Good Yom Tov.

Every year in November I join thousands of my colleagues at the International Conference of Chabad Rabbis from all over the world. From every country you can imagine – from over 400 centers worldwide we converge upon Crown heights to spend a long weekend together, at workshops, at formal and informal gatherings, lots of networking, and prayers together at the Ohel of the Rebbe.

One of the highlights of the convention is always the Banquet… Over 6000 Rabbis and lay leaders gather for what is the largest sit down dinner in all of NY. Besides the speeches, there is an international roll-call from every country and state represented at the Conference, culminating in a massive dance where the energy is just so incredible it’s not describable in words.

But despite all the joy and energy of the Dinner, there is one moment of solemn silence in memory and tribute to all those Rabbis and members of the family of Shluchim that have passed away in the past year.

In that spirit, and in the spirit of the Yizkor prayers that we are about to say, I would like to do something I have never done this in the past, and I hope not to need to do this again. I would like to take a moment of remembrance for some of our dear community members that have passed or lost someone special in the past year.

I actually want to go back 18 months ago when one a dear friend, a founding pillar, and unbelievably loyal supporter passed away from pancreatic cancer. I begin with a tribute and mention of my friend and guide Ira Wruble Yitzchak Aizik ben Tzvi who passed away just two weeks after signing the last legal document we needed to finally purchase and own this beautiful Chabad center. I will never forget that last LChaim we had together on his porch celebrating an unbelievable accomplishment that meant so much to him personally.

Since the beginning of last year we have said goodbye to:

Terri Hipshers mother, Sandra Wein, Shlomit bas Shmuel Lev.

Effie Guterman mother, Karin Silverstone, Kayla Chana bas Efraim

Robert Turtz father, Albert, Avraham ben harry.

Roberta kolin’s husband - Stanley, Shmuel ben Moshe.

Tobi Milgrams mother Roberta Kolsky, Rochel bas Yitzchok. 

Holocaust survivor Marietta Gnat, Miriam bas Mordechai.

Aviva Bishari brother and husband of Edith Hared - Rafael Hared, Rafael ben Yisroel

Bernard Bentolila’s brother Avraham ben Chaim Shlomo

Yonatan Cymberknopf mother - Zitta Herdan Tziporah bas Hoshea.

Ethel Broder mother - Rachel Jampowsky, Rochel bas Vitali.

Robert Rosen mother - Ruth Anne Rosen, Chana Rivka bas Dovid

Faith Montgomery mother, Lois Ann Montgomery

Susan Erez father, Edward Borys

Barry Roeder wife, Phyllis, Perla bas Avraham

Mindi Bresler’s father Jay Bressler, Yosef ben Yehuda

A longtime member of our community, Malka Althaus – Malka bas Chava

Just two days ago I helped Debbie Sonnenberg who is here today bury her husband of 60 years. The father of Illene Sonneberg, Paul Lee, Pesach Leib ben Shlomo.

And lastly, the death that hurt me most on a very personal level, was the loss of a truly dear friend, a woman Chana and I met just weeks after moving to Coral Springs, and who was with us from our very first High Holidays in 2008, the mother of Robin and Evan … Carole Cohen – Zisel bas Nochum.

On Rosh Hashana I mentioned the Rabbi who as he was dying turned to his kids and declared that he had a “shvere leben” a difficult life. But when his kids argued with him and truied to tell him how much he had accomplished he explained to them that he had not said his life had been bad or bitter, just challenging and difficult. But that great things are only achieved through difficulties and overcoming challenges.

This is exactly how I feel about this past year. This year has been an especially hard and difficult year for our community – and for me personally - dealing with the large number of losses and hurdles we have had to deal with this year. And yet, in many ways this has been a really great year, with lots of growth, expansion, and many new members.

Just look at the record large crowd you see here today and you know that despite the pain of the last 12 months - and especially the summer - we have not been broken or setback. Just the opposite.

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The many tragedies I have dealt with all summer have led me to a new focus on death these past few months. I have written some deeply personal articles for the Weekly Connection email that have generated an unbelievable response from so many. I have definitely become more sensitized to the beauty of life.

