HAFTR Goes To Denmark

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By Rabbi Gedaliah Oppen

Principal of Judaic Studies, HAFTR

Part 1: Why I Went To Copenhagen

HAFTR - Oppen Copenhagen

On February 14, Dan Uzan, Hy’D, a 37-year-old Jewish volunteer security guard protecting the synagogue in which the bat mitzvah of Hannah Bentow was being celebrated, was murdered in cold blood by an Islamic terrorist.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who attended Dan Uzan’s funeral, proclaimed, “An attack on the Jews of Denmark is an attack on Denmark.”

I believe we should all be declaring clearly, emphatically, and loudly that “an attack on any Jew, no matter where he or she is—whether in Israel, the United States, Paris, or Denmark, or any place in the world—is an attack on all Jews and every Jew.”

When Mr. Jordan Hiller, a former HAFTR student of mine, advised Mrs. Leslie Gang, HAFTR’s director of admissions and communications, that he was organizing a chizuk mission, a mission to strengthen and encourage the Jews of Copenhagen, I could not help but offer to participate. In announcing the mission, Jordan quoted the batmitzvah girl, Hannah Bentow, whose day of joy transformed into a tragedy, as saying “I wish I didn’t have a bat mitzvah.” Who can blame her for feeling vulnerable, alone, and abandoned? Yet we cannot let this be the case! “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh l’zeh”—we are all responsible for the well-being of one another.

When I mentioned the mission to my wife, Yehudis, her reaction was immediate. “How can you not go? There are people b’tza’ar, people who are in pain, people who need to know that we are with them.”

The idea was also enthusiastically endorsed by my colleague Ms. Naomi Lippman, principal of HAFTR general studies, and executive director Mr. Ruben Maron, who insisted, “A mitzvah like this? For sure you should go.”

Purim is almost upon us. The turning point of the narrative in MegillasEsther was when Esther commanded Mordechai, “Lech k’nos es kol haYehudim”—Go and gather all of the Jews. To understand why this was the focal point of the drama, we must recall that when the wicked Haman sought permission from King Achashverosh to massacre the Jews, he noted “Yeshno am echad mefuzar u’meforad bein ha’amim”—There is one nation which is scattered and separated amongst all the other nations. Haman recognized that when the Jewish nation is scattered and separated, we become vulnerable and an easy target for all the Hamans throughout the generations. When we stand united as one, however, when we feel the pain of others, when we demonstrate through word and deed that no Jew is alone and that we are there for one another, then we can confront and successfully challenge all those who wish to destroy us. When Hashem sees that we are b’achdus, when we stand together just as at Mount Sinai, then Hashem bestows His Shechinah upon us and saves us from the wicked.

HAFTR Oppen group IMG_1119

Jordan Hiller’s mission has reminded me that we must stand together with our brothers and sisters and assert to the world that we all stand united as one people.

The loss of Dan Uzan, and the pain and suffering of the citizens of Copenhagen, is our loss, pain, and suffering as well. The saddened bat mitzvah girl, Hannah, and her broken-hearted family, who must live with the memories of her shattered bat mitzvah, must rely on us to glue back together those broken pieces. I am bringing with me bat mitzvah gifts and letters of mazal tov and encouragement from my students at HAFTR High School. The members of the mission also plan to extend personal condolences and deliver letters of nechamah during our shivah visit to the Uzan family.

As I write this article, I see the snow falling and I think of how each snowflake falls as an individual, yet when those singular snowflakes join together, they become so powerful that they can shut down roads, cause airports to close, and in so many ways demonstrate the power of Hashem over His world, our world. Maybe, just maybe, the fact that we have had unpredicted and unprecedented amounts of snow this year, not just here in the United States but across the globe, is a message from Hashem that no matter what differences we may have, no matter that no two snowflakes are alike, we must unite. Not to create a storm, but to withstand a storm.

B’ezras Hashem, just as in MegillasEsther we united and thus merited to be saved from the devastating plot of Haman, so, too, may we all unite and thus be zocheh to the day when Mashiach Tzidkeinu will arrive and bring us as one to the city of shalom, the City of Peace, with the building of the Beis HaMikdash.

