Rabbi Yossi's Blog

Welcome to Rabbi Yossi's Blog; where you can expect to find thoughts on current events, Torah learning and Jewish spirituality. And of course, some good Jewish humor.

You'll never believe what they did next!


They took away their prayer books and their shofar; they took away their tallits and they took away their freedom. You’ll never believe what happened next!

It’s not just some low form of click bait - you will truly never believe what my grandfather actually did. He was in Siberian exile during World War Two, together with his fellow Jewish inmates. For months they had been working to secure tallits and prayer books; another had risked his life and somehow smuggled in a shofar.

The excitement that Rosh Hashanah morning was palpable, they were overjoyed to be able to mark the day with some semblance of what Rosh Hashanah should look like. Until suddenly the peace was shattered and a group of armed guards burst into the room and arrested them all, confiscating their tallits and prayer books and throwing them into a large dungeon.

As they sat contemplating what had just happened, everyone was understandably dejected. When suddenly a voice rang out, “They can take away our shofar and prayer books; they can throw us in the dungeon; but they can’t stop us from fulfilling another biblical mitzvah of the day!”

Everyone waited expectantly to see what my grandfather would say: “Yidden (Fellow Jews!) no matter what they do, they cannot stop us from fulfilling the mitzvah of rejoicing on a festival. Today, Rosh Hashanah, is a festival and we have to rejoice!”

And with those words he began to sing a joyous tune. Soon all of the imprisoned - but inherently free - Jews began to dance in their cell, ignoring the incredulous looks of the guards. Although they had no shofar and no prayer books that year they still celebrated Rosh Hashanah.

What does this story that happened with my grandfather teach you about the High Holidays? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Do you have what it takes?

challenges ahead sign.jpg 

Last Sunday I had the privilege, along with 250+ members of the local community, to hear the story of Albert Rosa. He is a holocaust survivor who went on to fight the Nazis alongside the American soldiers, eventually earning five medals (including a Purple Heart).

Hearing his story you can’t help but wonder, what would I do in his situation? How would I react? Would I have the same fortitude and determination?

This past Wednesday was the yahrtzeit of the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson. He was a rabbi in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine under harsh communist rule. Although he was the target of much intimidation and continued threats by communist officials, he persevered and led the community without buckling to the pressure. When the communists saw that their usual tactics didn’t influence him, he was arrested and imprisoned under sub-human conditions and eventually exiled. During his exile he contracted severe illness and eventually succumbed to it. And through it all, he never submitted or backed down.

Where did he get the strength to stand up to the brutal and sadistic communist government? Would I ever have that type of inner strength if I were similarly challenged?

When we meet people like Mr. Rosa or hear stories about the fortitude that people like Rabbi Levi Yitzchok had, it’s easy to get a little disheartened. It’s easy to feel inadequate.

However, it may be true that I wouldn’t have the wherewithal to withstand such persecution, but that is not my job. My job is to overcome apathy, not persecution.

Let’s look at this from the viewpoint of history. For thousands of years Jews faced physical persecution; from expulsions to executions, we experienced it all. More recently however, we’ve been confronted with a new type of challenge, a much more peaceful challenge; a spiritual and philosophical one.

The survival of the Jewish people today is dependant on our collective ability to be comfortable in our differences. Society (especially in this country) is very welcoming and inclusive, but there’s a subtle message too: You need to fit in, you need to do what everyone is doing. Soccer on Shabbat morning? Non-Kosher restaurants? What can I do, I live in Northern California, there isn’t a choice!

The challenge of today is to be able to smile and say, soccer? Yes, but on my schedule. Lunch meeting? Sure, but I have a dietary preference called kosher.

We may not feel that we have the ability to stand up to the physical persecution of the past, and that’s why G-d is not presenting us with that challenge. But we do have the ability to overcome the challenge of the day. We do have the ability to stand up and say my priorities are different because I’m a Jew and I want to observe the Mitzvahs of the Torah and strengthen my connection with Hashem.

This is the key to Jewish survival. This is what will ensure a Jewish future.

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