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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Our Battle at Craney Island

On June 19th, 2013, I was honored to share the following words with the graduating class of Toras Chaim elementary school in Portsmouth, VA:

The evil prophet Bilaam went up on a mountain so that he could look down and see how isolated and alone we were. We weren’t surrounded or protected by other nations and allies. We weren’t looking over our shoulders to see what others were thinking. Bilaam intended to curse our nation for our singular and stubborn allegiance to Hashem.

Instead of a curse, Bilaam gave us a blessing. He said “Hein am Lebadad Yishkon” - This nation is one of a kind. They do not get discouraged and they are not bound by “what is usually done”. Every one of them has something unique to offer and they are willing to make their unique contribution to the world.

According to my estimates, each of the students graduating tonight has crossed the Elizabeth River between two and three thousand times to come and study Torah at Toras Chaim. That is Mesirus Nefesh (Self sacrifice) for Torah.

As you cross the river tonight for the last time as a student of Toras Chaim, look off to the left. Exactly two hundred years ago today, some very large and powerful British ships were stationed there ready to attack, destroy and burn the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth. Baruch Hashem, we won that battle and the British gave up on Norfolk and Portsmouth. Instead, they invaded Hampton and Newport News and left behind terrible destruction. We aren’t really happy about what happened in Hampton, but this Shabbos as you leave shul you will hear three twenty-one gun salutes from Craney Island, Fort Norfolk, and Fort Nelson commemorating exactly two hundred years since the victory at Craney Island.

What many people do not know is that the British were supposed to win that battle. They had won most of the battles in the War of 1812 and they were pretty sure that they were going to spend Shabbos in Ghent. They even promised their French prisoners that they could keep or destroy anything they wanted when they got to Norfolk.  Once the British entered the Elizabeth River they would be unstoppable.

Our only chance was to stop the British at Craney Island, but the Virginia Militia called a War Council meeting and decided to give up. The British had three times as many soldiers. We would have to let the British through and prepare for the worst. The vote was thirteen to nothing.

The only person who thought that we could beat the British was Walker Armistead. His brother George Armistead was the commander at Fort McHenry but Walker was just a thirty year old engineer. He told all of those generals not to give up and convinced them to put troops on Craney Island to defend the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth.

It is possible that if the soldiers at Craney Island had remembered to raise their flag or if Francis Scott Key had spent the battle sitting in traffic outside the midtown tunnel, we would have a famous song or poem about the battle. Instead we just have a more interesting ride to school and the knowledge that one person saved the entire cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth from destruction.

“Hein am Lebadad Yishkon” - Our nation is one of a kind. As you leave Toras Chaim tonight, you have your whole lives ahead of you. Every one of you has something that you can do that everyone else thinks is impossible.

Your job as Jews and as graduates of Toras Chaim is to find that area of life where you know that you can be unique. Go on to high school and the rest of your lives looking for that one thing. There is something that everyone else thinks is impossible. Only you know that it can be done.

Posted on 06/20 at 03:27 AM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

Rabbi Sender Haber is the Rabbi of the B'nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk, VA. He is well known throughout Hampton Roads, having arrived over twelve years ago as one of the original four members of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel. In that capacity, Rabbi Haber was involved in community wide programming, teaching, and outreach. He has inspired many Jews to expand their Jewish identity and increase their love of Torah and commitment to its observance. Everyone who knows Rabbi Haber is touched by his breadth of Torah knowledge and his ability to convey the wisdom of the ages in such a way as to make those esoteric writings accessible to persons of all levels of experience and a variety of backgrounds.

Rabbi Haber has served in a number of capacities during his years in Norfolk. Since 2003 Rabbi Haber has been a teacher of Jewish Studies at Toras Chaim Day School in Portsmouth, teaching boys and girls of all ages, with a focus on Gemara, Halacha, and Chumash. He has also taught at Yeshivas Aish Kodesh and Bina High School in Norfolk, and served as Assistant Rabbi of B’nai Israel for 6 years. He also serves as the Rabbi of the “Lost Tribe,” Tidewater’s Jewish Motorcycle group! While handling all of these responsibilities, he has continued to participate in numerous Chavrusos (one-on-one learning partnerships) covering a wide range of topics and writings.

Rabbi Haber and his wife Chamie have been married for thirteen years. They have four children, Minna (9), Moshe (6), Ely (4), and Akiva Meir, born in August of 2012. They both come from rabbinic families steeped in Torah, Kiruv and Chesed. Rabbi Haber received his Rabbinic Ordination (Yoreh Yoreh) from Rabbi Sender Rosenbloom and Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander of the Jerusalem Beth Din. He was awarded a Teaching Certificate by Torah Umesorah Association for Jewish Day Schools in 2004 and again in 2009. In addition, Rabbi Haber has spent over a decade studying Talmud, Jewish Law, and ethics in some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivos including Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, NJ and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at