Part 2: United
and Uplifted

Buckled in my seat, ready for takeoff on my return home from Copenhagen, Denmark, I close my eyes and consider my past 30 hours in Copenhagen.

We were five individuals who had embarked on a “chizuk mission,” traveling to a country where a terrorist attack had occurred just over a week earlier—unclear as to what might occur, how we would be perceived, how to act, or even what to say. Everything was uncertain except that it was the right to do.

As soon as we retrieved our luggage, filled with letters of consolation composed by HAFTR and other high-school students as well as 400 hamantashen, a man raced towards us urging, “Please come with me. I am here to pick you up. Rabbi Loewenthal, the Chabad Rabbi has sent me.” Somehow from that moment on, I felt the Syata D’Shmaya, the help from Heaven, that would ensure this mission was going to be meaningful, fulfilling, and successful.

Our first stop was to visit and be menachem aveilim to the Uzan family, mourning their son Dan, H’yd.

Words can hardly describe the emotional greeting with which we were received. Dan’s parents and sister were standing by the door waiting with open arms as we approached their home. Mr. Uzan embraced me with a warm and enveloping hug while repeating in a hushed tone, “I can’t believe you came here to comfort us.” Mrs. Uzan stood in rapt silence as tears streamed down her cheeks. Around the Uzan’s dining-room table we began to talk about Dan, hearing from his distraught but proud family how he was truly ohev Yisraelu’mechabeid es habryios, and about his love, concern, and devotion for the Jewish community and all mankind.

We discussed emunah and bitachon and agreed how Hashem is the Dayan HaEmes, the True Judge and how one should never take life for granted. I felt so uplifted and strengthened by this family who had just lost a son that I returned the father’s hugs and thanked him for the chizuk he had given me. He responded by saying, “Atem chizaktem oti,” you all strengthen me.

Chizuk mission organizer Mr. Jordan Hiller presented the family with a beautifully bound book containing personal letters of support from community members as well as letters from our own local security-guard volunteers, who, like their fallen comrade Dan, are moser nefesh and committed to safeguarding neighbors and community. I then presented to them the letters of nechamah and consolation written by my HAFTR High School students. Tears again began to flow from each of us as we felt the achdus, the unity of a people separated by thousands of miles experiencing the embodiment of the principle “Kol Yisraelareivim zeh l’zeh.”

We then traveled to the home of Hannah Bentow, whose induction into Jewish adulthood had been shattered by terror. Our mission and determination was to refocus her negative feelings and bring a measure of deserved simcha and joy to her and her family.

At the Bentow home, we were welcomed with gratitude and warm hospitality, yet beneath the surface we could sense Hannah’s pain, guilt, and confusion. In response, we explained that it was a desire to address those very real feelings that brought us to Copenhagen. We pointed out that notwithstanding the tragic circumstances, which were beyond her control, her bat mitzvah remained a reaffirmation of Jewish tradition and continuity; that Jews throughout the world share not only tza’ar but s’machos as well, and thus our community had sent her a wide range of gifts as well as a book of letters from students who, despite the distance, consider her a friend. Slowly this young girl, who just a few minutes earlier has been downcast, “v’nahafoch hu,” was smiling and radiant as we continued to discuss the Danish Jewish community, its history, and the commitment of world Jewry to it and Hannah and her family.

That evening there was a memorial for Dan Uzan, where over 2,000 people filled the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen, including the prime minister and many other dignitaries. Being neither dignitaries nor community residents, we were repeatedly asked who we were. When we responded that we were just a group of five on a “chizuk mission,” most couldn’t fathom what that even meant. Incredulous, they exclaimed, “You just came today and are leaving tomorrow? You really just came to show your support for a community you do not even know?” Yet when told that was exactly the mission’s goal, they each expressed gratitude and a clearer understanding of what “achdus” means. When Mr. Uzan arrived, he came directly to us again: “Chizaktem oti.” Hannah and her parents also expressed their hakaras ha’tov to each member of the mission over and over again.

