“The Nazis didn’t only attack the Jews physically, but also spiritually. What’s the proof? The very first thing they did before the war even started was Kristallnacht. They destroyed over 1,000 shuls in a single night. Ten months before the war began, they were already fighting against synagogues and sifrei kodesh, our holy books. This shows what their real intention was. They attacked our soul before our body. If we abandon the Torah, we are helping them win the battle. We must be victorious by clinging to the Torah. Our eternity, our continuity, depends on it.” — Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau
As Beth Jacob, the synagogue I have led the past 25 years, completed a major renovation of our 50-year-old sanctuary, the question of how to properly mark this milestone arose. Of course, dedicating a renewed synagogue space is always an inherently valuable undertaking, one that stands on its own merits. But one would think that the significance is best understood by those members who week after week and year after year have toiled and prayed and studied in its hallowed space.
Specifically in the case of Beth Jacob, with its rich, 75-year history, one would expect the dedication to be a localized event, best appreciated by those who have spent decades with the synagogue.
Why, then, was the decision made to contact Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, an international figure, to ask him to come from his home in Tel Aviv all the way to Atlanta? Why should the former chief rabbi of Israel and current chairman of Yad Vashem, a Holocaust survivor and renowned spiritual guide, travel across the world to preside over a synagogue dedication in a relatively small North American community?
Put more bluntly: What does he have to do with us?
My answer may surprise you. It is one word: revenge.
Let me explain. In the fall of 1943, eight men convened and formally established Beth Jacob “for the purpose of creating a Holy House of Worship in the northeast section of Atlanta.”
This small band of Jews saw the need to preserve the Old World traditions, to create a holy space to perpetuate the simplicity and faith they had been raised with. In other words, they wanted to pass the torch of Jewish tradition, as they had experienced it in their youth, to the next generation.
Many wrote them off, laughing that tradition was on the ropes and faltering and that the future lay with those who would innovate and assimilate.
When we think back to the year 1943, we have to realize the significance of the time. We must keep in mind that in 1943 our people were in the throes of the most barbaric genocide in history: the Shoah.
And it was in the shadow of that historic tragedy, just a few years after Kristallnacht and during the ensuing tragedy throughout Europe, when one out of every three Jews on this planet was systematically murdered, that a small group of Jews halfway across the world had the gall and chutzpah to say, “Am Yisrael chai — the nation of Israel lives,” by creating a shul, a synagogue, to forge a community to keep the torch burning and 3,000 years of tradition alive.
And as this small group of Jews gathered every single day in little Atlanta to proclaim our collective creed of “Shema Yisrael,” the exact same utterance was on the lips of the millions of our brothers and sisters who were being gassed, shot and slaughtered in places like Auschwitz, Treblinka and Buchenwald, to name just a few.
While our nascent congregation was coming together for Shabbat and holiday services, a 7-year-old boy nicknamed “Lulek” was fighting for his survival in the Nazi hell. Lulek was a scion of an incredible lineage of 38 generations of rabbis, a chain that stretched back almost 1,000 years. He was the next link in the chain, and, by divine providence and miracles, he survived.
He emerged from Buchenwald as an icon of faith and survival, an innocent child who had his childhood and family robbed from him but refused to allow that loss to shackle his future. And Lulek — later Chief Rabbi Lau — looked to the future and transformed himself into a teacher, a guide, a shepherd to our people.
The rededication of the Beth Jacob sanctuary, and indeed every synagogue anywhere in the world, is the ultimate revenge against those who have tried, time after time, to extinguish the flame of our tradition.
When young Israel Meir “Lulek” Lau was liberated from Buchenwald at age 8, he was given a Hitler Youth uniform to wear because he had no other clothing. He appears in this uniform in a beautiful photo that was taken upon his arrival in Palestine. He also has a rifle slung over his shoulder, which he received as a gift from an American soldier upon being liberated from Buchenwald.
To quote his autobiography, “From the Depths”: “The American soldier asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I answered, ‘I want to take revenge.’ Hearing this, he gave me his rifle, and I kept it with me on my trip through Germany to Paris, then on to Lyon, Marseille, Genoa.”
With this rifle Lulek first set foot on the holy soil of the land of Israel. However, over time he learned that not all revenge is taken with a rifle or brute force and that there are other ways to defeat those who would have tried to extinguish the flame of Jewish tradition.
This iconic photo, Rabbi Lau writes, hangs in his home, and “since then, every time I leave the house, I look at the picture hanging in the entryway to the right of the door: a boy wearing a Hitler Youth uniform with the terrifying word ‘Buchenwald’ on the sleeve, carrying a suitcase and holding a rifle. Affixed to the left side of my doorframe is a mezuzah. Together, these symbols surround me, forming my entire world. Every time I look at that photograph it tells me: Israel Meir, you have a mission — to justify your survival and your existence; to serve as the messenger of your murdered father, mother, and brother; and to continue the dynasty.”
As a people, our survival against all odds is nothing short of miraculous. Nobody embodies the miracle of our resilience and rebirth more so than Rabbi Lau. And so, 75 years after its founding, as Beth Jacob looks toward the future and rededicates our sanctuary with a majestic renovation, it is fitting for Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau to grace the event with his deep wisdom and experience, serving as an ambassador for the millions of voices who may have been physically silenced but whose melodious chant of “Hear, O Israel” still echoes through history and resounds in our neshamas, reminding us to hold tight to our rich heritage and to never forget those who came before us.