And I have come to appreciate a new perspective and dimension of one of the greatest Jews to ever live, that I have never really paid attention to in the past.

I am referring to Moses, the man who stands up to the super power of his times, saves a nation of slaves from seemingly impossible situation, and slowly turns them into a nation ready to conquer the Land of Israel.

The entire last book of the Five Books of Moses is the last will and testament of this hero that he share with the Jews in during the final 37 days of Moses’s life. The Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) that we have been reading these last few weeks on Shabbat morning opens “These are the words which Moshe spoke to all the Jewish people on the banks of the Jordan River.”

He begins be recounting the history of the last 40 years, all that they had gone through, and all the ups and downs of their journey. 

As you read, it’s amazing to think about the fact that Moshe knows he is at the end. He movingly describes how he asked G‑d repeatedly to allow him to fulfil his lifelong dream and enter the Promised land. AS Moshe sadly shares with us “I requested from G‑d at that time saying “G‑d Almighty who is merciful in judgement… Please let me cross over and see this good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple.

Yet despite begging and beseeching G‑d FIVE HUNDRED FIFTEEN times, and being refused each time, and despite knowing that his time is over and Joshua is going to take over as the new leader of the Jewish people, nowhere does Moshe “retire” or slow down. You would almost expect some sense of sadness over the fact that Moses would be leaving this world without realizing his life’s greatest hope and dream – that of entering the Land of Israel.

There is a very moving scene in which G‑d allows Moses to climb Mount Nevo to see – but only from a distance – the land he would never enter. If you pay attention you could feel the emotion and sense the finality of the vision from afar.

And yet, the entire last book of the Torah, throughout the final messages that he delivers to the Jewish People before he will die, there is no focus on his past triumphs and ensuring the legacy of his accomplishments..

Instead we find something so different. So different. The only thing that Moshe cares about is the future. Parsha after Parsha, chapter after chapter, we hear the words of a man singularly focused on the on the destiny of his people, how will they behave when they are living among other nations, and how they may be distracted by the idol worship of their neighbors.

All throughout the Book of Deuteronomy, we hear Moses not simply repeating and articulating G‑d’s laws, but conveying the deep theology and philosophy behind them. He speaks with incredible passion about G‑d’s love for Israel – and the love Israel should show G‑d. All of my favorite verses, deep with passion come from these last speeches of Moshe where he does the all he can to emotionally set us up to learn from the past and prepare us for future challenges.

You might say that in those 37 days, Moshe becomes a new person. He found a whole new voice and a whole new purpose. He is no longer speaking to those he had saved from Egypt and who had seen him speak to G‑d at Mt. Sinai. No, he is now talking to the generations to come.

You have to realize that once the Jews cross the Jordan River and enter Israel under a new leader, Moshe would not be blamed for their mistakes. He would not be held responsible for the actions of the future generations, and yet we see how deeply he cares about setting them on the straight and correct path.

Just this past Shabbos we read about the day of Moshes death. He is 120 years old and he clearly knows that he is about to die very shortly. Yet his message to the Jews is “Chizku V’Imtzu” Be Strong and be Courageous! Do not be afraid or dismayed because of them, because G‑d you G‑d is going with you.”

Moshe then dramatically turns to Moshe and says to him “in the presence of all of Israel; “Chazak V’Ematz” Be Strong and Courageous! It is G‑d who will lead you forward. He will be with you!”

These are the words of a man focused on the future, on those who will live after he is gone.

I may argue that this is why he is forever described as Moshe Rabainu, Moses our Teacher. No longer “Moses the Liberator or Moses the Miracle-worker,” he becomes “Moshe Rabainu” – the teacher of all future generations. This may be Moshe’s greatest achievement of his entire life that ensured his greatest legacy, being the teacher of all future generations!

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I mentioned how this year has been a hard, difficult year full of challenges and trials. I want to share with you a very personal conversation I had with my wife one night some time during the summer. We were discussing the many losses our community had suffered, both from death, and from people moving away.

