Over the last six years, I have met a lot of very interesting people who have come to visit the Shul on the Beach. People from dozens of countries, backgrounds, and disciplines have joined us for services at Pacific Jewish Center. One of the joys of my pulpit is meeting many fascinating people.
This week trumped them all.
A nearly blind elderly man, escorted by a 20something young man ambled his way through the entrance to the shul. As per usual, he was greeted warmly by shul members. The elderly man declined a siddur explaining that he couldn’t see anyway.
I happened to be near the entrance of the shul at that moment. I make rounds through the shul several times during the service. This was during the blessing for the sick after the 5th Aliya, so I overhead the man say “Is the rabbi here, Rabbi Eliyahu Fink?” The man who greeting him responded in the affirmative and then noticing me, told the man “and here he is!”
I shook the man’s hand, and the man grasped my hand tightly with both of his warm, comforting hands. Looks me in the eye, despite his inability to see me, and says “I came to see you. We are family.”
Never seeing this man before and never hearing of any family in Los Angeles, I was a little confused. He must have sensed my hesitation because he said “I’ll tell you later.” Turns out, “later” was immediately because he couldn’t resist telling me the whole story.
My father’s father’s mother’s mother was named Malka. She had a brother named Ahron Yaakov. The man standing in front of me in the back of my shul was Ahron Yaakov’s son. Woah. I was talking to my great-grandmother’s first cousin. My first cousin, three times removed. The nice young man escorting him was his grandson. My father’s third cousin. My third cousin, once removed. Woah.
The pair took seats near the front and sat quietly for the rest of the service.
Before I began my sermon, I welcomed all our guest, as I always do. I added a special welcome to Mr. William Harvey (Hershkowitz), my great-grandmother’s first cousin. It was emotional for me just to say the words out loud. To converse with a piece of my history and reconnect with family for the first time.
After services, Harvey was the life of the party at kiddush. Everyone wanted to talk to him and he gave the people what they wanted. Turns out, he is Holocaust survivor who lectures on the Holocaust and other important topics at the Museum of Tolerance. William’s mother was living in the United States in the 1880s but returned to Czechoslovakia in the early 20th century.
The Holocaust hit the Hershowitz family when William was 19 years old. Clearly he survived. William story of survival is remarkable and he was showing off a print out of an article chronicling his story published in the Jewish Journal a few months ago. (Jewish Journal)
At kiddush, I asked William if we would stick around so we could talk. He said, I waited years to meet you, I can wait a few more minutes. After the crowd had thinned, we finally had some time to catch up on family connections and history. William had maintained a relationship with my great-grandmother, my grandfather (her son) and my grandmother (his wife). He was thrilled to meet me and my sons on this day.
We pledged to meet for coffee and grow our relationship and friendship. I look forward to the opportunity. William is a kind, warm, sweet man. Time spent in his presence is time well spent.
As we parted ways on Shabbos afternoon, William began to cry. I don’t know why he was crying. I started to cry too. I don’t know why I was crying either. But we held each other, our shaking bodies and tear stained cheeks embracing for the first time, feeling like it was the thousandth time.
It was one of those moments. The entire episode had been building to this outpouring of emotion and I will never forget what that felt like.
You meet a lot of great people at The Shul on the Beach. You have a lot of special moments working at The Shul on the Beach. This one topped them all.
One of Those Moments http://t.co/S9FMPUkim5
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) August 25, 2014