On September 2, I became the interim CEO at the Federation. I would like to tell you a story that inspired me to take on this role, in the hope that you will be inspired as well.
When I was asked if I would temporarily take on the CEO job, I thought of a heroic woman named Esther Ullan z’l who was a leader in her Jewish community. Whereas I was politely asked, Esther, in the sharpest of contrasts, was forced with a gun to her head to become a community leader in the most awful, evil and unfathomable of circumstances.
I learned about Esther four years ago, when my wife Debbie and I embarked on a hunt to find the villages of Poland and Ukraine where my four grandparents and father were born. Locating these places was often a challenge, requiring a GPS, a Ukrainian guide and many stops to ask the locals for clues and directions.
The night before we would try to find a town, I would read on the Internet about the Jewish history of that city or village and about how ultimately the Nazis destroyed each one. There is a website that provides: dates, names, numbers, deportations, executions, atrocities and more in painful detail.
To say the least, reading this material was distressing, especially since during the day I would see the town devoid of the Jewish life and lives that were once there – including many of my relatives.
One city we planned to find was Kolbuszowa, the home of my grandfather, Rabbi Simcha Gelb z’l – the Minneapolis Talmud Torah teacher known by many. Late in the night before our journey there, I was in bed reading about a sinister Nazi invention called the Judenrat – Jewish Councils. The Nazis would cruelly select and force Jewish leaders from a community into a Judenrat – a sort of false self-government. Then the Judenrat would be made to do the Nazis’ diabolical biddings.
For example, the Nazis would demand that the Judenrat select their fellow Jews for execution, deportation and labor camps; or provide gold or silver to the Nazis – from the community of impoverished Jews. The Judenrats did what they could to care for and protect their communities, but the task was impossible. When the Judenrat would not or could not meet the demands, the Nazis killed the council members and created a new Judenrat of other leaders taken from the community.
I was reading about the members of Kolbuszowa’s first Judenrat. On June 14, 1941, the Nazis arrested them. They were sent to Auschwitz, never to return. As I read the names of the members, I saw the name Esther Ullan. Her name seemed vaguely familiar to me. I jumped out of bed and unfurled a giant family tree I had made 40 years earlier. The hair went up on the back of my neck as I saw Esther’s name on my tree. She was my grandfather’s sister – my great aunt!
The differences between Esther’s life and mine could not be more extreme. Comparatively speaking, we live in blessed times. Today, the State of Israel exists. We Jews in America are a successful, proud people treated with kindness and respect by our non-Jewish neighbors. Our Twin Cities Jewish community is thriving, and our Federation successfully cares for our community and Jews everywhere.
And so, when my Federation called upon me, I thought of Esther and of the stark contrast in our lives. Her ability to find the strength to assume leadership in the darkest of times deeply moved me.
How I wish Esther could have known that members of her family would not only survive but that her great nephew would be so inspired by her courage and leadership – more than 70 years after she was murdered.
In a matter of hours, many Jews in the Twin Cities and the world over will be fasting and participating in the Yom Kippur Yizkor service, remembering loved ones and others who have passed away.
This year during Yizkor, Esther will be very much on my mind. Learning about her made me aware of the many known and unknown members of Judenrats in cities throughout Europe who gave their lives in service to others.
Zeichronam Leevracha – Their memories are a blessing.
I hope their lives and the lives of those you will be remembering at Yom Kippur, will inspire you this new year, to also give of yourself, of your time and of your treasure to help others in the Jewish community and beyond.
I’ll close with my wish, on behalf of myself and the Minneapolis Jewish Federation staff, board and volunteers, that you have a meaningful fast and a sweet new year.
G’mar chatimah tovah – May you be inscribed in the book of life!