“Solu, Solu – build up, build up a highway!
Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of my people.”
The haftarah for Yom Kippur begins with these action-filled words of Isaiah. We must act; we must cut the road through; it is up to us clear the way for my people, God’s people.
Forty-eight years ago, this charge of the prophet was utilized to challenge Jews the world over. During Yom Kippur day, we were asked to leave the synagogue and to march in an orderly fashion, outside, holding signs alerting the world to Jewish suffering and then return to the synagogue. The purpose of that march was to remind all humankind Russian Jews were still enslaved, spied upon, not free to travel or practice their faith.
So more than a thousand congregations, just in North America, left the confines of the synagogue on the holiest of days and marched to notify the world – “Soviet Jewry is not free.” In this horrendous situation, we wanted Isaiah’s words to come true: Then shall your light burst through like the dawn And your healing spring up quickly; Your Vindicator shall march before you, The Presence of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
As we emerged from the Beth Shalom synagogue in Wilmington, Delaware, on Yom Kippur day 1972, the TV cameras were rolling, newspaper photographers snapped our pictures and reporters took notes. Marching together with almost 750 people, these words flowed from me: “Fellow inhabitants of the planet Earth” I began, “are not free, are enchained, are under constant surveillance in their own country. We want the leaders of the Soviet Union to admit to these injustices and grant these two and a half million Jews the rights to live anywhere in the world. Israel leads all the other nations in opening its gates to admit them as citizens. Let the world realize – we may have been slaughtered in the Holocaust and in Russia too but always remember Am Yisrael Chai – the Jewish people is ever alive with vitality and strength.” The local newspapers and the TV station carried our march on the evening news with Yom Kippur coming to a close. As synagogues marched in a multitude of communities in many nations, the message about Soviet Jewry made its impact. Never before had Jews interrupted Yom Kippur’s most sacred services, exited the synagogue and paraded with heads held high and with spiritual resolve, boldly, to request our sisters and brothers be freed.
Many demonstrations were held in the battle to open the gates of the former Soviet Union, but this one on Yom Kippur 1972 garnered many more participants because the people in shul had their chance to express their deep feelings about this cause. Most were never at the major rallies; most never wrote letters of support; most never visited refuseniks secretly, as my late wife Rita and I and many others did; many never thought about the issue; only a small percentage had contributed funds. On that Yom Kippur day they were given their chance to say loudly “Let My People Go,” which, as Abraham Jacob Heschel pointedly noted, they expressed their protest with their feet.
More time was needed to destroy the resolve of the former Soviet Union Jew-hating regime, but we are all witnesses, that in our lifetime, liberation occurred with more than one million Russian Jews making aliyah.
On the following Yom Kippur 1973, we all wept “crying with full throat, without restraint,” as Isaiah stressed and then in anguish “raise your voices like a shofar – a ram’s horn.”
Walking from my home to the synagogue on the fast day, October 6 1973, initially I passed through an enormous parking area, where policemen on horseback insured my safety, weekly, on Shabbat eve.
Next I continued on Baynard Boulevard, the street of the millionaires 40 years earlier. While looking at the splendid massive oak trees, I was surprised when a car pulled up at the curb. Barbara and Richard Longwill, good friends and congregants, left their car and Richard said, “Rabbi, are you aware that the Egyptians and the Syrians have mounted a surprise attack against the Israeli army? Thousands of Israeli reservists have been mobilized on Yom Kippur itself.” I was dumbfounded since I had heard nothing, but now I understood the hints friends had thrown out at us when we, only recently, spent the month of July in Israel. Some said almost authoritatively that war was at hand.
Barbara told me the real reason they had sought me out during my “getting to the shul” walk. “Richard’s cousin is a tank commander, and he is stationed right on the Suez Canal where terrible battles are raging.
Here is his Hebrew name on a piece of paper. Please pray for him.” Then off they went, and I continued, swiftly covering the few blocks left to Beth Shalom synagogue on the boulevard itself.
Awaiting me was Bernie Siegel, chair of the High Holy Day services for many years. He was responsible for the aliyot to the Torah, the seating, fainting congregants, clearing the aisles when the Sifrei Torah were carried in the sanctuary and other problem that might arise. “Rabbi, I never thought that when Golda Meir was prime minister and Moshe Dayan defense minister that an unexpected attack would be mounted. Today, rabbi, we have to make our congregants understand what a tragedy this is. Somehow, world Jewry and the USA have to give Israel support in its hour of greatest need. That’s your job, rabbi.” I knew Bernie meant what he said because he and his wife, Ruth, personally, were the leading supporters of Israel in the state of Delaware. I hoped that I could be the cathartic force, but I was not afraid to admit that we had another “great advocate for Israel” among us. I knew that such was the case because our rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Jacob Kraft, had a brother-in-law and sister-in-law living in Israel for 25 years with children and maybe some grandchildren. The war would be very personal for him.
