Friday, July 14, 2017

Kurt Roberg's 80th Bar Mitzvah Anniversary

On Friday evening, May 12th, Kurt Roberg, our eldest member, celebrated the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah, which took place in Nazi Germany. Kurt was called up for the aliyah, there was a Torah readying from Kurt's portion, and Kurt delivered a special bar mitzvah speech to mark the occasion.


Kurt has been kind enough to share his address with us, for publication in our newsletter, Kadima, and here on our congregational blog. And we are pleased now to share his address with you:







80th Bar Mitzvah Anniversary Address

Kurt Roberg

I am so happy to welcome you all this evening, this certainly is a much bigger turnout than at my original Bar Mitzvah 80 years ago, when in our small congregation in Germany we struggled to assemble 10 men for a minyan.

It is funny how some events in our lives are permanently etched into our memory, and for me that Shabbat in May 1937 certainly is one of them.

I had prepared for my Torah portion for a year under the weekly tutoring of our Hebrew teacher and cantor, and as a result my Torah reading did turn out very well. Then our cantor addressed me, reminding me of my obligations as a Jewish adult; and there were cautions about the difficult times that could lie ahead for German Jews. As a token of my coming of age, I was presented with the traditional Bar Mitzvah gift: a copy of the Holy Scriptures.

After the service had concluded, our family went back to our apartment for a dinner celebration that my mother and Aunt Babette had prepared in advance. My aunt had come from Mother’s birth village near Heidelberg, and my god-parents, Aunt Hedwig and Uncle Robert, had arrived the day before from Paderborn. During those couple of days, we all lived at improvised close quarters in our apartment, because during those Nazi times Jews were no longer allowed in hotels. My brother Harry could not be at my Bar Mitzvah; he had already emigrated a year earlier to my mother’s brother in Holland, and my Uncle Wilhelm refused to travel to Nazi Germany.

Before dinner, everybody gathered in the living room, where another important part of the day's events took place: the presentation of my Bar Mitzvah gifts. Mother had carefully arranged every gift on a table⏤in those days gifts were not wrapped⏤everything was displayed in one overwhelming vision of bliss. There was a fountain pen with a fourteen carat gold tip from Aunt Babette, a Sterling silver pencil from Aunt Hedwig, and a pocketknife from the Salomon family. Uncle Wilhelm had sent twenty Dutch Guilders from Holland and Cousin Helma five Pounds from Palestine. There were some books and sweets and "practical" things like shirts and socks. I was overwhelmed with all those wonderful gifts, but especially the secretly hoped for fountain pen.

As some of you may know, Congregation Adas Emuno was founded in the year 1871 in Hoboken by German/Jewish immigrants. We still have some of the old congregational records, all hand-written in a German script, discontinued long ago. All congregational meetings were held in German and the religious services were performed in German and Hebrew, as were their weekly Religious School classes.

A custom we did not have in Germany, or in Hoboken in those days, but that has become a very laudable tradition in America, is a Bar Mitzvah project. So as my belated Bar Mitzvah project now, I have recently started to study some of those old congregational records. I have deciphered, translated and transcribed the first annual report of its president to the Board of directors, dated October 20, 1872, and an 1873 Report of the School Committee.

Since Tradition and Remembrance are an integral part of Jewish custom and survival, I think it may be of interest to some members of our congregation, as well as our next generation of Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s, to know something about the origin and background of our German/Jewish ancestor congregation. To celebrate my 80th Bar Mitzvah anniversary, in a reversal of procedures, I want to present to you a wonderfully informative book for our library, an illustrated History of the Jews in Germany since Roman times, including the origins of the Reform movement in early 19th century Germany.

In closing, let me thank our Congregation and the Ritual Committee for sponsoring the Oneg Shabbat, Rabbi Schwartz for his caring support and Cantor Horowitz for reading my Parshe today; hopefully I can do that on my 90th anniversary.

Thank you all for sharing this day with me,

Shabbat shalom!

Leonia, May 12, 2017 16 Iyar, 5577


To which we can only add, thank you Kurt, and mazel tov!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Fear and Mostly Hope on the Fourth of July

Here is the latest op-ed, appearing in the June 30th issue of the Jewish Standard, written by Adas Emuno president Lance Strate, and entitled Fear and Mostly Hope on the Fourth of July:


It was the summer of 1974, I had just graduated high school and was looking forward to starting my first year of college in the fall, and I had been accepted into a special summer program called Torah Corps, sponsored by what was then known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism. It was an intensive learning experience for a small group of students, all of whom had just completed 10th, 11th, or 12th grade. Most of us were from the United States, but the group also included several students from Canada.

