How it really was: Eliyahu the prophet, in snow and sun

The story of Rabbi Jacob Sonderling and a special Shabbat during World War I.

A portrait of Rabbi Dr. Jacob Sonderling (1868-1964), who was called ‘my fighting rabbi’ by Theodor Herzl; he fought for Zionism and served as a chaplain to fight for Jewish lives (photo credit: KALMAN ARON)
A portrait of Rabbi Dr. Jacob Sonderling (1868-1964), who was called ‘my fighting rabbi’ by Theodor Herzl; he fought for Zionism and served as a chaplain to fight for Jewish lives
(photo credit: KALMAN ARON)
Is it true? Did this really happen?
This story was told to me almost 70 years ago. It seems like a Hasidic tale, like those published by Martin Buber a century ago. On the other hand, it sounded like truth to me, related as it was in the first person by an imposing yet soft-spoken personage.
In 1950 I was living in Los Angeles, where the branch of the then liberal-Orthodox B’nai Akiva met in the building of the Young Israel synagogue in the Beverly Hills-Fairfax area.
It was there that I met Rabbi Dr. Jacob Sonderling, a handsome man in his 70s, a storied Reform Rabbi from Germany who had left his homeland a few years after the end of World War I. His Van Dyke beard was white, and he carried himself with dignity. In 1934 he founded Fairfax Temple, which he idealistically called the Society for Jewish Culture. He wanted our religion to function on all levels of sight and sound, affecting all our senses, a fusion of art and belief.
He spoke with a German accent. His mother’s side was related to Hungarian Hasidim of the Teitelbaum family, which in turn spawned the anti-modern, anti-Zionist Satmar extremists. But he, from early youth, was a fighting Zionist of conviction.
In World War I, German Jewry strove to show its loyalty to Kaiser and Fatherland. Some 100,000 German Jews served in the army, 70,000 of them on the front lines, and 12,000 were killed in action. Thousands were awarded medals, and 3,000 Jews were promoted to officer status, but only as reserve officers due to their Jewishness.
With such great numbers of Jews serving in the army, the German War Ministry was persuaded to appoint Jewish chaplains, 
Feldrabbiner – field rabbis. Rabbi Sonderling was attached to Field Marshal von Hindenburg’s army on the Eastern Front. As a military chaplain, he wore a Star of David on a golden chain, but unlike Allied forces’ chaplains, he also wore an officer’s Luger side-arm in a holster on his belt.
World War I on the Eastern Front saw the German forces repelling two Russian armies, and moving across Poland (then controlled by Russia) and into the eastern stretches of the Russian Empire.
One night, Feldrabbiner Sonderling was traveling along a road with snow and darkness enveloping him on all sides. It was a military vehicle driven by a German army driver, moving alone in the darkness to visit soldiers closer to the front. The vehicle broke down, and it would take some time to repair. To sit or stand in the icy weather was not an option. Rabbi Sonderling peered across the road, and in the distance he saw a light dimly flickering across the snow-covered expanse. He began trudging across the fields making his way to the flickering light that became stronger and clearer at his approach.
It was a simple house, and as he approached the wooden front door, he knocked and entered. A lone woman sat at a simple table, surrounded by her children. Candlesticks bore the Shabbat light across the small room. The family froze in place as the tall German officer in his grey-blue greatcoat with his pistol side-arm entered. The males of the family had no doubt been taken to the Russian army, or killed by the Jew-hating Russian Cossacks.
The Feldrabbiner saw their fear.
“Gut Shabbes,” he said, and lifted the small Kiddush cup filled with scanty raisin wine. The family, still and stupefied, rose as he began reciting the Kiddush, the blessings over the wine that initiate the Shabbat meal. “Blessed art Thou Who sanctifies the Sabbath,” he concluded.
Sonderling tasted the thin wine, and passed it to the materfamilias. Of course, he would not even taste their food and deprive them of the little on the patched white table cloth.
“Gut Shabbes,” he repeated, and left.
As he closed the door, he heard the mother say, “Dos is zikher geven Eliyahu Hanovi” – That was certainly the prophet Eliyahu.
Rabbi Sonderling concluded his recitation. That was his story. I had tears in my eyes.
Why tell this story now? Why turn back almost 70 years?
The truth is that the present is too much for me. I am overwhelmed, my senses taut and my political nerves shrieking, “Overload. Overload.”
