I have often told Jewish students that they are miracles. If your grandparents survived the holocaust, that means your existence here and now is a miracle. If your parents emigrated from the USSR, then your being here now as a Jew is also a miracle. I’m an American Jew through and through. All of my grandparents were born here in America, and so were many of my great grandparents. Am I still a miracle? Do I have any miraculous stories to tell? Do I have any ancestral existential threats that I can claim to my existence?
I will often meet the parents and grandparents of my students, and I’ll ask them for stories. Boy do they have stories! Their lives were under threat many times. Their Judaism was hidden, denied, ridiculed… The fact that here stands a Jewish “child” coming out from their trials and tribulations is a miracle. But what about me? My parents and grandparents didn’t have to hide themselves nor their Jewish identities… So, do I lose my “Jewish Miracle” status?
Today is the yahrtzeit of my grandfather, Mr. Robert Klein, or as we called him, Papa. He was 1 of 7 boys. He outlived them all, and it’s mostly due to my grandmother’s vigilance over his health. He couldn’t read Hebrew. He grew up in a small town in Michigan called Ithaca during the depression. His parents were immigrants looking for a better life, and I never met them. He fought in Word War II along with all of his brothers and brothers in law (His parents had 7 stars in their window during the war representing 7 boys overseas fighting in the war.). Papa came back from the war, married a nice Jewish girl (my grandma), and wanted to settle down. But times were tough, so it wasn’t an easy task. They settled in a small town in Michigan called Mt. Pleasant. With a population of a couple hundred people and a Jewish population of less than a minyan, this was going to be their home for many years to come. And it was where they’d raise their Jewish children. But how do you raise your children to be Jewish with less than a minyan of Jews in the city?
Papa, a proud and smart Jew who just never had the chance to learn how to read Hebrew, took it upon his shoulders. He set up a Hebrew school above his hardware store and eventually built a synagogue with the other few local Jewish families. They invited all the Jews of Mt. Pleasant along with the few Jews from every town nearby to come. That synagogue was where my mother, her siblings, and her friends, learned to read Hebrew. It was where they had their bar and bat mitzvahs. And it was where the miracles of my Jewish existence happened that enabled me and my family to be here today.
Since then, I have met some of those families from those days. I even performed the wedding for my grandfather’s bestfriend’s grandson who also carries the legacy of our grandparents’ miracles. It was from that synagogue that my mother went on to join BBYO, travel to Israel, and eventually to meet my father, a nice Jewish boy from California.
I am proud to say that I also carry the status of a miracle, being a living Jewish child in our generation. And I encourage you to see your miraculous existence too, whether your grandparents’ lives were existentially threatened or not. And learn from my Papa. You don’t have to be a rabbi to make miracles. You don’t even have to know Hebrew to profoundly impact your Jewish generations to come. You just have to care and take action. Just like my Papa did. Thanks, Papa! We miss you! May your soul have an aliyah through the Torah study, mitzvahs, and kindness of the multitude of Jewish generations miraculously here due to your efforts.