Plus Rabbi and Leah Kraft had been, throughout their lifetimes, important voices for the establishment of a Jewish state. They were in Israel as often as they could be.
As it was, when he arrived and came up to sit with me on the bimah as was our custom, he whispered, “David, please let me say something in this time of crisis.”
I agreed quickly and told him it would be after the haftarah had been chanted. Kraft was a spiritual leader with great knowledge and deep faith. I knew he was the right one to express, in the words of Isaiah, “I will guide them and mete out solace to them, and to the mourners among them, heartening, comforting words: it shall be well – well with the far and the near and I will heal them.” Before the Torah, I made the official announcement that Israel had been attacked and was fighting for its very existence. I emphasized, since I did not want anyone to leave, that Rabbi Kraft would address the congregation immediately after the haftarah from Isaiah had been chanted.
Testimony to Kraft’s stirring words that morning in the 1970s can be found here in Jerusalem where Delaware natives, Ruth and Sheldon Weinstein now live as Israeli citizens. They were in that Yom Kippur congregation, and they were very moved by Rabbi Kraft. Together, we tried to piece together his most moving presentation four decades ago.
“Two and a half years ago, Leah and I spent six months in Israel on a sabbatical. Having first been there as an American military chaplain on leave in 1946, I was amazed at what the Israelis had fashioned in their homeland in just over three decades. When I was there in my uniform, Palestine Jewry numbered just under 600,000; now the Jewish population has risen to four million.
“Why? Because Israel was prepared to admit the Jews exiled from the Arab countries. They came with only some packs on their backs in the early 1950s. Today they and their children are doctors, actors, dentists, scientists, financeers, farmers, pilots, lawyers and anything else you can name.” Sheldon Weinstein said that he was not sure where Rabbi Kraft was going with his words that morning. But then the atmosphere changed.
“My good friends, I was on the firing lines in Europe in World War II with American soldiers, and I saw what regular warfare meant and what surprise attacks could achieve. Amazingly in Europe no fighting on Yom Kippur day – not sure why – but the Japanese had no respect for a Jewish holiday.
“But look and see what has happened – the champions of their Holy Koran have decided to hit below the belt and surprise us on this most holy fast day. They knew that even the troops at the Suez Canal and in the Golan would not be expecting such a dastardly act. I know that the Israeli forces are responding but the first who strikes in war, initially, has the advantage. So here we sit moaning and groaning for our sisters and brothers, but sounds are not sufficient.” At that point Ruth Weinstein knew that the rabbi had to ask for a commitment, but in the lingo “no pledge cards were available.” So she assumed that the rabbi, as smart as he was as much of a lover of Israel as he was, had something in mind.
The rabbi, in his white robe, peered out at those assembled stretching almost a half-block back since all the intervening doors had been opened.
“We will not pledge money today – that will be at the federation rally in a few days. But we will make a pledge together so please rise and follow me.”
Rabbi Kraft paused, took a deep breath and started.
“For 2000 years we were wanderers but we survived – in the Inquisition, the church wanted to burn us – we survived – in Europe in the thirties and forties Hitler and his Nazis wanted to annihilate us but we survived – now these despicable Arab leaders want to murder us and destroy Israel on Yom Kippur, our sacred holy day, but our message rings loud and clear – we will survive. And in Isaiah’s words, “You shall be like a watered garden like a spring whose waters do not fail... rebuilding the ruins and restoring the foundations which too frequently had to be restored.” Then with all his energy he concluded: “Make sure you water – give as much money as you can – so Israel, after this attack, will not run dry but will rise once more.”
The rabbi’s words were prophetic. Three days later at the federation rally, Delaware Jewry pledged a million dollars for the first time.
Even more dramatic when president Richard Nixon authorized the sending of supplies to Israel to save our nation from defeat – they were flown out of the Dover Delaware Air Force Base. Then the tide turned.
The writer succeeded Rabbi Kraft as rabbi of Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Delaware in 1970, and made aliyah in 1977