It’s Sunday morning and I’m invited to a breakfast where dear friends are the honorees of the FHBA. In my rush to get out (especially with the time change), I didn’t read the fine print to learn more about “HFBA”. Once there, I’m touched beyond words.
HFBA stands for Hebrew Free Burial Association. It’s an organization of saints, that’s the only way to describe its team, which devotes its resources to performing chesed shel emet (truthful act of lovingkindness), being the only agency in the greater New York metropolitan area dedicated to assuring that every Jew, regardless of financial means or religious affiliation, receives a dignified, traditional Jewish funeral and burial.
Since its inception in the 1880’s, the Hebrew Free Burial Association has buried over 65,000 indigent Jews. They have ranged in age from newborn to the elderly, and they may meet their ends in a hospital, nursing home, lonely apartment or even on the street. In the intersection of life’s harshness and deep compassion, the specific stories leave you with tears in your eyes.
Last week was the yahrzeit of Sara Shneirer. As someone who grew up outside the Ultra-Orthodox world, her name was largely unknown to me, but once I learned about her life and work, I couldn’t figure out how come “no one knows”.
The short is – she was the founder and director of the Bais Yaakov movement, an elementary, secondary and college – Orthodox education system for girls, which, by now, spread throughout the world and touches tens of thousands. Born in Poland in 1883 into influential rabbinic family, she had a strong desire to learn, and was envious of her brothers’ opportunity to learn and interpret Torah. The story should have ended right here, or when she asked her brother who told her this would not catch on, or when her friends made fun of her, but it didn’t.
As she describes in her writings, all she wanted was to teach and engage the girls. In 1918 she opened the first classes. Within 5 years, Schenirer’s lessons grew into 7 schools with 1,040 students. By 1933, there were 265 schools in Poland alone, with almost 38,000 students, and the endorsement of highly esteemed rabbis.
You’d think she was beautiful, had great fiends and an amazing support system, and you’ll learn that she was not; her friends teased her; her first marriage ended in a divorce; she was childless; her second ended with her early death from cancer at age 51. How did she have the strength to push through? To me, it’s impossible not to marvel, admire and be inspired by the monumental task – and achievement – Sara Shneirer took on. May her memory be for a blessing.
This is an extra special Shabbat when (3) Torah scrolls will be taken out of the ark and read from (for those who have three! :): One to read the regular Torah portion, Vayikra, the first one in the Book of Leviticus; the second, to read the section for Rosh Hodesh (Numbers 28:9-15) in honor of the beginning of the month of Nisan – one of our New Year’s and the day the mishkan (tabernacle) was erected, which calls for special celebrations; and the third, for Shabbat Hachodesh, describing the first mitzvah the Jewish people, creating a calendar (Exodus 12:1-20).
The first Torah portion in the Torah’s 3rd book, Leviticus, is Vayikra, “and He called”. G-d calls Moses before speaking to him; G-d calls Moses in order to speak to him. Their speech is not coincidental and that direct attention through the “call” implies a close, personal, loving relationship: G-d means for Moses to pick up the phone. There was a call for the talking (vayedaber) and then time for silence between the words, both needed for communication to work. Earlier (Exodus 33:11) it says that G-d and Moses spoke פנים אל פנים, כאשר ידבר איש אל רעהו – “face to face, as one speaks to his companion”. That clear voice, that “call”, giving us our “assignment”, is what we long for in our life too.