I don’t remember what inspired the thought I am about to share with you, but over several days and conversations I developed an analogy for the life Chana and I had chosen to live, that really helped me put things in perspective.

This is what I shared with my beautiful wife Chana that night.

We are like a lighthouse. Standing tall and proud, despite the darkness – and BECAUSE of the darkness, we stand in our spot, unmoving, unbending, providing a stable and consistent light throughout the night to any lost or solitary ship that passes us by. This is our mission, to always be there, night after night, in the rain or cold, to provide light and direction for those who might be lost.

Sometimes it can get lonely standing there all alone in the dark. Sometimes it feels like the ships passing by barely notice you and that no one appreciates your mission and how hard it is to shine every single night. Sometimes it feels like we are just standing there, without even accomplishing anything.

But sometimes you see a ship obviously lost and thanks to the lighthouse standing so tall, the ship changes direction ever so slightly, but even that small change is enough to avoid the rocks, and you know it’s all worth it.

Below the lighthouse is a port where ships can dock. We take great pride in our little harbor. It’s a very unique harbor with ALL kinds of ships of all sizes docked there under our protective light. Some ships are big, some are small, some are fancy luxury yachts, and some are old, rickety sailboats. Some boats belong to the fishermen who are always out to sea, some boats belong to visitors happy to spend some time enjoying the port and its beautiful views. Some ships just stay to visit for a day, while others live near our harbor and we see their ships in harbor often.

The Jews in our beautiful little harbor come in all shapes and sizes. Some are rich, some are poor. Some only come by when they are stranded and need to restock or say kaddish for a yartzeit, while others come to every class we teach. There are days like Yom Kippur when the harbor is filled to the max, and the lighthouse is filled with joy, and then there are stormy days where no one is on their boat and the lighthouse still faithfully stands over the empty port.

The point is that we don’t own the harbor. We can’t control who stays docked and who is ready to continue their journey to the many other ports around the world. We don’t get to decide who will leave and for how long they will be gone. We are just the lighthouse shining our light to whoever is looking and watch as the ships pass us by.

But we can ask ourselves one thing. Did that ship leave our port better then when it came in? Did they get the supplies they needed and leave stocked for the next step of their journey in life, inspired and uplifted. Did they leave with a new appreciation for the beauty of Torah, with more pride in being a Jew?

Did they leave the glow of our light, a better person, a more connected Jew, a more loving human being then before they came to dock here?

In truth, this analogy applies to all of us. We are all lighthouses trying to guide and illuminate the dangerous waters of life for our children and our families. But there will come a day when they will lift their sails, pull up their anchor, and their beautiful little ship will sadly sail away.

There will come a day when they leave to college, when they will find the love of their life, when they will start a new life on their own ship with their own friends as they glide off into the endless distance of the sea.

All we can ask ourselves is did they leave our home, our safe harbor, better people then when they came in?

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As sad and unfair it may be that Moses was denied entry into Israel, I read the Torah portions of the end of his life and take so much encouragement. Here was the greatest Jew who ever lived, the man that G‑d calls His most trusted servant, “the most faithful in all My house, with him I speak face to face”.

And yet, even he did not live to see his mission completed.

The Torah is gifting us a profound lesson; a powerful reminder that we are all mortal and that we are all fallible.  We will mess up at times, and accidentally hurt someone’s feeling along the way. None of us will ever keep our ships under our watch forever, and none of will complete the journey we wish to. There will be a time when they will have to continue without us.

For each of us, there will be a river we will not cross, a promised land we will not enter, and a destination we will not reach. Even the greatest life is an unfinished symphony. We should not feel guilty, frustrated, angry or defeated that there are things we hoped to achieve – but did not.
Even Moshe didn’t enter his.

There is a beautiful teaching in Ethics of our Fathers that says “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor,“ It’s not up to you to finish the task, in fact there is no expectation that you will fulfill all your dreams and ambitions.

But, despite realizing that… “ve lo atah ben horin lehibatel mimenah” you’re not free to not do your best to contribute whatever it is that you can to ensure the job does get done.

We won’t live forever, we won’t finish the mission ourselves, and that’s fine. We don’t need to. But we do need to ensure that the mission will continue without us.

