Tisha B’Av, a day for lamenting Jewish disunity, presented the latest opportunity for three of Toco Hills’ smaller congregations to unite for learning.
New Toco Shul, Congregation Netzach Israel and Chevra Ahavas Yisrael shared much of the ninth day of Av, including a panel discussion held at the Chevra Ahavas Yisrael sanctuary at Torah Day School of Atlanta on Tuesday, Aug. 1.
Rabbi Don Seeman, a New Toco member and an associate professor of religion and Jewish studies at Emory, led the discussion among Eli Livnat, Netzach Israel Rabbi Yehuda Boroosan, Martin Solomon and Reuven Formey to expand on the fate of Jews in modern times through personal stories.
Solomon’s grandparents survived the Holocaust, but he spoke about his wife’s grandfather, Moshe Dovid Mandelbaum. When the Nazis occupied Poland, Mandelbaum was among a group being transported to concentration camps in boxcars when a German soldier asked whether anyone knew any Jewish songs.
Mandelbaum, who served as a cantor, began singing Vehi Sheamda, and others soon joined him. Puzzled by the scene, the soldier asked him why they were singing when they would soon meet their fates. Solomon said Mandelbaum responded, “There’s been people before you and after you who have tried to destroy us; however, we will persevere.”
At the camp, Mandelbaum and others were forced to dig their own graves before they were lined up to be executed. But his life was spared at the last second by a higher-ranking officer who wanted to use Mandelbaum’s knowledge and skills to build tunnels.
Livnat’s parents survived the Holocaust and moved to Israel immediately after its establishment, seeking to raise their children among Jews after his mother’s family perished in the Holocaust. At 18, Livnat entered the Israeli army and received a shorter period of training in exchange for becoming a teacher in Israel’s periphery.
Livnat taught near the Lebanese border and was tasked with calculating the range of mortars before the Six-Day War. When the war began, Livnat was assigned to a new post near the Sea of Galilee to shell Syrian troops targeting Israeli settlements.
Not long after, Livnat’s unit was moved again, shifting northward to where fighting had increased amid heavy shelling.
As the soldiers began their journey, however, they were spotted by the Syrian army, which began a bombardment.
“We were extremely fearful as the bombs landed amidst the trucks; however, we miraculously survived by driving the vehicles over stone-filled roads and, baruch Hashem, no one was hurt,” he said. Since then, Livnat returns to Tzfat every time he visits Israel with his wife and recites a prayer as he looks down on the point where he engaged in battle years ago.
In 1977, Rabbi Boroosan was living life to the fullest as he sought to graduate and continue his education at one of Iran’s top institutions, Pahlavi University. However, after returning from a mission to Israel, he noticed a shift in Iran’s political climate as chants for Ayatollah Khomeini swept through the country.
One day, while sitting in an English course, Boroosan recalled a man entering his classroom asking everyone to leave. “We were shocked and confused and did not budge, as it is customary in Persian culture to remain seated until the teacher dismisses you,” Rabbi Boroosan said. “However, after the man returned with a brick in his hand for the third time, we all got up and left, never to return again.”
Although he wished to remain in Iran, Rabbi Boroosan realized his circumstances had changed. “I noticed my friends were all gone, which filled me with a deep sadness, until one day my mother entered my room and said, ‘You’re leaving.’ ”
Once Iran’s revolution occurred, a decree granted permission for anyone who received admission to a foreign university to leave the country. Other than entering the army or testing for a second language, Chabad was the only other outlet Jewish Iranians possessed to leave the country.
“We didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, and parents were fraught with the idea of sending their children abroad,” Rabbi Boroosan said.
After applying for his passport, he encountered setbacks under martial law as he traveled five times from Shiraz to Tehran, 18 hours each way by bus, between January and March to obtain his passport from the ministry of Education.
Despite confirming his acceptance from a yeshiva abroad and receiving his passport shortly before the Persian new year, Nowruz, Rabbi Boroosan encountered another problem: A new law demanded travelers report to government offices 72 hours before a flight. In a last attempt to leave the country, he traveled to the government building, received his ticket, departed for Rome and was issued a visa 10 days before arriving in the United States in time for Passover.
“I always thought I would continue my education in the U.S., reside for four years and return home. However, that didn’t happen,” Rabbi Boroosan. “On Tisha B’Av we mourn to remember the destruction of the Beit Hamidrash, but we must also remember to never forget our identity or forsake our relationship with our roots and that Hashem is with us every step of the way.”
While Formey (who performs as Prodezra Beats) did not discuss race or religion in terms of politics, he did emphasize the importance of sensitivity regarding both. After attempting to marry his fiancée in Israel, Formey found it difficult as he lacked a seal on his conversion papers.
Through setbacks, Formey and his fiancée continued to meet with one rabbi after another until they decided to hire an attorney to assist them. The day Formey and his wife entered the government building in Jerusalem, however, the lawyer glanced at Formey and said he couldn’t help the couple.
“We tried to ask him what the issue was, but we never received a response and to this day haven’t spoken to this gentleman again,” Formey said. “I’m sure you can come up with your own ideas of why he chose not to assist us, but going through various Hasidic teachings which emphasize the importance of sensitivity toward others, it appears we often tend to ignore that Jews of color continue to deal with such issues within the community.”
Rabbi Seeman said, “Our hope is that going forward there is increased collaboration … if by virtue of nothing else than of being small and embracing diversity without divisiveness. We each have different ways of completing tasks, but there is no reason why we can’t come together.”
All for One
Chabadniks, Iranian Jews and Modern Orthodox are working together in Toco Hills to build community and celebrate diversity while marking Jewish holidays.
Netzach Israel (Persian), Chevra Ahavas Yisrael (Chabad) and New Toco Shul (Modern Orthodox) have shared Shabbat Across America, Purim, Passover and Tisha B’Av. On Shavuot, members stayed up all night to learn Torah together and eat foods from different traditions.
Laura and David Bogart attend Congregation Beth Jacob, the biggest and oldest Orthodox shul in the neighborhood, which offers three active services to accommodate the needs of different members.
But David also davens at New Toco Shul.
“A lot of people are moving to Toco Hills from out of state,” Laura said. “This is an opportunity to meet new people, celebrate and make new friends.”
Her husband said each of the synagogues offers a different dynamic.
“If you go to a synagogue, you may not know everyone. Joint programming encourages everyone to get to know one another. I’ve run into people and ask if they’re new, only to find out that they’ve lived here for five years,” he said.
When New Toco started in 2015, rabbis and their friends started attending and leading classes, group study and Shabbat. Chabad Rabbi Yossi New started teaching on a weekly basis.
Now some people attend more than one synagogue, and everyone gains from a diversity of ideas.
— Logan C. Ritchie