Thursday, March 12, 2009

Continental 3407, Susan Wehle and Jonah Dreskin z'l

I was sitting at my desk at Broder when I got the call. Susan Wehle was on Continental flight 3407 which crashed the night before in Clarence Center. Rick Ellis, the executive director of Temple Beth Am called and asked if I would lead services at Temple Beth Am that evening because their rabbi, Irwin Tannenbaum, was out of state and unable to return until Saturday evening. I sat at my desk stunned and unable to comprehend the reality and depth of what Rick had told me. I began calling friends and colleagues in Buffalo asking their help and getting their ideas for the service.

That afternoon I went to Temple Beth a.m. to meet with Cantor Barbara Ostfeld Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein and members of Temple Beth Am to plan the service. We knew from the beginning that while we needed to remember Susan we needed to also remember that it was not her funeral nor was it a memorial service. We needed to remember it was Shabbat.

Thanks to the help of my colleagues and the support of my friends and family service that evening was profound. Following the service people did not want to be alone. They stayed in small groups or gathered together and went out as friends. Some of our friends gathered back at our home to talk about our feelings and to remember Susan. One of our friends brought a reporter from the New York Times who wanted to talk to us about what a close community Buffalo is and how we felt losing a colleague and friend, as well as the multiple connections we had with others on the flight. That evening proved to be cathartic for me.

The next morning I was on my way to TBZ when I got a call from another friend who said that the FBI was looking for a Jewish chaplain to come out to the crash site itself. I rearranged my schedule and shortly after noon arrived at the crash site. What I witnessed the Saturday and Sunday that I spent the crash site was inspiring, awesome, and humbling. Members of federal, state and local agencies and organizations, police and fire departments, aviation safety agencies and volunteers worked together in a manner that was cooperative and respectful. Everyone involved understood the magnitude of what they were doing and the need to preserve the dignity of the 50 who had died. Those who were working to recover the remains of the deceased did so in a manner which made me proud and which challenged me to remember to act in ways that would also bring honor to my community as well as the deceased.

Not once during the time I was at the site did I see people's egos or agendas get in the way. Everyone understood the task that was being asked of them. We were standing at the site, not only of destruction but, what was in reality the equivalent of a graveyard. Judaism teaches that the body of the dead once contained a holy soul, a spark of the divine. As such, even after death, when the soul has departed, we treat the body with the utmost respect and dignity. I can attest that everyone at the crash site not only met that obligation but exceeded it.

Over the next two weeks, the crash and the death of Cantor Wehle remained the topic of conversation in the community. Each of us in our own way spent time supporting and debriefing each other. Near the end of the second week the conversations began to lessen in frequency. That is when I began to feel the personal impact of what I had seen and participated in at the crash site. Thanks to the support of friends and my family especially Michele, Joel, Barbara and Steve, I was beginning to put in perspective the impact that crash and Susan’s death was having on me.

A week later however, it all came rushing back as we received word that Jonah Dreskin had died at the University at Buffalo. Jonah z'l was the son of Rabbi Billy and Cantor Ellen Dreskin. While I know and understand that the pain Jonah’s family was and is experiencing can only be overwhelming, the horror of his death at so young an age brought to the surface all the feelings I thought I had dealt with but still remained after the crash.

I do believe in the immortality of the soul and the peace of the afterlife. I believe that Jonah’s soul, Susan’s spirit, as well as the souls and spirits of all those who died on Continental flight 3407 are at peace. It is we who are left in this world who are not at peace. Perhaps all we can do is take a measure of comfort in knowing that they are at peace and focus on the warm glow of the memories they left behind and which we treasure.

May all their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life may they and we always be at peace.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Support our Jewish Troops at Passover!

I received the following email. I hope you all join me in this important effort.

Each year at Purim the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council asks your assistance as we reach out to help Jews serving in the military celebrate Passover. Supporting Jews in the military has been our mission since WW I, and this year it is as important as ever. Right now there are approximately 10,000 Jewish men and women on active duty. Some are not products of congregational life and some are the products of the Orthodox community but the vast majority are from liberal Jewish congregations. They are our congregational children and grand children. Many of them, especially those serving overseas, don't have access to Passover food products unless JWB sends it to them. Even those who receive Passover food from the military receive only 3 very basic "pouch" meals per day without the holiday foods we take for granted, things like gefilte fish, horseradish, macaroons, Passover candy and even egg matzo are just not part of the Defense Department inventory.

Please go to to contribute to this effort to support our Jewish troops at Passover.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Shanda on us all!

I hate the word "tolerance" when it is used to speak about dealing with other groups unlike ourselves. We tolerate things we don't like. I barely tolerate going to the gym but I go because the alternative is worse. We tolerate a job we do not like because we need to support ourselves and our loved ones.

The Los Angeles based Simon Wiesenthal Center is going to build a Museum of Tolerance on a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem. This demeans even the best possible meaning of tolerance. Are they asking the Muslim community of Jerusalem to "tolerate" the desecration of their cemetery so the Wiesenthal Center and its director can bulid a monument to themselves in the name of building good relations with others?

When a non-Jewish group in Europe tries to build on the site of a long abandoned Jewish cemetery, the Wiesenthal Center is among the first to protest the desecration and the building project. Now they plan to do the same. To me this act of desecration of sacred ground is the utmost act of hypocrisy. It is a shanda of the highest order for the whole Jewish community. Instead of restoring the Beth Jacob cemetery on Doat Street last summer, imagine our community's response if a NY court declared it abandoned and a group tried to build a Mosque on it! Our friend Norman Weinberg has dedicated innumerable hours to the restoration of Jewish cemeteries in Poland with great success and has brought much honor to our community and to Poland. The Wiesenthal Center, by its decision and action brings more shame and harm to our people than Bernie Madoff. They are desecrating not only this cemetery but everything their namesake and one of my personal heroes Simon Wiesenthal stood for.

Please take a moment to write to the Wiesenthal Center by going to their website: and clicking on the contact us link at the very bottom of the page.

Click here to read an article on the Museum from the Los Angeles Times.

Here is Rabbi Eric Yoffie's op-ed piece on the Museum.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution asking the Wiesenthal Center to move the location of the Museum.