(May 2, 2019 / JNS) One might not expect to read a memorial for an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel written by a secular Jew a world apart in Los Angeles. But this past Sunday, as I awoke to the news of the passing of the Kaliver Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Taub—I was reminded of the most spiritual and deeply religious experience of my life.
It was a Friday night in September 2009, my third day in Israel, and my childhood best friend was to be married the following Monday. The wedding-party groomsmen were all invited to the home of a rabbi for Shabbat in Kiryat Sanz, and before dinner we would have the honor of touring several area synagogues with our Shabbat host.
These were not tears born of sadness, but tears moved by miracles.
After making our way through numerous shuls of great historical significance, our host began to tell me the story of the Kaliver Rebbe. In 1944, evil incarnate in the form of Josef Mengele performed horrific chemical experiments on Taub as a young man at Auschwitz. These experiments left him unable to bear children or even grow facial hair. From Auschwitz, Taub was sent to Bergen-Belsen and other death camps, where all six of his siblings would perish. He was then rounded up to be thrown into a fire by SS guards at the end of the war, surviving by his own account after repeatedly reciting the Shema prayer.
What could possibly remain of a man who lost so much? Would there be a sense of devastation in his congregation? These were the questions I could not escape, as his story was recounted in vivid detail. A rabbi without a beard. A rabbi without children. The thought even now grips my soul.
As we entered his synagogue, I sat in the back by myself and reflected on my own Jewish faith, which began in New York where I was raised to observe the High Holidays, Passover and Hanukkah. I always felt a strong connection to my faith, but like so many others in the secular world, nagging questions persisted in the quiet of my mind. After all, God has not spoken directly to the Jewish people since Moses; what proof did I have that these stories which comprise the foundation of my religion were real?
Such thoughts were swirling in my mind as the congregation rose to their feet and began chanting with an intensity one might expect to find at the finals of the World Cup. The service was about to begin. I had attended many Shabbat services in my life but never one like this. It was as if a spirit had entered the room and imbued every person present with a soulful passion that transcended the spot on which we stood, not only the physical spot but also our collective spot in history.
Then he walked out, across the pulpit, with his tallit draped over his head, arms stretched towards the heavens, chanting in a language I did not understand. I didn’t need to. The Kaliver Rebbe was speaking words that were not for my ears or even for my mind, but for my heart. This man who had endured so much at the hands of the worst evil ever to inhabit our planet, and yet here he was, surrounded by a congregation so fervent in their prayers that my knees literally buckled.
I have never fainted before, but I would imagine it feels something like that right before it happens. The chanting. This man with his tallit raised in victory over his head. Victory over an unspeakable horror I cannot imagine. Victory over the forces of darkness. Victory for the Jewish people. The Kaliver Rebbe may not have had offspring of his own, but his entire congregation were his children. And then it hit me, like a punch to the gut: If he has no doubt, then there is no doubt. This is real.
Every story told at every seder table, every reason I fast on Yom Kippur, every time I pray to God to help a family member or friend in need, all of it—my Jewish faith—was suddenly real in the presence of this holy man. If this person could persevere after what he experienced and emerge the man who stood before me—a man with the effervescence of a child, the most spiritually connected person I have ever laid eyes upon, devoted to Holocaust remembrance and to the betterment of his Jewish people— the very case for God’s existence was settled for me right then.
As we left the synagogue, I reunited with our host and the other members of our wedding party, and I attempted to tell the story of what I had experienced. As I began to speak, my voice cracked, and I broke down in tears. I am not a man who cries easily or often, so this was most unexpected. I could not get through even two sentences and had to step away. At Shabbat dinner, I tried to make a simple reference to what had transpired and again found myself weeping uncontrollably. And when my parents arrived in Israel two days later for the wedding, I broke down yet again.
I could not speak of this story without shedding a tear for several years. These were not tears born of sadness, but tears moved by miracles. They are tears that I shed even today as I write this remembrance, tears distilled from three simple words: It is real.
I returned home to Los Angeles and made immediate changes in my life. I began observing Shabbat more religiously, donning tefillin every morning six days a week and following kashrut law the best I could. While I would not yet consider myself to be Orthodox, my faith has been unwavering ever since standing in the presence of the Kaliver Rebbe on that September night in 2009. My life was forever changed by the briefest of encounters with the leader of the Kaliv Chassidic dynasty in a place of worship that to this day is the closest I have ever felt to God.