Wednesday, March 29, 2023

A hachnasat sefer Torah is a momentous occasion for a community. But a much more rare event is a hachnasat sifrei Torah, when a community has the tremendous honor of welcoming not one, but multiple Torahs at the same time. And while Congregation Darchei Noam (and Fair Lawn in general) was overwhelmed with excitement and simcha last Sunday, everyone couldn’t help but remember the events that led to what would usually be the most purely joyous event a shul can host.

During the last week of August 2022, the Pollak family went on a vacation to the Bahamas. Tani and Ruthie thought that it would be a great place to take their children, Akiva and Ezra, before the school year started. Unfortunately, Ezra didn’t seem to be feeling well when they got there and he started getting worse over the course of a few days. At just two years old, he wasn’t able to communicate much of how he was feeling, but the Pollaks decided to have him see a doctor at their hotel.

Though he tested negative for COVID-19, the doctor didn’t like the sound of his lungs and told the Pollaks to take Ezra to the local hospital. Once there, it was determined that he had a severe case of pneumonia, as well as a few other respiratory viruses. As the Pollaks began working with Hatzolah Air, there simply wasn’t enough time to transport the quickly declining Ezra to Miami. Despite two medics flying to assist the doctors on site, Ezra tragically passed away after just 10 hours in the hospital.

As a young and rapidly growing community, Darchei Noam was struck incredibly hard by these events. And yet, there was very little time to contemplate the tragedy because the Pollaks needed the community’s help.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better community to be a part of,” said Ruthie Pollak, née Zisblatt. “The amount of support we’ve received is incomparable. There was a whole chesed WhatsApp group set up because people wanted to help. We had meals for over a month, Instacart orders whenever we needed … it was a huge help during this horrible time. We have felt so loved and supported by this amazing community.”

“The events of this past summer struck a very deep nerve in the entire Fair Lawn community and really throughout klal yisrael,” Darchei Noam’s Rabbi Jeremy Donath recalled. “I am blessed to be part of a community that has lived together with the Pollaks in their pain. The community has certainly rallied together and grown through this experience in an effort to support the Pollaks and each other throughout the last few months.”

Being the truly special people that they are, the Pollaks somehow wanted to find a way to give back to the community that had helped them so much in their time of need. Darchei Noam had already been discussing raising money for a sefer Torah, but the process hadn’t really begun.

“During shiva we thought a lot about what we can do in Ezra’s memory,” Tani Pollak said. “We wanted something that will last and continue on forever. For us that was donating a Torah. Every time the Torah is taken out it will be for Ezra.”

“We opened up a chesed fund and were overwhelmed by the response,” said Ari Diamond, president of Darchei Noam. “It blew past our goal in two days and soon became clear that there would even be enough raised for two seforim. A committee was formed to find two seforim and arrange all of the additional accessories, including silverware, atzei chaim, and mantels.”

The dedication of the sifrei Torah is particularly apt given the Pollaks’ place in the community.

“Tani is one of our gabbaim and the Pollaks have always been willing to help with anything to enhance Torah learning in our community,” said Rabbi Donath. “Since the tragedy, Tani has even started a new daily halacha chabura before davening. I am in awe of the way Tani and Ruthie continue to be role models for our community in terms of their commitment to serving Hashem and continuing to grow as people in the days and months after the tragedy.”

“In the wake of the tragic loss of Ezra this past summer, our community rallied around the Pollak family. But more so, Tani and Ruthie inspired and continue to uplift us,” said Rabbi Shua Katz, Darchei Noam’s Rosh Beit Midrash. “They are true role models in our shul and our larger Fair Lawn community as they live and breathe the values of the sifrei Torah we will welcome this week.”

The two Torahs are a much needed addition to Darchei Noam, as the shul has recently added a hashkama minyan on Shabbat morning and now boasts three minyanim every shabbat.

“It is with profound gratitude and excitement that we welcome two sifrei Torah to our shul,” continued Rabbi Katz. “The hachnasa not only reflects our community’s significant growth in numbers, but also embodies its impassioned commitment to talmud Torah and spirited tefillah. They will fill the aron kodesh, the fulcrum around which our community revolves.”

The event on Sunday was a huge success with hundreds of Fair Lawn residents turning out for a day of celebration. For the public, the event began at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center (FLJC) and featured time slots for families to write the final letters in one of the Torahs. There were also some great activities for the many young children of the community. These included the making of flags and banners for the eventual dancing component of the day and the opportunity to try using a kulmus (quill) to write on a real klaf.

The latter was done under the supervision of Adam Ariel, a recently settled member of the Darchei Noam community who is a sofer by hobby. Ariel also helped source one of sifrei Torah from Brooklyn through his connections in the field. The other was acquired and finished by Tani’s cousin Areleh Stein, who works as a broker for soferim in Israel.

While one Torah was being finished at the FLJC, the other was being finished a block away at the Pollak residence. Extended family gathered from all over to watch as the Pollak family Torah (that will also reside at Darchei Noam) was finished with Tani writing the final letter. The Torahs were then united for dancing at the FLJC before a series of heartfelt speeches were given as the gathered members of the community remembered Ezra Pollak.

From there, the Torahs were danced across the street to Darchei Noam where the dancing continued and a truly spiritual atmosphere could be felt. The community has been trying to heal itself through simcha for the family ever since the Pollaks welcomed another son, Eli, in November. Sunday’s events were certainly another step in that direction.

“Any inauguration of a sefer Torah is a momentous occasion, one brimming with joy as we welcome our most precious and prized possession,” Rabbi Katz shared. “This hachnasa, however, is uniquely powerful as we simultaneously celebrate the growth of our community and cement the enduring legacy of our beloved Ezra Pollak, alav ha’shalom. While his absence will be forever felt, he will always inspire our community to cherish the new sifrei Torah dedicated in his memory and to study their words, internalize their values, and practice their ways.”

The dual Torah element would never have been possible if contributions had only come from Fair Lawn. But around 800 donations poured in from all over, including substantial amounts from the communities in Houston and Sharon where Tani and Ruthie respectively grew up.

“The broader Jewish community wanted to do something to bring more light to the world after Ezra’s passing and the Pollaks were gracious to direct funds towards getting a new sefer Torah for the shul, which was a need for our growing community,” Rabbi Donath said. “The amount of interest and financial support was so great that we were able to purchase not one, but two new sifrei Torah for our community.

“Our job as Jews is all about being mosif ohr and kedusa, adding more light and holiness to the world, especially when we face darkness. The fact that we are able to bring two sifrei Torah means we are adding even more kedusha into the world l’ilui nishmas our sorely missed Ezra Pollak. We hope that these sifrei Torah will bring a nechama to the Pollak and Zisblatt families who are very much a part of our Darchei Noam and Fair Lawn family.”

The hope is that these sifrei Torah will ensure that the community never forgets Ezra Pollak and how precious and important children are to our lives.

“Ezra was a crazy, stubborn, funny, smiling and sweet boy who changed our lives from the second he was born,” Ruthie Pollak remembers. “He had a huge personality and always did things when he wanted to. He taught all of us (especially his brother) how to be patient with others and give people the space to be who they wanted to be.

“He made us laugh all the time. He would do anything to put a smile on your face. He was only two, but he knew exactly what would make all of us laugh. He brought so much joy and happiness into our lives.”

And on Sunday, he brought plenty of joy and happiness to his community once again.

Nati Burnside is a freelance writer living in Fair Lawn and is a man of many interests. He can be reached at [email protected]

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