Rimon is Born…
About 10 years ago, Joe and I were heading out to Israel to visit our son, Abe, who was spending two years after graduating Yale in a Yeshiva in Israel. I remember the car service waiting to take us to the airport and in my fashionable last minute planning I realized I had not taken reading material for the long trip. I ran back into our house, went upstairs to our library, and grabbed the first book I saw, Elie Wiesel’s ‘Sages and Dreamers,’ and stuffed it in my green carry-on bag.
While sitting on the plane I thumbed through the book and landed on the chapter about Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradyon, one of the ten martyrs that we read about in the Yom Kippur liturgy. Rabbi Chananiah was sentenced to die at the stake by the Romans for publicly teaching Torah. The Roman soldiers wrapped him in his Torah scroll and lit a fire to him and the parchment. The Midrash states that his students and daughter were with him. At the last minute, one of his students asked him:
“Rebbe what do your eyes see now?”
He answered “Gevilin nisrafin–v’haotiyot porkhot baavir,” the scrolls are burning but the letters are returning to heaven. The letters are indestructible; untouched, unharmed, they are flying up to heaven.
I closed the book and really didn’t think about the story. We were heading for a vacation: the Alps, Paris and Israel were waiting.
Sometimes concepts take a while to gel. Perhaps it was one of those holocaust documentaries or perhaps it was my thought processes, but I began to superimpose the picture of the Rabbi burning and the letters flying up to heaven with those pictures that we have all seen of the crematoriums built by the Nazis and the smoke billowing for miles around. One thought led to another and I started thinking about our generation’s response to the Holocaust a half a century later. Was it only to remember the six million or did we have another mission?
Armed with the statistics from the National Jewish Population Survey commissioned by all the major Jewish organizations that described the attrition in our ranks from intermarriage, assimilation,and low birth rate; armed with a 99 page document from the American Jewish Committee calling for Jewish education to become the most important Jewish priority, and armed with my own personal experiences, I realized that perhaps our mission now was to guarantee the continuity of the 6 million – to bring down those letters that flew up to heaven, and to engage in a campaign to reach out to the over 100,000 Jewish souls that now live within a half hour of Rimon.
Although we have many synagogues in our country, it is estimated that only 46% of our population attend. The other 54% of the population are left to drift unanchored by any Jewish connection. Even the 46% of the population that belong to a synagogue are not always tethered to their heritage. We must find ways to attract people to Judaism, to teach them, and to reconnect them to Israel and their Jewish roots.
With these thoughts in mind Rimon was founded.
In June of 1999, I contacted Rabbi Ben Zion Scheinfeld from Yeshiva University. Two weeks later, he came to our home and 50 people participated in our first Shabbaton – later to become the hallmark of Rimon programming. We ate, we socialized and we sang. On any given Shabbat, we had close to 100 people coming in and out of our home.
Our home became a speaker’s bureau. Every Sunday night, a different rabbi came to speak. We covered such topics as Maimonides and his Thirteeen Principles of Faith, the kabbalistic meaning of Chanukah, and “Does Prayer by Rote Count?”
When the senior center in East Windsor came up for auction, my husband Joe and I knew we had to have it. We had tested the market and needed space to expand. The size and location were perfect. It was in the center of East Windsor, NJ surrounded by 100,000 mostly non observant Jews, near a brook and opposite a beautiful historic farm. The farm would grow produce on one end and we would grow Judaism on the other end. The only thing that separated us was a stream of running water which would symbolically nourish us both.
In October of 2003, I bid on the senior center property and won the bid. That evening, I came home to memorial candles flickering in my kitchen. It was the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of my father-in-law, Mordecai Tchemna Mezrich. He came from the town of Mezrich, Poland. He and his sister were the only survivors of his nine brothers and sisters. At or around Succot, the Nazis came to the town of Mezrich. His family, along with everyone in the town, was herded either to be shot in the forests, or taken and killed in Bergen Belsen and Treblinka. Mezrich continued to become a way station to Treblinka.
At the time of the War, Mordecai Tchemna was studying at the Mir Yeshiva, one of the most prominent Rabbinical Schools in Europe, sort of like the Oxford of Rabbinical Schools. At some point before this terrible event, he had made his way to Israel to study under Rav Kook, then the chief Rabbi in Israel. Under Rav Kook, in Israel, he got smicha and was ordained as a Rabbi, and was then brought to the states by Yeshiva University. There he taught for a short while, but was unable to earn a living for his family. Although he became a shochet (ritual meat-slaughterer), he was always frustrated by not being able to fulfill his life goal of being a scholar and educator.
When I came home that night and saw the candles flickering in his memory, I knew that we had to name the center in his honor. It would be called the Mordecai T. Mezrich Center for Jewish Learning. The center would truly be a testimony that both he and the 6 million Jews were, as Rabbi Chananiah ben Tardyon stated, indestructible, untouched and unharmed. The letters that flew to Heaven were coming back to earth and were indeed stronger than fire…