Imagine, said Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, what a symphony would look like to a deaf person: The cello player moving one way, the trumpet players moving another, and a man in front waving a stick. But introduce sound, and this cacophonous picture makes sense, and transforms into something beautiful. It’s a metaphor for the Jewish community, he explained.
During his historic visit to Seattle, the 75-year-old former chief rabbi of Israel promoted the concept of unity in the Jewish world. Known as the “consensus rabbi,” throughout his career Lau has urged the various facets of the Orthodox community to turn their swords into plowshares, and has earned respect from Ashkenazi, Sephardic, religious and secular Jews, as well as non-Jews.
“He serves as an ambassador to world leaders and leaders of other faiths, and he has a unique ability to connect to each and every Jew,” said Rabbi Moshe Kletenik of Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath, who helped organize the visit.
The visit coincided with the publication of a new siddur, put out by Ezra Bessaroth’s hazzan emeritus, Isaac Azose. Rabbi Lau wrote the siddur’s affirmation.
Lau traveled from his home in Tel Aviv to Seattle to spend June 21–23 giving talks at the Seward Park neighborhood’s three synagogues and meeting with Holocaust survivors and liberators. Lau was the youngest survivor to emerge from Buchenwald after the Americans liberated it on April 11, 1945. He obtained passage to Palestine, and he was ordained a rabbi in 1961, continuing his ancestry’s unbroken chain of rabbis for over 1,000 years. He served as the chief rabbi of Netanya and then Tel Aviv before going on to become the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the State of Israel from 1993 to 2003. Lau has traveled all over the world and, upon invitation to Seattle, he chose to bring his message of oneness here.
Tall, bearded and dressed in a black suit, Lau is an assuming figure. But beneath his black hat are eyes that convey a grandfatherly kindness, despite that by the age of 7-1/2 he had lost the majority of his family to the Nazi death camps and survived by what, he believes, can only be considered a series of miracles.
In his recently released memoir, “Out of the Depths,” Lau recounts the last time he saw his father, the chief rabbi of Piotrków, Poland, and his brother; both were taken to Treblinka. He describes the moment he was separated from his mother, who, in one of her many moments of good instinct, shoved him toward the men’s train with his older brother, though he was only 7 years old. She died at Ravensbrück. Before he could read or write, Lau lived through roundups, hard labor, separation, hiding and deportation, and had witnessed beatings and mass death (at one point he describes hiding behind a pile of corpses). Out of 47 grandchildren, he writes, five, including himself, survived the war.
Young Lau survived with the help of his older brother, Naphtali, sympathetic guards and prisoners, and, some would argue, pure chance.
But in his June 21 speech at BCMH, Lau proclaimed, “we do not believe in coincidence.” In this case, he was speaking about the connection between the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel.
“To disconnect the establishment of the Jewish State from Holocaust,” he said through his Polish-Israeli accent, “I think it’s not logical, it’s not true.”
As for his own experience, he asked, “What do I do to justify that miracle of survival?” Instead of accepting, in Hebrew, “ma yehieh” — whatever will be — he encourages all to ask, “ma na’aseh” — what will we do?
“It’s not a question of me. It’s a question of our generation,” he said. “Every Jew is a survivor.”
Each talk attracted around 500 mostly Orthodox community members, but Ashkenazi and Sephardic backgrounds came out in equal number to hear Lau’s message of Jewish unity.
“You just don’t see this that often anymore,” said Ari Hoffman, co-director of the NCSY youth organization, who attended about half the talks, alternating with his wife Jessica over childcare. “Spirituality is coming out of his pores…I can’t remember ever seeing the community united around a speaker. It was truly amazing.”
Rabbi Ron-Ami Meyers of Congregation Ezra Bessaroth said he was moved by Lau’s harrowing personal story and his messages of inclusivity within the Orthodox community.
“The future of the Torah community in Seattle is intimately linked to cooperation between the different congregations,” he said.
The unprecedented visit was organized by a small group in Seward Park, among them rabbis Kletenik and Meyers. In addition to his speaking engagements, Rabbi Lau signed copies of “Out of the Depths,” and sold his commentary on Pirke Avot and another book, “Practical Judaism.” All proceeds were donated to the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center.
Dee Simon, executive director of the Holocaust Center, explained that one of the organizers felt it was important that the center be recognized by the community “as a place for resources and education related to the Holocaust.”
When Simon originally read “Out of the Depths,” she realized Rabbi Lau’s brother Naphtali was treated for typhus at Buchenwald after liberation at the same time a local woman, Margaret Hollinger, was deployed there as an army nurse. Simon coordinated a visit between Lau and Hollinger, now 102 and living at the Caroline Kline Galland Home (see sidebar). Additionally, she arranged for him to visit the center, where he met local Holocaust survivors Henry Friedman, Magda Schaloum, and Klaus and Paula Stern.
Anna Marie Lawrence, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Henry M. Jackson, co-sponsor of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which restricted trade with non-market economies such as the former Soviet Union, presented Lau with a medal to honor his work in bringing Soviet Jews to Israel. Lau also met Leo Hymas, a member of General Patton’s army. Hymas was among the first Americans to enter Buchenwald (see sidebar).
“It was nice for us to be involved with the greater community, which we don’t always have the opportunity to do,” Simon said.
Most of the Holocaust Center’s work takes place in schools statewide.
At his talks, Lau shared anecdotes from his childhood and rabbinic career, drawing on moments when things came full circle. On one of his hospital visits to a young terror victim — as chief rabbi during the first intifada, he visited each of them — he told her father to one day invite him to her wedding. Seven years later, he officiated.
He also recounted his visit from former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose father’s friend was a Buchenwald liberator. The soldier lifted up a little boy to rebuke the townspeople, who were invited to see what the Nazis were doing in their backyard. Abdul-Jabbar and his father followed the life of that little boy, who grew up to be the chief rabbi of Israel. Many years later, when Abdul-Jabbar visited Lau at his office, Rabbi Lau remembers looking up at him, and asking him to “please, sit down.”
After the congenial visit, Rabbi Lau received a warning from the Ku Klux Klan never to visit America.
“Blacks are not fighters,” he said they told him. “They were meant to be slaves.”
Lau’s disgust for hatred and desire for reconciliation led to a number of exceptional meetings, including with Pope John Paul II, and an appearance on a Muslim talk show.
Meyers, who said he does not get emotional easily, said he was moved by rabbi’s visit.
“It was overwhelming, the whole thing,” he said. The takeaway, for him, was the motivation to use the resources at the Jewish world’s disposal to work toward building a stronger community.
“He took us out of Yad Vashem,” said Meyers, “to a balcony overlooking Yerushalayim.”