That is the question we must ask ourselves:  Are we ensuring that our light today will continue to inspire them even when we are no longer watching?

Our little ships, our children, and friends will not remain with us forever… but will our light stay with them even after they travel forth?

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Gideon Katz – or “Gidi” as he is known – was one the most respected jet fighter pilots in the Israeli Air Force… Admired for his sharp mind and lightning-quick instincts by older and younger pilots alike, he was a real “Top Gun”… His personality sort of matched his military record in that he always kept his emotions in check… He always maintained an even keel, knowing that his next mission — whenever it would come to pass — would require focus and balance...

From his teen years, Gidi Katz always took a strong interest in the events of the Holocaust… Although his grandmother – “Savta Bruriah” – was a survivor, she never spoke to him about her experiences... Still, he knew that she had survived the concentration camps, and it meant a lot to him that he was now using his efforts and talents to defend the Jewish people...

One day, Gidi’s commanding officer approached him with a tempting offer.. The IDF was giving its top soldiers a chance to travel to Europe, to see the concentration camps and tour the places where some of famous battles of World War II took place… Gidi jumped at the opportunity…

Even though he was not religious, his mother gave him a small Sefer Tehillim, Book of Psalms, before he left… She suggested that he keep it in his pocket just in case he would be moved to recite a prayer… Gidi took the Tehillim, though he did not think it likely he would use it.

The tour took the group of Israeli military men to the main concentration camps and their surrounding cities... After touring some of the larger cities, they stopped off in a place called Stutthof… Although not as well-known as some of the larger camps, Stutthof was a brutal camp, in which more than 85,000 Jews were killed.

As the soldiers walked through the eerie grounds of Stutthof, Gidi took in the experience… He was horrified by the abysmal living conditions and was surprised that so many Jews had lost their lives in this small camp… Over the years, he had read all about Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Chelmno, but he had never heard of Stutthof… He tried to imagine what life must have been like for the inmates, never knowing if this was to be their last day on earth...

As he passed the barracks, a building in the distance grabbed his attention... As he approached it, Gidi was shocked to discover that Stutthof housed a gas chamber and crematorium, as well… The tour guide told them that although the camp was originally built as a labor and prisoner-of-war camp, it eventually became part of the Final Solution – its sole purpose to murder and exterminate Jews...

As soon as Gidi stepped into the gas chamber, he felt like he was about to suffocate… He tried to imagine the tens of thousands who had died in this room… But instead of feeling an impulse to cry or take revenge, the strangest and most inappropriate feeling overcame him…. Suddenly, he felt like singing and dancing!

How could it be?... He was Gidi Katz – the crack fighter pilot who was always in control of his emotions!... And now, he felt like singing!!??... Struggling to get his emotions back in check, he stepped outside of the gas chamber…

He reached into his pocket and took out the small Tehillim his mother had given him… He did not know a lot of religious songs... In fact, he only knew one, and it was not even part of the Psalms!… The only time he went to the Beit Knesset (to shul) was on Simchat Torah, when people would dance with the Torahs singing, “Sisu ve’simchu be’simchas Torah – Rejoice and exult in the joy of the Torah!”… As he stood outside the gas chamber, he sang that song, trying not to call attention to himself as he moved his feet along with the joyful tune...

It was all so weird!... He could not figure out where this compulsion was coming from… At the same time, he couldn’t stop himself from being swept up by it!...

While he was doing this song and dance, suddenly his phone rang… He picked it up — it was his mother... “Imma,” he said, “you won’t believe what’s going on… I am here in Stutthof, and I’m having the strangest feeling...”…

As soon as Gidi mentioned the word “Stutthof,” his mother interrupted him and told him to call his grandmother… “Call Savta Bruria — call her now!”

Gidi didn’t ask why; he called his grandmother…. “Savta, it’s Gidi.”…

Hi grandmother was thrilled to hear her grandson’s voice but was curious as to why he was calling, since they did not speak on a regular basis… He told his grandmother that he was in Stutthof and that Imma had recommended………… Before he could continue, his Savta stopped him…. “I know all about Stutthof,” she said… “I was there – with my whole family.”

