The triumph of my parents’ survival from the Holocaust was to raise a Jewish family and live a vibrant Jewish life. Their deep love of Judaism, their understanding of the need to protect it and their joy in sharing it proved to be formative influences in ways that I see unfold as the years go on.
The New York neighborhood in which we lived, Jackson Heights, Queens, had many second or third generation American Jews. Most were already disenfranchised from active Jewish life. I remember Rabbi Yaakov Pollak, our synagogue rabbi, emotionally calling out from the pulpit, “Jackson Heights has 35,000 Jews and only 7,000 come to synagogue on High Holidays.” Our family integrated with the rich tapestry of Jews in Jackson Heights and I thereby became connected at an early age to Jews with diverse and varied backgrounds. I found this exciting and it was in this context that I learned to respect each person as unique, important and valuable, regardless of background, religious affiliation or level of observance.
During high school, my early aspirations to become an attorney faded. Inspired by my high school teacher, Rabbi Shmuel Scheinberg at Yeshiva University High School, and Rabbi Pollak at the Young Israel of Jackson Heights, I became attached to the idea of dedicating my life to sharing Judaism with Jews. Rabbi Scheinberg was a dynamic and charismatic educator who expertly inspired young people to love learning. Rabbi Pollak encouraged me to speak publicly and to lead services. Under his tutelage I actually officiated at a funeral when I was only 19.
Rabbi Pollak had been called upon to officiate at that funeral. He explained he could only take care of the chapel service and asked me if I could take over the service at the cemetery. I accompanied him to the chapel, where I watched him interact with the bereaved family with a compassion and sensitivity that I remember to this day. Watching this brief but deeply intimate exchange with the family strongly affected me.
Fast forward … 15 years after our arrival in Tucson, Amy Lederman approached me with excitement about the new Jewish education program created in conjunction with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem: the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. She invited me to teach. My response was that I would love to but before I commit I would need to look at the curriculum. I reviewed it and saw that the topics and framework were outstanding but my style of teaching and the content that I would present would sometimes vary from the curriculum. I therefore told Amy that I regretfully must decline. Amy’s response was, “Be yourself, teach in the best way you know how.” And so it was. Because of her encouragement, over the next 10 years I was able to participate in enhancing the Jewish lives of many hundreds of Tucsonans of diverse backgrounds. That is exactly what we do at the Southwest Torah Institute but there are many Jews thirsting for knowledge who never come through the doors because of previous perceptions.
It was the vision of my wife, Esther, which led us to Tucson 36 years ago. It was evident, even as we dated, that we shared a common dream. We both passionately wanted to dedicate our lives to teaching Jews about Judaism. A southwestern city with a growing Jewish community presented the kind of opportunity where we felt we could make a contribution and make a significant difference. Our dream continues to be reinforced as we see the meaningful impact of our teaching on the lives of our students at the Southwest Torah Institute and Women’s Academy, congregants at Chofetz Chayim and their families.
Rabbi Israel Becker is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chofetz Chayim.