Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, famously declared, “that which unites us is far greater than that which divides us.”
I’m here to tell you how true that statement can be, at least as it relates to an evening in Stamford last week, when a sefer Torah was dedicated in memory of our daughter, Tova Gittel, a”h.
Here’s the amazing story …
My wife Sharon works at the Armon Hotel in Stamford, helping to organize the many Shabbat weekends that frum organizations regularly sponsor. A couple of weeks ago, her boss — a Hasidic Jew from Boro Park who wears a shtreimel on Shabbat and has no television or internet in his home — asked if I could come over to the hotel. I thought he might want some marketing advice … it turned out he wanted to talk to both Sharon and me. He told us that several folks with whom Sharon works and who are associated with the hotel wished to do something in memory of Tova, and felt the most lasting tribute would be a sefer Torah dedicated in her memory and presented to us. They wanted to plan the hachnasat sefer Torah in a week, a couple of days before Shavuot.
Needless to say, Sharon and I were absolutely floored by this act of kindness and generosity in our daughter’s memory.
Besides Sharon’s boss, who manages the hotel, there were several others who, when told about the project, immediately wanted to be a part of the celebration: a caterer who regularly works with Sharon organizing events at the hotel … a party planner and a photographer who also work with Sharon … the Hasidic owners of the hotel … the Israeli head of security at the hotel … an individual closely associated with Yeshiva Bais Binyomin, a Litvish yeshiva that for many years was located in Stamford … a member of the Stamford Jewish community, himself not observant but someone who often supports Orthodox causes … all of these individuals came together to contribute in different ways to make the Torah dedication a reality.
It was certainly a diverse group of Jews, brought together for the sole purpose of honoring the memory of our daughter Tova, whose life was tragically cut short a few months ago.
It was also a tribute to Sharon. In her job at the hotel, she deals with many haredi groups that book the hotel for Shabbat weekends. She regularly deals with Jews of very different stripes than herself and the other Modern Orthodox locals in our community. She dresses differently than they do, and her religious practices and customs, while certainly Orthodox, are often very foreign to them. Yet she always treats them with kindness and respect, greets them with a smile, and understands that their needs at the hotel, while they might be different than hers, must be addressed and respected.
We got the word out about the hachnasat sefer Torah through email and social media. Sharon’s boss asked us a couple of days before the event how many people we thought would attend. Since no RSVP was required, we really had no idea what to expect.
It turned out that more than 400 people attended the event! The crowd consisted of a mixture of local friends in our Modern Orthodox community in Stamford, our family members, other friends of ours outside of Stamford, and a sizable number of haredi individuals who Sharon has worked with during the nine years she has been employed at the hotel.
It was an absolutely beautiful ceremony, filled with meaning and purpose. The dancing was incredible. The spirit was overwhelming. The mixture of grief about losing a special person in our life and the joy of celebrating the writing of a sefer Torah was palpable. Writing a letter in the Torah — on parchment — which will endure physically beyond my life and the lives of our children and grandchildren, provided us with a strong connection to Jewish history, past and present.
However, what I will remember most about this very special evening was the unity which was deeply felt by all who were present. As mentioned, there was a mixture of people from different walks of Jewish life who attended the dedication. But similar to what was experienced at Har Sinai, I felt that it was “k’ish echad b’lev echad,” or “like one person with one heart.”
Our local Modern Orthodox friends danced together with the haredi folks around the Torah. Sharon’s boss, who made sure that everyone who desired was able to have a turn carrying the Torah, intentionally alternated between assigning the honor to one of our local Modern Orthodox friends and one of the haredi folks in attendance. After the Torah was placed in the Aron, I led Maariv services, and at one point after I finished Shemoneh Esrei, I turned my head back to look at the crowd, delighted to see black hats and kippot serugot dotting the room and davening together.
In Masechet Pesachim it says that when anyone in the Jewish community passes away, we need to feel like it’s a personal loss. Even though Sharon’s boss comes from a different segment of the Jewish community, he felt that we were part of his family, and he wanted to do something to help elevate our daughter’s soul. And what a tremendous act of kindness was performed!
Another example of the sensitivity shown by the haredi organizers of the event … it was a small gesture, but it meant a lot to us: When referring to our daughter in Hebrew in the announcements about her death, we always said, “Tova Gittel bat Michoel Gershon v’Sharon,” as we feel that both our daughter’s father and mother should be mentioned when referring to her by name. It is not the haredi custom to use the mother’s name when referring to an individual. Yet the mantel on the Torah, the benchers that were distributed, and all ancillary material that mentioned Tova’s Hebrew name included Sharon’s name as well.
After Rabbi Leo Dee’s wife and two daughters were murdered by terrorists, he asked that Israelis come together in unity as a way to honor the memory of his loved ones. It was a beautiful expression that I certainly could personally relate to, as I’ve always tried to find ways to unify the Jewish community whenever I can. Unlike Rabbi Dee, I did not feel I was in the same position to offer any unity requests or proclamations after Tova passed away. With that said, I was deeply gratified to see the display of unity that happened organically at the Torah dedication in memory of Tova.
I don’t know when the Messiah will be coming, but I do know that what happened at the Armon Hotel last Tuesday night might have brought that day just a little bit closer. May we be privileged to see that time speedily in our days.
Michael Feldstein lives in Stamford, and is a contributing editor for The Jewish Link. He owns his own marketing consulting firm, MGF Marketing, and can be reached at [email protected].