Except for Kaddish and Kel Malei Rachamim, the memorial was conducted in the Danish language, but since the speeches were words which were “yotzim min ha’lev,” words that came from the heart, “nichnasim el ha’lev” they enter the heart. While we may not understand Danish, words from the heart we do, and thus the service was inspiring and moving for all who participated.

That night, the mission members were invited to the Chabad shaliach, Rabbi Yitzchak Loewenthal, for dinner. Rabbi Loewenthal showed us the century-old Machazikei Haddas synagogue as well as the beautiful new mikveh. He also related his concern and worry on the night of the terrorist attack, and how he desperately sought to secure his family and the occupants of the Chabad House. Ironically, the Chabad House is located in the same building which had been used to house the Gestapo, ym’s. A building that housed those who tried so hard to extinguish the light of Judaism is now spreading the light of Torah and Yiddishkeit.

As I glide through the clouds, overflowing with the still fresh memories and reflections, I can’t help but recall that the coming Shabbos contains Parashas Zachor and the commandment to eradicate Amalek.

Who is this Amalek and how do we eliminate it?

The events of the past week allow me to see and understand what Amalek represents: Amalek seeks to plant terror and fear. Amalek’s goal is to cast doubt, confusion, and insecurity in the hearts and minds of people. Indeed, Chazal teach us, that the gematria of “Amalek,” 240, is the same numerical value as the word “safek,” doubt. Eisav, Amalek’s ancestor, was one who not only put fear into the hearts of people by threat of terror, but also slipped doubt into the minds of people through trickery and guile. After the power and might of Hashem were demonstrated during Bnei Yisrael’s exodus from Egypt, no nation or individual thought to challenge the omnipotence of G‑d or the security of His people. Yet, in attracting Am Yisrael, Amalek did just that. By the mere act of daring to attack, they sought to insinuate into the hearts and minds of Bnei Yisrael and all the witnessing nations a doubt as to whether G‑d could protect them.

Today we have a very powerful Amalek who will attack us anywhere and everywhere. An Amalek who feeds off any fear we display. But Amalek is only powerful if we allow it to become so—when we fear to walk on the streets, when we fear to visit our brothers and sisters in Israel or Paris or Copenhagen or London. True, we must be cautious and not deliberately place ourselves in a makom sakanah, in a danger zone, but we must not allow the doubt, uncertainty and fear spread insidiously by contemporary Amalek to paralyze us or inhibit us.

When arriving in Copenhagen and seeing the look of confusion and insecurity on the faces of the Uzan and Bentow families and the people of their community, it was as though Amalek were succeeding. However, as we spoke with them and showed that we are all together, that they are not (and never were) alone, when the community in Copenhagen felt the embrace of our community, when the feeling of a greater sense of belonging returned to their hearts and minds and when their radiant smiles shone anew, we were able to watch the Amalek of doubt slowly being eradicated.

The Mishnah in Maseches Rosh Hashanah teaches us that during the war with Amalek, only when Moshe raised his hands would Bnei Yisrael prevail. The Mishnah notes that it was not the positions of Moshe’s hands that determine victory or defeat, but that only when Bnei Yisrael would raise their eyes and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven would they succeed.

When we commit our hearts to the Ribbono shel Olam, when we dismiss doubt, when we don’t allow our trust in G‑d to be undermined, when we truly believe that ha’kol min haShamayim—even in the difficult times when Amalek is threatening not just our existence but our faith in the G‑d who ensures that existence—and when we stand united as one people with the One Above, we emerge victorious.

“Zachor”—remember all that which Amalek has sought to do to us throughout the generations, and remember the memories of Dan Uzan and all those who were moser nefesh al Kiddush Hashem, but also “lo tishkach,” never forget that the way to defeat Amalek is through achdus, unity and care and concern for one another and to pledge our hearts L’Avinu ShebaShamayim and to always raise our eyes to our Father in Heaven without doubt in ourselves or doubt in Him.

When we stand united as one with the Jewish people and our Father in Heaven, embracing and supporting each other, then we will be zocheh to the day when we will know no fear and we will have no doubt that Hashem Echad u’Shemo Echad. v

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