Words Spoken

Sorting through a folder of my late father’s personal papers, mainly comprising his military records from WWII, I came upon a folded and crumbling piece of typing paper.

Opening it with care, I found a short, typed speech that appears to have been delivered by my father at a meeting in his synagogue. Although not dated, I was able to deduce that it was written between 1948, when he married my mother, and 1955, when we moved from an apartment in Astoria, Queens, to a small house in Whitestone.

The speech, which covered the front and backHe was a quiet man who avoided the public eye of a single sheet, caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the only written statement I have ever found by my father. He was a quiet man who avoided the public eye, and like so many war veterans of his era, simply came home from the battlefields of Europe and got on with his life without making a fuss. Secondly, it helped bring into focus some of his most deeply held beliefs, and made me realize how those beliefs left a lasting mark on my life, and indeed, on the lives of the grandchildren and great grandchildren he never knew.

Although I was only a 17-year-old high school senior when he died, I understood that he was quite patriotic—a strong advocate of democratic principles, self-reliance, and the notion of good citizenship. He saw these values as interconnected with his belief in the need for connection to the Jewish community in which he lived. He considered it essential that the Jewish community take responsibility for helping instill these values through its youth organizations and via a Jewish education for all its children.

Indeed, when I carefully unfolded the typed sheet, I read the following:

“If the young people of today are to be the future citizens of a true American democracy, they must be properly prepared to take over the duties of their natural heritage…. In our community we have from 4-5000 Jewish families, of these only 10% are members of the synagogues of which there are four… Daily, youth drifts away from religion. It is not only the fault of the young people but that of the parents… I feel this problem can be remedied thru our youth organizations with the central point our synagogue… [but] the percentage of children receiving a Hebrew School education is appallingly small. This tends to prove a lack of interest on the part of the parents in the religious training of their children...the facts show that it is generally the person who is active in his synagogue that is active in the problems of his community. The answer therefore is: back to the synagogue!”

As our family approaches my father’s 50th yahrtzeit in 2019, this find has given me pause to consider how his deeply held beliefs, once translated into action, created a ripple effect that has profoundly shaped our family, and will hopefully continue to positively influence our children and grandchildren far into the future.

(L) My father, Julie Mischel (center), with his brothers in 1944. (R) My parents, Julie and Sally, circa 1950.
(L) My father, Julie Mischel (center), with his brothers in 1944. (R) My parents, Julie and Sally, circa 1950.

Words Acted Upon

Although our family originated from the area of Premyszlan (today in Ukraine, but then in Poland), a noted center of Chassidic study, by the time they settled in Queens it was clear that they had adopted the lifestyle of traditional secular Jews. As working-class immigrants trying to make it in their new country, money was tight and things like paying for Jewish education for my father and his brothers were sadly considered unaffordable. My grandmother remained Shabbat observant, and Yiddish was the language at home, but as my father explained to us, the only formal Jewish education he received as a boy was a brief period of tutoring prior to his bar mitzvah.

There is no doubt in my mind that this lack ofThis lack of Jewish education weighed heavily on my father a Jewish education weighed heavily on my father and pushed him to take serious steps once we settled into our small two-bedroom house in Whitestone. There was only one shul in the area and that was the Clearview Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue founded in 1952. We joined immediately and my father became active in the shul, eventually joining the board of directors. My brothers and I were enrolled in their Hebrew School, which entailed a couple of hours of instruction each afternoon after the secular school day ended, and then again on Sunday mornings.

In a strict sense, the amount of class time and the curriculum would not remotely pass today for a comprehensive Jewish education. We learned to read Hebrew, primarily to assist in our ability to pray properly in shul, we learned to write a little in Hebrew and some basics of Jewish history, particularly that of the founding of the modern State of Israel. We learned Jewish music and about the holidays and had a light overview of Chumash. By the time we reached bar mitzvah age, we were ‘graduated.’ There was a Hebrew High School option in a different location, but very few of the kids I knew were interested in attending, and most parents felt that they had already done their duty and turned their attention to other child-rearing priorities.

