Excerpt: “Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City,” by Michael J. Weinstein. Brown Books Publishing Group, 328 pages. 2017. ISBN-10: 1612549268.
It was the day after Yom Kippur in 2014, and being a financial advisor for over 20 years, I had made it through the financial crises of a few years prior. I was looking to “give back” somehow, to make a difference, not knowing what to do but to pray to Hashem, in my own words, “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the World, help me help others.” I was not raised observant and never had the privilege of attending yeshiva, but I started learning about Rabbi Nachman of Breslov after a family trip to Israel in 2010, during which I prayed in English in Safed at the grave of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari’zal, also known as the Holy ARI. I thought, if Rabbi Akiva could learn so much after age 40, why not me?
Hisbodedus, personal prayer, in my own language would soon change my life for the better. My father, grandparents, even great grandparents, were from Brooklyn, after a few years on the Lower East Side. So I prayed to the Master of the Universe. To this day, I don’t know why but I googled two words, “Mitzvah” and “Brooklyn” and the result was www.themitzvahman.org. I watched a video as the organization’s founder, Mr. Michael Cohen, spoke about the importance of doing a mitzvah and helping others, even if you were not wealthy enough to write big checks or smart enough to study Talmud. I had been reading “Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers,” the transliterated version with English, so by then I knew that “Study is not the primary thing but action” and “Great is study for it leads to action.” I sent a text to Michael and within a week I was sent to visit a Holocaust survivor, Ludwig Katzenstein, who credits his father with getting the family out of Nazi Germany three weeks before Kristallnacht, crossing borders until they got to the port in England, where the captain of the Queen Mary held the ship for six hours until Ludwig and his family arrived (see YouTube video, search Ludwig Katzenstein).
Prior to this, I had read books about the Holocaust and had a small DVD collection but never met a Holocaust survivor face-to-face. The visit changed my life; one mitzvah led to another and I met more Holocaust survivors, some with fascinating stories, like Rebecca from Borough Park, who was on the ship Exodus 1947, and who gave me a firsthand account. I met others who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, and others who were in DP (displaced persons) camps. And I met a few others, like Berta in Borough Park, who did not want to talk about their horrific experiences, but has an active life at the Boro Park YM-YWHA and Club Nissim (Hebrew word for miracles), a day program for Holocaust survivors. Herman in Flatbush, who came from Poland, was once a barber in Crown Heights, owned “Herman’s Hairstyles” and often cut the hair of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known throughout the world as “the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” actually the seventh leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty. Herman remembers talking to “the Rebbe,” as he cut his hair. Now, Herman cannot see in one eye, has trouble hearing and can no longer walk a few blocks to the morning minyan at the Young Israel of Flatbush. He enjoys listening the news and praying with a large-print Siddur with the help of a magnifying glass that Ariella, a social worker from Bikur Cholim, gave him. “It’s always a pleasure to see you,” Herman always says to me with a smile. I wonder if “the Rebbe,” gave him a brachah, a blessing, for a long life; Herman is now 96-years-old.
Another woman, Frances, in Flatbush, told me about surviving Auschwitz, the “Death March” and the DP camps. Frances assisted several women, including Roza Robota, blow up an oven with schwarzpulver, or gunpowder. Three women were caught and hanged, after the concentration camp inmates were forced to stand all night long to watch. Another survivor, Chaim in Flatbush, is very smart, up on current events, and shows me YouTube videos of many Jewish things on his iPad. Chaim is a true gentleman; he always offers me healthy foods. Besides the financial markets and the news, we talk sometimes about the Catskill Mountains, famous cantors and synagogues, and I hope it brings back nice memories for him.
One mitzvah led to another as I signed on as a volunteer with www.connect2ny.org, Friendly Visiting for Holocaust Survivors, a project of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island (JCCGCI). Previously, my experience with Coney Island was limited to rides on the Cyclone and trips to my favorite aquarium when I was a kid. So this time it was different, meaningful.
Over the next two years, I would drive many Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings to visit more than 22 Holocaust survivors, including Ludwig, Rebecca, Berta, Herman, Frances and Chaim. I learned about perseverance, about emunah, faith in Hashem, and about good people, many religious, some not, striving to rebuild after the horrors of the Shoah. I learned about some of the children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren of these survivors. And I learned of the loved ones lost and of those who never really rebuilt broken lives and live near poverty even to this day.
Along the way to the Holocaust survivors, I visited Orthodox synagogues in neighborhoods from Brighton Beach to Borough Park, from Coney Island to Williamsburg, from Flatbush to Park Slope. At some point I was determined to make a book of the top 100 Orthodox synagogues in Brooklyn, but one Shabbat, I heard an elderly man pledge “Ten Times Chai” or $180. So I decided to expand my journey to Queens, where I was born in 1963; Manhattan, where I lived on the Upper West Side after graduating from Cornell University in 1985; and the Bronx, where my grandfather once lived, after being born in a tenement on the Lower East Side in 1901 (his parents, my great grandparents, were from the Pale of Settlement, Russia, present day Belarus). I finally made it to Staten Island, where those same great grandparents, Israel and Rebecca Weinstein, rest in peace at the United Hebrew Cemetery where they were buried in paupers’ graves, courtesy of the Hebrew Free Burial Society. It wasn’t until years later that my grandfather purchased proper graves stones. He went to the School of Hard Knocks, dropping out of school after his mother died when he was 8, and seeing a “help wanted” sign in a window. He worked as a salesman for the Knickerbocker Yarn Company, for more than 50 years, so he learned a little about perseverance and loyalty to his boss, through good times and bad.
I really enjoyed being in the different neighborhoods of the five boroughs. What I confirmed is that we are all one people, with faith in one God, whether Ashkenaz or Sephardic, whether your family came from Austria-Hungary, Galicia, Germany, Poland or Russia prior to 1900 as mine did or you are Bukharian Jewish from areas like Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, or perhaps Iranian or Persian and settled in Queens in the past few decades. I was amazed to see Sephardic Jews from places like Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Syria, settled now in all the boroughs but concentrated in Midwood, Brooklyn, and towns outside of New York City like Great Neck.
I learned a vital lesson from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who was the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name, the founder of Chasidic Judaism. In his masterpiece, “Likutey Moharan,” Rabbi Nachman gives the lesson known as “Azamra,” “I Will Sing,” meaning being happy and “finding the good points” in each other and most of all, in ourselves. In visiting 180 orthodox synagogues, some well off and full of members, some barely hanging on by a thread, I tried to find the “good points,” the beautiful aron kodesh, the sanctuary, and most importantly, the people who built the synagogues, study there, and worship there.
“Ten Times Chai: 180 Orthodox Synagogues of New York City,” has 613 color photos and is dedicated to the few but special Holocaust survivors that I had the honor and privilege of meeting. It is available at select Judaica stores in the New York area and on Amazon.com.
By Michael J. Weinstein