Here is a simple slightly expanded list of almost all we have faced in the weeks beginning with Passover: the joy and the sorrow, the exaltation and the fear for loved ones.
Holocaust Remembrance Day with its sad music all day, testimonies of survivors. It is an almost enforced solemnity, and the true moment of heartbreak comes as names of those murdered are read out in the Knesset, and the siren calls us to stand and think of whom we lost. And the potential good the world lost. The randomness of killing and survival. My grandmother shot on the roadside because she could not keep up in the march from her shtetl to the ghetto being formed in a nearby town. Aunts and uncles and cousins. A third of my people.
Then days of rockets fire from Gaza, 700 projectiles, fear for loved ones in Sderot and for thousands of our people, including Arab Israelis. Four people killed, including one Bedouin factory worker. Thousands of Gazans hearing our planes hitting back and the targeted assassination of a prominent Iranian agent. The entire plan masterminded by Iran and led for the first time by Islamic Jihad, the Persian proxy, timed as blackmail to threaten Independence Day celebrations and the Eurovision song contest.
A week after Holocaust Remembrance Day came Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and victims of terror. Another 24 hours of pain and sadness, families visiting military cemeteries, again sirens, traffic stopped and drivers standing at attention at the sides of their cars, classmates visiting bereaved parents.
The pitiless transition from the pain of loss to the orchestrated joy of Independence Day. Twelve beacons lit on Mount Herzl for the 12 tribes of Israel, dancing in the streets of many cities, music stands, fireworks and relief.
Eurovision, the music of member states of the European Broadcast Union, with two semi-final performances and one final. No doubt stern warnings to the Iranian proxies not to dare use even a blowgun during this period. This I assume, though not reported.
And under all of this, cabinet negotiations, each day bringing reports more disgusting than the day before.
For background, the Likud and its allies hold a few seats over the minimum 61 MKs required to support the coalition Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to form. To satisfy the demand of the partners for specific ministries, not only is the Likud prepared to give up major ministries to the small (as little as four members) groupings, it needs to provide more ministries.
Despite splitting up existing ministries to meet the demands of the Likud leaders themselves and the demands of the other parties, more ministries are needed. Hastily a law to permit expanding the cabinet has been sped up for Knesset approval.
Conclusion: My educated guess is that there will be some 30 or more ministers and deputy ministers appointed. Just about half the 60 plus members of the coalition will be paid ministers, with their own offices, staffs, assistants, spokesmen, drivers, and what not.
All this is to ensure that a special new parliamentary immunity bill will be passed to protect Netanyahu, Rabbis Deri and Litzman, and a few Knesset members from being hauled to court. And if the new immunity bill is withdrawn, the existing one will be so applied as to prevent ministers and Knesset members from being prosecuted in our courts. Conclusion: Knesset members may safely break the law.
The coalition, if successfully formed, plans to limit the power of the Supreme Court. Let me not go as far as Weimar Germany in the 1930s to describe this move. Just look at Poland today. Limiting the Court’s power means the majority can do anything, and trample basic rights.
Though the Likud seems to support the move, it is especially pushed by the Union of Right-wing Parties, the religious hard-line Orthodox party of splinter groups. It is demanding at least the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Education.
To add insult to injury, Netanyahu declines to show his financial statements to the committee that decides whether he is entitled to receive gifts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance his defense in the corruption suits for which he is to be indicted, pending a preliminary hearing. I have it on good authority that he is worth well over $10 million.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority again rejects a financial infusion that could revolutionize the incomes and prospects of the Palestinians. The US bulks up its naval and bomber units near Iran, and the Iranians threaten proxy war. Syria is still boiling; war is famishing Yemen; and Saudi Arabia and perhaps some of the Gulf States have been targeted by Iranian proxies.
I sit and write in the house I love, in the city I cherish, and in my beloved country. Soon the three generations we have brought up in Israel will join us for a family Shabbat. We will celebrate with our family in our reborn Hebrew, rejoice in our relationship and in our tradition. I, the paterfamilias, shall make Kiddush. I wish Eliyahu the prophet would do so in my place.
Given all I just enumerated, would he just take a look and say, “Not yet, beloved people. Not yet.” ■
Avraham Avi-hai describes himself as an eternal optimist. He believes his grandchildren will remedy some of Israel’s shortcomings, and enhance many aspects of the country – economic, academic, humanistic and religious – in the future