From Chicago and Baltimore to Har Nof, Jerusalem

“Nothing happens unless we first dream.” – Carl Sandburg, American poet

Roxanne, 66, and Ross Abrams, 72 (photo credit: ABRAMS FAMILY)
Roxanne, 66, and Ross Abrams, 72
(photo credit: ABRAMS FAMILY)
Why was that night very different from all other nights? Because...
We’ll get to that. But first, the backstory.
As a young girl growing up in Philadelphia, Roxanne had a clear sense that Israel was home. As a teenager, she was hoping that 1967 would be the year of her first trip, but the Six Day War, with its miraculous victories and Jerusalem reunification, intervened. But what parents would permit their child to visit a dangerous war-torn place? In 1970, Roxanne was a high school graduate, still dreaming of traveling to Israel. Her Jewish observance and command of Hebrew had progressed over the years, and Israel was still a focus. But, again, her parents said no. Did we mention that her parents had never journeyed out of the United States?
Her future husband, Ross, had no particular Israel inclinations. Ross grew up in Charleston, West Virginia. At its peak, Charleston was home to a couple of thousand self-identified Jewish families – many unaffiliated with Charleston’s two synagogues. His background was similar to many American boys of that era – he was the star student of the afternoon Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, and not much after that.
Ross was attending the University of Philadelphia Medical School when he met Roxanne, who was about to start Bryn Mawr College. They gradually became inseparable, and they were married in 1972. Ultimately, Ross became a doctor specializing in radiation oncology and Roxanne received her master’s degree in pastoral counseling.
Many dreams attained – still more to come.
The Abrams’s first-ever trip to Israel was in 1984. With their children (ages nine and three at that time), they were booked on a family program featuring no fancy hotels. They stayed in a yeshiva dormitory in Kfar Haroeh, which is located between Netanya and Hadera. It is now a thriving religious moshav with over 1,500 residents. At that time, it had about 1,000 residents, an open-air shul and two features that impressed them the most: a huge silo prominently topped by a menorah; and, the makolet (small market) where everything was kosher! For Ross, this was quite a change from Charleston, West Virginia. For Roxanne, this place of dusty roads was the “real Israel” that she longed for.
For professional reasons, the Abrams moved from Durham, NC to Silver Spring, Maryland; Milwaukee; Boston; Baltimore; and Chicago. By 2006 they were thinking about moving to Israel. In 2007, they bought an apartment in Jerusalem. Roxanne would visit several times a year to focus on her Jewish learning, primarily at the Shearim seminary in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood. Ross would come occasionally, as he was quite busy as chairman of the radiation oncology department at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Israel was gradually becoming the center of Roxanne’s life. In 2018, Ross retired. At the end of that year, they together moved to Jerusalem.
Now to the most recent dream. Rewind to this past Passover. Corona. Lockdown. Families separated from their loved ones. Grandparents forbidden from attending Seder with their grandchildren. Three Abrams children and 10 grandchildren are living in the US. But their daughter, son-in-law and five granddaughters reside in Jerusalem. As observant Jews, a Zoom Seder was out of the question.
On Sunday, March 29, at 1:36 p.m., Roxanne posted the following message on the Har Nof listserv:
I had a vision last night that I’d like to share with you, and then ask everyone to be part of sharing it. As I was changing after Shabbat, I heard the lovely voice of a child somewhere nearby practicing “Ma Nishtana.” It was delicious, and I thank this anonymous neighbor for the lovely moment. Then I heard, in my mind, something a bit different. I heard all of the children of Har Nof singing “Ma Nishtana” on Leil Seder – all of them together, from their balconies. I imagined a beautiful spring evening, on which all of the grandparents and great grandparents in the neighborhood could leave their emptier-than-usual tables and hear, in safety and good health, the sound that they are longing for. We can pick a time... and have a shared experience that reminds us that yes, this night is different from what we hoped and expected, but we are celebrating ge’ula [redemption] in the past, present and future...
8:30 p.m. was chosen. What followed from the listserv posting was an explosion of transmission in all areas of social media. Endorsements followed from key religious leaders, including Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein.
The event was promoted in many places, including Radio Kol Chai, and Israel Radio News. The Jerusalem Municipality made Hebrew and English videos that were placed on Facebook The result: Tens of thousands of children all across Israel appeared at 8:30 p.m. on Seder night – on their balconies, at their windows and in their gardens – to chant the “Ma Nishtana.” This magical serenade uplifted the spirits of thousands of grandparents, forlorn that a miniscule, aggressive virus had prevented them from hearing that chant from their own grandchildren. As one appreciative grandparent wrote to Roxanne: “The chorus of young voices last night was so magical, so invigorating, so nurturing, so absolutely beautiful.”
Ross was employed at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem until the recent disruptions. Roxanne is a tutor at the Shearim seminary in Jerusalem. They raised three daughters and one son and currently are privileged to have 15 grandchildren, kein yirbu. Roxanne commented, “I had an idea and promoted it. There may have also been some others who also thought of it. The more people who thought of it, the better it is.”
Why was that Passover night very different from all other nights? One listserv posting did it. Just ask the “Ma Nishtana” balcony/window/garden kids and their grandparents. For as Carl Sandburg wrote, nothing happens unless we first dream. Thanks, Roxanne.