The program was held at a lodge in Littleton, New Hampshire, and I well recall how we all gathered around the lone television set available to us on the night of August 8 to watch President Richard Nixon deliver a speech to the nation. We knew that he was in trouble over the Watergate scandal, but it still came as a tremendous shock when he uttered the words, “I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.” We vocalized our sense of dismay at this unprecedented development collectively, through gasps and cries and the like. At least those of us who were Americans did so, in response to what we perceived to be a somber and tragic event. But in a somewhat irreverent manner, one of the Canadians started to say, “Yitgadal v’yitkadash…”

Reciting the first few words of our Mourner’s Kaddish did succeed in breaking some of the tension of the situation and injecting a note of humor. But many of us were not amused. There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, and this was a time to shed a tear, not for Nixon himself but for the way in which he had tarnished the institution of the presidency and tried to undermine the democratic process.

And yet, somehow, we survived Watergate and moved forward as a nation. Just as we had survived the assassination of John F. Kennedy 11 years earlier. Apart from the loss of idealism and proliferation of conspiracy theories, some commentators started to point to historical parallels between the United States, characterized at that time by the intensifying social and political unrest of the 1960s, and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. This especially was the case after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 at the hands of a Palestinian immigrant, Sirhan Sirhan, just two months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white supremacist, James Earl Ray.

The decades that followed certainly were not free from scandal. Ronald Reagan gave us Iran-Contra and Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about the Monica Lewinsky affair, narrowly avoiding a conviction and removal from office. But neither event seemed to threaten the viability of the American republic as a whole, and in between we witnessed the sudden collapse of the Communist bloc, first in Eastern Europe and culminating with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The end of European Communism came about so quickly that it seemed almost unbelievable. We celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the coming of freedom and democracy to Russia, and presumably to the other former Soviet republics (prematurely in some cases). Some wondered what would happen to the United States without its one-time adversary serving as a foil and contrast. And some even wondered if the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union might be followed by an equally sudden collapse of the West at a later date.

But for the most part, we emitted a collective sigh of relief at what some philosophers referred to as the end of history, that is, the triumph of liberal democracy.

But we also live with a historical consciousness that has been rare in human history. As the late Elizabeth Eisenstein explained, the ready availability of books, pamphlets, and periodicals, made possible by the printing revolution that began in the 15th century, eventually resulted in widespread awareness of the chronology of calendar time. (Calendars also were produced by printing.) Especially starting in the 19th century, more and more people came to recognize and understand their place in world history. As limited as the historical knowledge of the average American may be, everyone learns about the years 1492 and 1776. And we study history in grade school, and learn about our Civil War, and other events such as the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the scandals associated with the Ulysses S. Grant administration, and the Teapot Dome scandal during Warren G. Harding’s presidency.

At a time when we are witnessing an unprecedented number of scandals and improprieties associated with the White House, and the election of Donald J. Trump has been described by some as an extinction level event for American democracy, history may offer some solace by reminding us that our republic has weathered many storms in the past. And on this Fourth of July, at a time when many of us fear for the future of our country, I think it only fitting to recall the fact that we have survived the legal, moral, and ethical failings of more than a few of our elected officials, and that we have done so while expanding civil liberties, human rights, and the rule of law.

Taking the long view of American history gives us cause to be optimistic. At the same time, taking the much longer view of Jewish history can provide a somewhat different perspective, as we have seen the great nations and empires of the past come and go over the millennia. We, the Jewish people, have seen the rise and fall of great powers, and from that deep historical consciousness we know that nothing in the temporal realm lasts forever, not even the American republic that we love so much. And so, we cannot so easily dismiss the possibility that the end is nigh. Or the understanding that we just don’t know when the end might come, or if it might come as suddenly as it did for the Communist bloc and the USSR.

Once, long ago, I attended a lecture given by a major scholar and intellectual, and during the question and answer session, he was asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future. His answer stuck with me, because it expresses my own sense of ambivalence. He said that on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays he was an optimist, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays he was a pessimist. Or was it the other way around?

Either way, for this Fourth of July, I think it only fitting to be an optimist, and to underscore the resilience of our republic. We have seen dark times in the past, and survived, and if we the people are willing and able, and with the help of divine providence, our great Enlightenment experiment will continue for generations to come.

May it be so.