And then there was complete silence… No one said a word…

Finally, after a minute or so, Gidi continued: “I walked around the camp and saw the barracks… The tour guide described the horrific conditions in which you lived… But when I walked into the gas chambers, the oddest feeling came over me… I felt like I needed to sing and dance… I know you must think this is totally bizarre, but I stepped outside the gas chambers and I began dancing here – right next to the crematorium!... Imma had given me a small Sefer Tehillim to carry with me… And I danced with it the way Jews dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah!”

At that point, Gidi could hear the distinct sounds of sobbing on the other end... Realizing how emotional it must have been for his grandmother to hear her grandson describing the concentration camp in which she had been interred, he apologized for upsetting her… But nothing prepared him for what he was about to hear next… “No, Gidi,” Savta Bruria said… “I am happy you are there, and that you’re able to see what I lived through… So many lives were sacrificed there.”

And then she shared the most incredible story:

“I was only 10 years old when I was taken to Stutthof,” Savta Bruria began… “I knew that my father, Gideon, for whom you are named, had a job in the camp, but I didn’t know what it was… Later, I found out that he was one of the ‘sonderkommando’ – these were the prisoners forced to remove the dead bodies from the gas chamber and bring them to the crematorium…

“One night, after a full day of this horrific work, my father stepped outside with the others in his group… When the German officer stepped away for a cigarette break, my father spoke to the others: ‘These Nazis have taken away our sense of humanity... We have been transformed into animals... But today is Simchat Torah... Even if it is difficult, let us dance and sing and remember that we are not animals…. We are Yidden – we are Jews – children of the Al-mighty!’

And so, as they stood right outside the gas chambers, next to the crematorium, my father removed one torn page of a siddur he had saved in his pocket, and they danced and sang “Sisu ve’simchu be’simchas Torah – Rejoice and exult in the joy of the Torah!”…

At that point, macho and stoic Gidi – the man who never let his emotions get the better of him – felt tears streaming down his cheeks… Somehow, the song his great-grandfather had sung some 60 years before had found its way into his soul…

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Amazing story…

But here is what hit me hard when I read this story. Imagine if this young Israeli solider had not been given the opportunity to go on this trip, or had not gone to Stuthof, or had not allowed his urge to overcome him and had instead controlled himself as he normally did, or if his mother had not called him just then and he didn’t share his feelings with her…. Then this story would have been lost to all future generations.

None of us can possibly understand the trauma, pain and intense suffering of the survivors, who couldn’t bring themselves to talk about their experiences.  But just imagine if Gidi had not called his grandmother that day. He would never know the story of his great grandfather who he was named after. He would never appreciate his heritage, his amazing personal history.

He was named after a true hero, with unbelievable lineage. Yet that story was almost lost forever!

My friends, are you teaching your kids, your grandkids their story? Do they know your family stories? Do they know what sacrifices your father made to be a Jew? Do they know how hard your mother worked just to get a kosher chicken?

Do they know how important Judaism is to you? Do they know how deeply it matters to you if they went to Shul today or if they marry a Jew?

I am blessed to know all about the sacrifice of my grandparents... because my parents have told me the stories. I know how my great grandfather Yaakov that I am named after died from hunger in the siege of Leningrad.

I know all the stories of how my grandfather that my son Zalman is named after, was all alone in an orphanage in Siberia – the only Jew there. He was mocked for his Jewishness, for his inability to whistle, and how he would hide in the bushes drawing pencil sketches. I know what he had to go thru to make the decision in his teenage years to re-embrace his Jewishness.

I know the stories of my father’s father who gave up his studies in University and left it behind to go home to his mother in Schedrin and say Kaddish for his father after he passed away.

I consider myself blessed to know all these stories about my family and my roots. But do your kids know your families stories? Do they know where your grandparents where during the war?

Do they know who they are named after? Do they know your families stories of sacrifice and heroism for Judaism, for right vs. wrong? Do they know their Hebrew names?

Do they even care to know?

