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Friday, April 30, 2010


As a male, I have trouble asking for directions. Yesterday, I got lost at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond. Wandering on my own, I followed a winding darkened path over a creaky bridge and into complete and total darkness. The only way out was a small crawlspace covered in barbed wire.  A dog began to bark urgently and I tried to back out and retrace my steps. That was when I saw the SS guard. He was crouching in the shadows, a full size wax image, with his rifle pointed directly at me. There was no sound but the rustling of the trees. The dog started barking again.

I was terrified. There was a depth of terror and lonesomeness that I never imagined existed. At that moment I realized how little I understood of the fear and helplessness that people lived through during those terrible years.

I forced myself to continue forward and found myself in a partisan forest encampment. I was alone and unable to retrace my steps so I sat down and waited for the rest of my group to catch up.

It occurred to me that it wasn’t only Holocaust survivors who I couldn’t relate to. Many arguments and bitter fights are the result of our inability to feel each other’s emotions.

Rabi Akiva’s students perished because they didn’t respect each other. Each person has his or her own needs and perspectives. The reality is that we will never put on our adversaries glasses or walk in their shoes. The best we can do is to respect their right to feel strongly.

Pirkei Avos writes that a man who reaches one hundred is “no longer part of this world”. A man who has lived for a century has seen and lived through experiences that we will never understand. He is a part of a different world. My artificially staged brush with the holocaust taught me just how different anither man’s world can be.

I recently visited Sam Althaus, a holocaust survivor, shortly before he passed away. I expressed an interest in his life and his family was kind enough to mail me an autographed copy of his memoirs.

The stories of his youth were interesting and terrifying but what struck me most were his memories on reaching the United States. He didn’t spend time getting angry with President Roosevelt. He was just happy to be in a country that would let him live and prosper as a Jew.

Mr. Althaus describes his arrival at the Boston docks:

“I must have had a worried, sad look on my face, because the Customs agent, who knew we had been concentration camp prisoners, took one look at me and called an interpreter.

“I was a stranger in a strange land but the first words I heard in America made me feel wonderful ... and welcome.

“This is America.” he said. “You don’t have to worry now because you are among friends.”

“Those words will stay with me until my dying day.”

The Docents at the Virginia Holocaust Museum made feeble and disturbing attempts to compare the holocaust to the strict immigration laws in Arizona. There is, of course, no parallel. We live in a fair and just country. Or, as Sam concludes his memoirs “with all of our problems, we have the greatest country in the world”.

There is no land I love more than Eretz Yisroel and there is no doubt that I would prefer to live under an administration that is more supportive of Israel. Still, I will never forward the daily complaints and incriminations of the government that fill my in-box. I am a proud American and even my limited and cushioned understanding of history makes me grateful and appreciative of the land in which I live.

We need to go beyond our short-term personal feelings. We need to acknowledge the reality of history and the valuable perspective of those who survived it. 

In our personal lives we need to respect and acknowledge every human being’s right to have emotions that run as deep as our own. May Hashem give us the opportunity to see the impact of our actions through the eyes of our friends.

Posted on 04/30 at 06:39 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