Lighting a Spark and Finding Chabad

Looking back, however, I feel that I now need to express gratitude and hakarat hatov to my father who could never have guessed where his important decision would lead his family. Although I can’t say that the path my parents followed translated into an equal outcome for all their sons, in my case, my Hebrew School education and the extremely Zionistic and traditional home in which I was raised planted enough of a spark to push me towards my own journey of Jewish discovery. The summer that my father died we had been planning a family trip to Israel to meet cousins who escaped from Europe and the Shoah who had not been seen face to face since 1939. The trip was obviously cancelled, but once I got to college I made it a priority to go to Israel and fulfill my parents’ wishes. I made that trip in the summer of 1971, spending most of my time as a kibbutz volunteer on the northern border before happily making it to Jerusalem to meet our cousins, creating a connection that has only strengthened in theI made it a priority to go to Israel and fulfill my parents’ wishes decades that have followed. I came back fired up, as do so many kids who visit Israel today on the Birthright program. I also came back understanding that I had met a different kind of Jew in Israel, unlike any that I grew up with in New York. I met knowledgeable, proud Jews, who walked tall and fought for what they believed in.

That original spark ignited by my father’s decision later came into play when I had a fortuitous meeting with the Chabad rabbi, Nosson Gurary, in his sukkah-mobile at the State University of N.Y. in Buffalo, 1972. He approached me on campus, pointed right at me and yelled out, “You’re Jewish!” Two minutes later, I was shaking the lulav and etrog in a sukkah the size of a shower stall that was being towed around town by his little Toyota. My willingness to engage with him, and his colleague Rabbi Heschel Greenberg, clearly was the tipping point that changed my direction forever. I began regularly attending their classes and Shabbat services, and by the time I was engaged to my wife Tamar in 1973, we had begun to travel down a path of learning together, paved by our campus Chabad rabbis and their wives. It was this path of learning and experiencing a deeper kind of Judaism that opened so many doors and answered so many of our questions. And it was always given over to us respectfully and with love and passion.

(L) With my dad in 1961. (R) With our Chabad rabbis in our newlywed apartment in 1973.
(L) With my dad in 1961. (R) With our Chabad rabbis in our newlywed apartment in 1973.

The Biggest Decision and the Ripple Effect

It’s fair to say that our time spent with Chabad during our remaining college years taught me enough to understand how little I really knew about Torah and mitzvot. It was rather humbling to begin to appreciate and address the huge gaps I had in my knowledge. It’s a gap I’m continuing to try and fill until today. But most importantly, it helped us, as a young married couple, reach a pivotal decision: when we had a family, we would do everything within our power to assure that our children had the best and most comprehensive Jewish educations that were available. What this meant was that from kindergarten, all four of our children went to top yeshivah day schools. All four went to yeshivah high schools. All four did a gap year attending Israeli yeshivot and seminaries, and then all four attended Yeshiva University or institutions of higher learning in Israel.

And what has been the outcome? Remarkably,It was humbling to appreciate the huge gaps I had in my knowledge both my sons and my two sons-in-law are ordained Orthodox rabbis in addition to their professional degrees. Think about that. We have four rabbis in our home! All of our children and in-law children are fully engaged in the most intimate way in serious Torah study and connectivity to every aspect of Jewish communal life. Most of us are now living in Israel. Proudly, there is army service, Sherut Leumi, volunteerism, chesed, Jewish communal work and connectivity of every description. In short: full Jewish engagement and lives built around Torah and mitzvot. Could a parent hope and pray for anything more?

I recently read Tzvi Freeman’s Bringing Heaven Down To Earth: Meditations on the Wisdom of the Rebbe. I found the following quote captures the importance of my father’s initial decision to provide his children with a Jewish education. He could never have imagined how that one positive step would blossom exponentially in ways that will assure the Jewish future of his family:

“Know that along with every blade of grass and every speeding electron, so too your own thoughts and decisions are directed with the same wondrous meaning and purpose by the One who created and directs all things. You only need to decide to do the right thing and His holy hand guides you on that path. This is what confidence in the Director of the world is all about: A conviction that since He is the essence of good, therefore all things are for the good-the obvious good.”

Simply put: Our family today is the living proof that if one turns to G‑d, He will turn to you.