The importance of second chances - opinion

Second chances. They’re out there, gently shouting at us, “Never give up, never give in; reclaim that which is rightfully yours.” We just have to reach out and embrace it.

 ALEX FOLKMAN (L) at the dedication of a the Sefer Torah at Yad Vashem. R: Rabbi Yitzchak Askof, the sofer. (photo credit: Sharon Folkman)
ALEX FOLKMAN (L) at the dedication of a the Sefer Torah at Yad Vashem. R: Rabbi Yitzchak Askof, the sofer.
(photo credit: Sharon Folkman)

This week’s Torah reading contains a unique minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. Second Passover (Pessah Sheni), held on the 15th of Iyar, offered a second chance for the Jews in the desert who were unable, through no fault of their own, to bring the Passover offering at its designated time. So, rather than miss this special national celebration, God ordained that they could “make up” the festival one month later.

Though we no longer (yet!) have the ability to bring Temple offerings, the point is made that life always presents us with opportunities to fulfill our dreams and accomplish the things that make our world complete. We just have to shake off the disappointments, gather our courage, believe in ourselves and rewrite our history. If anything describes Jewish life throughout the ages, this is it.

This past Shabbat, I stood next to Alex Folkman as he pronounced the blessing upon the reading of the Torah. In a clear and determined voice, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, he thanked God for having been chosen a Jew. Because I am a Levi, and so given the second Torah blessing, I had the privilege of preceding Alex, who was chosen for the honored shlishi, the third aliyah generally reserved for the most scholarly or dignified member of the congregation. And that certainly was Mr. Folkman – on this or any other day.

Alex’s story is among the most inspiring I have ever heard. His parents and siblings were murdered by the Nazis and their Slovakian accomplices, but Alex managed to escape into the forests. There he assembled his own partisan unit and fought the Germans until he joined Russia’s Red Army as an intelligence officer. After the war, he would go on to build a large and beautiful family and head a successful business, becoming a major philanthropist and community leader in New Jersey.

One of the great moments in his life was when, several years ago, he dedicated a Torah scroll for the synagogue at Yad Vashem in honor of his grandson’s bar mitzvah.

 Visitors seen at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on April 26, 2022, ahead of Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day.  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Visitors seen at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on April 26, 2022, ahead of Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

In the ghetto, he had seen his grandfather, the synagogue’s gabbai, dragged from the building while the prayer books were placed on a bonfire. The Nazis then removed the Torah, and threw it into the fire as the horrified Jews watched helplessly.

“The smell of that burning Torah still fills my nostrils,” says Alex, and so he had a new Torah written to replace the one he had lost. “Could I ever have imagined that someday I would reach this great moment?” he cried. “And to see my grandchildren in our own Israeli army, some even serving in an intelligence unit in the IDF, just as I did?! God gave me a second chance; He gave me back my life.”

A more personal story

WHICH LEADS me to another, more personal story.

Some months ago, we ran into a couple we know at a local restaurant. They had just come back to Israel from their own grandson’s bar mitzvah abroad, and told me they had regards for me. They couldn’t remember the name – that happens to all of us sometimes! – but they said, “He told us that you were responsible for him becoming an observant Jew.”

“He told us that you were responsible for him becoming an observant Jew.”

A couple we know

Well, this obviously intrigued me, and so I pressed the couple into calling their son in New York for the name. When they mentioned it, I was taken aback – and taken back almost 40 years.

I was leading the NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth) religious youth program in Dallas when our chapter president came running into my office. She told me that she had seen something amazing – a young boy in a local public school wearing a kippah. I told her she must have imagined it, but she was insistent. Now, you must understand; back in Dallas, in the early ’80s, no public school kids wore kippot. So we jumped into my car and headed for the school.

There, with my own eyes, I saw Michael for the first time. We waited until school let out, and excitedly introduced ourselves and asked him what his story was. He told us that his family was not observant, but that he had read in a book that Jews cover their heads as a reminder that God is watching over them from above (thus the word “yarmulke,” which means yarei malka – “fear of the king”). And so he asked his parents to buy him a kippah.

His father was reluctant, but Michael was insistent, and finally got his wish. But when the boy informed his father that he would be wearing his kippah not only at home, but also in school, his parents strongly objected, fearing he would be mocked, or worse, by his classmates. They even brought around the local Reform rabbi, who told Michael, “I’m a rabbi, and I don’t wear a kippah; so you certainly don’t need to!” But Mike would not be denied; he wore that kippah day in and day out, and that is how we discovered him.

We were able to convince Mike’s parents to let their son join our youth program, and later he would leave public school for the local Hebrew day school. I kept in touch with him for some time, but when we made aliyah, I lost contact with the young man... until this “random” greeting from afar.

So I asked the couple that brought me regards from Moshe – that was Mike’s name now – how they happened to meet him. They stared at me with a strange look on their face. “We didn’t tell you?! Our son had a Torah scroll written at his synagogue in honor of our grandson’s bar mitzvah, and Moshe was the scribe!”

I was speechless, stunned. What a spectacular turn his life had taken at that moment when he decided, against all odds and opposition, to simply cover his head. Now he was not only embracing the Torah, but enabling thousands of others to experience it, too.

Second chances. They’re out there, gently shouting at us, “Never give up, never give in; reclaim that which is rightfully yours.” We just have to reach out and embrace it. ■

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]