Ezekiel the prophet links Noah, Daniel and Job together (14:14) as righteous men. What was the connection?
Rashi and the rabbis explain that these three men saw their worlds destroyed, and then somehow found the wherewithal to rebuild. Noah, on a universal level (the utter destruction of civilization, then its subsequent rebuilding); Daniel, on a national Jewish level (from a Temple in its glory to its destruction, exile and then its rebuilding); and Job, on a personal level (painfully bereft of his flourishing personal life, only to find a way to rebuild a new one).
These three individuals were witnesses to the painful collapse and devastation of a world, and to living through its unlikely rebuilding.
So it was with so many Holocaust survivors; with our Denver community’s beloved Rabbi Israel Rosenfeld, of blessed memory.
Only with Rabbi Rosenfeld it was not only the loss of one world, but of two. Like Daniel, he witnessed the loss of Jewish civilization on a national level. He lived through the flourishing of Torah in Europe, specifically in his chasidic community, only to witness its cruel demise. He lost his world, his home of Torah.
And like Job, he all too painfully lost his very personal world. As a teenager, Rabbi Rosenfeld had his little brother literally ripped away from his arms. His father, with whom he went through the war side by side, succumbed just before liberation.
These were some of the shattered worlds of Rabbi Rosenfeld.
He walked in the valley of death, looked the hovering angel of death in the eye. But like Noah, Daniel and Job, he emerged from the unspeakable pain he endured not only to witness a new world, but to become an active leader in its rebuilding.
Teen years — those formative years — of Rabbi Rosenfeld were harrowing, forged in the hell of the Holocaust. He experienced the worst violations and brutality of what the human being is capable of. These cruel years molded his essence and core personality.
Yet, a bitter, broken man he was not. Remarkably, quite the opposite.
Scarred and defined by the war though, he was. It is what propelled him and became the compass of his life. From out of the brutal pain and devastation, from this literal trial by fire, he prevailed.
The Kotzker Rebbe says, there is nothing more whole than a broken heart. More than anyone I can think of, Rabbi Rosenfeld lived in that paradoxical space, simultaneously broken and whole.
As a sixth grader moving from Israel to Denver, I could have had a very difficult transition. Hailing from a school where there were 40 students in my class, I barely knew who the principal was. He was a formidable figurehead, someone who spoke at assemblies. Rabbi Rosenfeld changed all that.
Here was the principal of my new school greeting me personally. Talking with me. Asking me questions. Smiling with me.
Above all, encouraging me.
For fitting into a new classroom, in a new culture, at that age, is not a simple thing.
As a team Rabbi Rosenfeld and his beloved wife Tova made what could have been a difficult experience, a positive one. In a situation where I stood out as different, together they made me feel like a superstar for being Israeli and for speaking Hebrew fluently.
Rabbi Rosenfeld consulted with me in the sixth grade for my opinion on things Israel-related, like I was some world expert.
That was when I heard him speak about The War for the first time, almost as soon as I met him. For to know Rabbi Rosenfeld was to know his inner self, his essence and his story. This is what came though, whether you were a kid or an adult.
He was who he was, The War being the reference point of his personality, his life, his decisions, his relationships.
Tears were always so close to his eyes, his emotions just beneath the surface. Wherever you were at in life, he brought you in and made you feel a part of his story, whether it was on a child’s level or that of an adult.
The first time I heard his story, he shared his experiences of what he had gone through — his brother taken, his liberation as he was grieving his father’s loss, his attribution of the miracle of his survival to a Russian officer who took an interest in him and made sure to pace his food intake so that, when he was starving, he wouldn’t gorge on food and meet the fate of so many around him who desperately scarfed down food, only to drop dead in the freezing cold after having survived the Nazis. Later in my life, when we had discussed The War, Rabbi Rosenfeld, in his steady, strong, tested faith, addressed the theological difficulties of The War.
His legacy is one of Jewish education. This was the song of his life, whether it was in a professional capacity in school or a casual conversation in the fellowship of a kiddush. While his greeting and smile were always so warm, retaining a certain dignified and gentlemanly old world charm, always tilting his head toward you in greeting, rabbinic dictums and Biblical verses were always on his lips. After a substantive conversation, you left richer and wiser.
Rabbi Rosenfeld possessed that rarest of qualities: wisdom. It wasn’t only in his eyes that he conveyed it, it was also in the timing of the verse he chose to quote.
Sometimes that perfect quote comes off in as a platitude, but with Rabbi Rosenfeld it was the crystallization of the issue at hand, summing up a complex situation or emotion. The verse or dictum he cited cut through so much extraneous verbiage. In his chosen words, you felt you understood a deeper, sometimes a more painful emotion or tza’ar that Rabbi Rosenfeld was trying to convey.
Before embarking on my first job as a teacher, my father suggested I speak with Rabbi Rosenfeld, the “teacher’s teacher.” That was the beginning of many mentoring conversations about teaching that ensued between us for a few years. Rabbi Rosenfeld transcended the gulf between generations, forging bonds. He took particular pleasure and nachas (satisfaction) in mentoring the younger people who were drawn to him.
One thing I remember, something he felt should be a priority in Jewish American education. It was, in his catchy way of coining a phrase, “siddur geography.” He felt that American children didn’t know how to navigate the prayer book, and instead relied on the table of contents or page numbers. This bothered him tremendously. He wanted Jewish kids to be at home in the Jewish prayer book.
He emphasized this as a value he felt that I as a teacher should imprint on my students. Children should be familiar with the prayers and know the sequence of the prayer book based on the prayers, not the page numbers.
When I proceeded to ask him what a primary Jewish message he felt is important to convey to the older kids, teens and pre-teens, he said, “same thing! ‘Tanach geography.’”
That was when I learned for the first time that the chapters dividing the Biblical narratives were a Christian device, not a Jewish one. Rabbi Rosenfeld felt that Tanach, our Jewish Bible, should become second nature to students to the point where they knew and referred to biblical narratives based on being intimately familiar with them and their sequence, not limited to locating them according to a foreign chapter reference system.
And so it was with Rabbi Rosenfeld. He was steeped in Biblical and Talmudic erudition — it wasn’t just reference-based.
Surviving Auschwitz, Rabbi Rosenfeld was a marked man. A dehumanizing serial number seared his skin. The Nazis tried to reduce him to a number, to remove his humanity. Yet Rabbi Rosenfeld’s life, every moment of it, with gentle defiance, became a protest against that number, an assertion of his humanity, an assertion of his Judaism and unshakable faith.
As the years were passing, as much as Rabbi Rosenfeld possessed that gravitas, that quality of the “Wise Elder” of our community, he also had that soft “Zaidy” quality. It endeared him to more and more people.
Mystically, Rabbi Rosenfeld died on the eve of the 70th anniversary of his liberation from Auschwitz, the week of Shabbat Shira. In other words, the week of his re-born life in this world. A circle, Rabbi Rosenfeld’s storied life had returned to its starting point, coming to a close in the very same week when, 70 long years ago, he, like the righteous — Noah, Daniel and Job — began taking the first, fragile and tentative steps from his destroyed, shattered world, toward rebuilding his, and the generations, of our Jewish world.
Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountain Jewish News