holocaust survivors.
My late parents were part of the human wreckage that the Shoah left in its wake and they never really recovered from the traumatic war years.
During the course of the conversation, the topic moves to synagogue practice and they inquire, among other things, about the Aaronic dynasty. I tell them proudly that I am a descendant of Aaron the high priest, I am a kohen, and that there’s no greater zechut, privilege, for me than to bless the congregation on Shabbat and the festivals. I am the vehicle through which God blesses the congregation.
In unison, they ask me if I will bless them. They close their eyes, I hold their outstretched hands, and I recite the Birkat Kohanim – the Blessing of the High Priests – in Hebrew and English: “May God bless you and guard you; May God shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you; May God turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.”
Their eyes remain closed and there is silence for what seems an interminable period.
Suzie and Steve can’t thank me enough.
They bless me in return and are simply overwhelmed by what is a storybook ending to their first visit to Israel.
And I think to myself: how wonderful it is to be in the company of people who love us unconditionally, who advocate for us who will stand up for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
I am floating on cloud nine – and then a few days after I arrive in Toronto, the bubble bursts.
I have some hours to spare before my next appointment so I pop into the Royal Ontario Museum to wander through The Evidence Room, where there is a chilling exhibition on the architecture of Auschwitz.
Yes, this what I do with my spare time.
Curated by Prof. Robert Jan van Pelt, professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and based on architectural evidence such as blueprints, contractors’ bills and photographs, three key components of the Auschwitz gas chambers – a gas column, gas-tight door and gas-tight hatch – are reconstructed in full scale.
This key forensic architectural evidence is incontrovertible proof of the Nazis’ intent to create a killing factory, Auschwitz, with one goal in mind: a Jew-free world. This evidence was used to defeat the libel suit by the discredited David Irving, falsifier of history and Holocaust denier, against Deborah Lipstadt.
As I wandered through the exhibition, I thought about the architects who were commissioned to design Auschwitz, graduates of the finest architectural schools in Europe. They thought of everything – down to the last detail. For example, they designed the doors to swing outwards so that they would still open with corpses crushed against them. Brilliantly creative.
They installed peepholes so SS guards could see everyone was dead, but very thoughtfully wired over the same peepholes on the inside so that panicking, gasping victims could not break the glass to let in air.
In two crematoria with above-ground gas chambers, the architects installed gas-tight hatches to introduce pelletized cyanide gas into the chamber and, in a stroke of genius, set the hatches high in the walls – out of reach of the victims.
I am reminded of the letter of a Holocaust survivor quoted by educational psychologist Haim Ginot: “I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates.
“So, I am suspicious of education. My request is this: help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”
My thoughts return to the accolades in the Canadian Jewish News for that outstanding role model who dedicated himself through his good deeds and philanthropy to narrowing the gaps between the haves and the have-nots, to Suzie and Steve who genuinely care about Israel and the Jewish people and will support us through thick and thin, and... to those “talented,” highly educated architects who in their zeal to “make the world a better place,” to create an ideal world, designed a factory of death.
Yes, there are truly wonderful and decent people of good will with huge hearts and exceptional humanity; there are those who will go out of their way to be supportive and constructively critical and empathize with the major issues we in Israel are trying to resolve. But there are also others, including, regrettably, some within the fold, who seem to have a different agenda, do not have our interests at heart, and who see the situation through a distorted lens of unrealistic, quick-and-easy, black and white binary solutions.
We need to imbibe and retain the lessons of history. Living as we do in Israel with a narrow margin for error, we need to be constantly on our guard, jealously protective and forever vigilant in this rough neighborhood we call home.
The author lives and works in Jerusalem and is the author of the novella A World of Pains – A Redemptive Parable?