What legacy are you leaving them? What will you leave then with after you die? What will they know about you? Will they gather at your funeral and say “She loved to cook, and she loved to shop…” “He was a nice guy, he would always be so happy to see me…but I don’t really know what he believed in, what he lived for, what he cared most deeply about”?

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I want to suggest two things you can do to change the ending of your story.

One is to do something big, something real, something tangible to create a legacy of your Jewish values and beliefs that will remain long after you are gone? Make a Jewish legacy gift to a Jewish charity in your will and your family will not only see the talk you talked but the walk you walked.

Just a few months before Carole Cohen passed away she stood here at this very podium and gave a beautiful talk in which she described her and Abbott’s journey with Chabad, and how they became more and more involved. And she ended her speech with the following thought:

“I share all this with you not to pat myself on the back, but I have another motivation. If you came through those doors, you saw my husband’s name is on the lobby wall, and I really want to see that name up there forever. It is really a legacy to my children and grandchildren.”

She described my dream of a real community and educational center … and then concluded “I’m asking you to support him in all of his dreams so that this becomes bigger and better, and more people come through those front doors and see my husband’s name up on that wall forever … long after I am gone.“

Today, Carole’s name is now also on the wall.

When she said those words she had no idea how little time she had left. She had no inkling of how soon her mission would come to an end, and like Moses, she would have to say goodbye to those she wasn’t ready to say goodbye to. In her mind, she still had work to do.

But when she made her will she included a generous legacy gift to Chabad. And only because of that are we now able to finally begin expanding our Center and building the new classrooms, Daily Chapel, Library and Study Room you see happening right behind me. There is still a lot more work to be done, and more money needed, but we have finally been able to begin, thanks to her vison and concern for the future.

Her legacy gift guaranteed that her light will continue to shine … long after she is gone.

And she is not alone. Many ships have come through our harbor over the years, but when I see the beautiful Bimah covers dedicated in loving memory of our friend Ira Wruble, I see him in my mind. When the day comes hopefully soon that we build the new Aron kodesh next door in Ira’s memory, his light will continue to shine ever so bright.

It has been over a decade since Steven Mait was killed in a car accident outside of Eagle Trace. But every time we open the Ark to take out the Torah scrolls, his memory lives on.

And the same is true for the Memory of Irving Cymberknopf who is mentioned frequently at the Monday Night Torah Unzipped Classes that are dedicated in his memory. Each Siddur with a dedication, each sponsorship in our Hebrew School, these are eternal light houses, lights that will shine forever.

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Just a week ago a lady came to me and shared that she had put Chabad into her will. She is not here today because she is a member of another Temple and she is very actively involved with a number of Jewish causes. And yet of all the charities she is leaving in her legacy plans for after 120, Chabad is going to get the largest portion.

Many of you know her, her name is Randi Grossman. She explained to me why she has chosen to support Chabad.

Because she knows that of all the Jewish organizations that she is involved with – and she is involved - Chabad is the most likely to remain forever and always be there, always reaching out with love and inspiring others.

She wants to make sure her legacy lives on, and she knows that Chabad is the surest investment of that.

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Second, make it a point to share your history with your kids and grandkids. Don’t be afraid to just bring it up. Invite your children over for a dinner and tell them about the people they are named for, the people they came from, the people they should strive to be.

Don’t be afraid to have the “Jewish conversation” you have no idea what long-term impact it will have. Make sure you that you are internalizing your light within them; that your light is becoming their light that will continue to shine after you no longer are.

Yizkor cannot just be a day for prayers to remember the past. Yizkor MUST also be about making our memories our children’s memories. Making our story their story, making our light their light. Yizkor must be day that we share those stores, a day we ensure that the legacy of those they came from and those they are named after become part of their Jewish identity as well. 

Because if you don’t share your light with them in a way that becomes their light, what is your guarantee that your kids will continue coming to say Yizkor for you when you are no longer shining?

There will come a day when your little ships will sail away from home. Make sure that you have given them enough light to know that you are still shining within them.

A wise man once said: “Although no one can go back and make a brand-new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand-new ending!”