No comments yet

Dvar by Joseph Oppenheimer

Dvar by Joseph Oppenheimer, July 8, 2017, at the Beth Israel Minyan marking the 77th anniversary of his bar mitzvah

Shabbat shalom!

I feel blessed to be here today to celebrate with this minyan and my family and friends the 77th anniversary of my bar mitzvah.
The world is a far different place today than it was in July 1940 –when I had my bar mitzvah, and I’m a far different person.
Then as someone who had emigrated from Hitler’s Germany only five years earlier, I was still adjusting to my new world.
I was largely unaware of the unspoken impact on my parents, who left their parents (my grandparents) and a very comfortable life style in Germany to transit to a difficult new life.

My focus, as a bar mitzvah at Congregation Brith Sholom in St. Louis, was on (1) chanting my Haftorah without mistake, and (2) flawlessly delivering the speech the rabbi had written and I had memorized. (I did both, I believe.) My reading contained Micah’s famous, historic observation that God requires only “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
It had little impact on me at the time. But its powerful, universal message became more meaningful through the years.

In my confirmation class at Temple Israel in St. Louis some of the social justice aspects of Micah’s words were emphasized by Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, who frequently invited both black and Christian clergy to share his pulpit — despite  St. Louis’ Southern-leaning and racial divide. He was the first to open my eyes to Micah.

Let me share several experiences through the years that brought about a better understanding of Micah’s message:
In my late teens my mother launched a tiny business – selling candy, gum and cigarettes atop a small table within  a downtown warehouse.  She hired an African American woman to clean our apartment a half day once a week. The cleaning lady and I became friendly and I cautiously explored her life and experiences. In time, she mentioned her volunteer work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). I was curious and she told me more. This led a friend and me to venture out of our Jewish ghetto, into an Afro-American  area of St. Louis to attend a NAACP meeting. We were the only whites there and were awakened to conditions and problems I had not thought about or even imagined.

Unconsciously, I believe, Micah’s call spurred me. A few days after graduating Washington University,  I set off for Wichita, Kansas — a city I had not heard of a few months earlier– to work as a cub reporter on the Wichita Eagle. I met the local director of the National Association  of  Christians and Jews; he was young, single and interesting, and we had a number of meals  together. It was my first friendship with a Catholic and opened my eyes to the universality of beliefs such as justice, mercy and God. In 1950, I was drafted into the army. My basic training group included many men from the Ozarks, whose backgrounds and history were completely unfamiliar to me.  A big, fat bully targeted me and derided my Judaism.

A few days later, when he began anew, a short, dark-skinned draftee in my unit walked over. He told the bully to back off and when that prompted a “you gonna make me?” response , he quickly made clear he was ready to fight. The bully backed off. I thanked my defender and found out he was an American Indian, and had minimum education. Subsequently, during our basic training, I was there to help when he didn’t understand a form or needed guidance.

Looking back, without thinking, my Jewish instincts kicked in “to do justice.” In 1954 my employer, International News Service (INS), promoted me from the St. Louis bureau to its New York headquarters. Soon I became aware of a management  proposal that would have negatively impacted the working conditions and future pay of reporters and editors. After expressing my strong objections to co-workers, I was invited to join the bargaining committee of the American Newspaper Guild. After weeks of negotiations, INS abandoned its stance and “justice prevailed.”

My father’s death in 1972 marked an earthquake in my Jewish observance. Sitting Shivah and saying Kaddish for 30 days felt insufficient. I wanted to do more to carry on his Jewish tradition and I resolved to continue attending Shabbat services weekly even after the usual one year.

Now, 45 years later, I continue to carry on this commitment weekly at the weekly Minyan at Beth Israel. Soon after retiring in 1989 and moving to San Diego, I was made aware by a Beth Israel member, Karen Coleman, of the Volunteer Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), which helps individuals   starting  a new business, or new owners facing business problems. Working with SCORE concretely fulfilled basic Jewish teachings to help others.

Finally, Pesach has been my favorite Jewish holiday since childhood. Early in the 1970s, I felt that the classic Haggadah, despite its history and  important message, was not reflecting the problems or thinking of the time. Consequently, I wrote some inserts for the Haggadah used by the singles seder I was attending. A few years later, I wrote my own contemporary Haggadah, incorporating both current Jewish and global issues and the classic elements of the traditional version. Subsequently, here at Beth Israel, I’ve twice taught a course in “How to Write Your Own Haggadah.” My students later told me about the positive impact of their 21st century Haggadot. My purpose was to utilize the seder— which attracts as many, or more, Jews as Yom Kippur – to apply ancient and current Jewish philosophy and remind us of Micah’s command to “walk humbly with your God.”

In conclusion, despite significant progress in the U.S., Micah’s call for justice, mercy and humility today is  still more of an aspiration than an achievement. It is time we Jews who have been leaders in social justice for hundreds of years to again make it an important element in each of our lives. We, as individuals, or as a Minyan or community, can take steps to give new life to Micah’s words.

Opportunities to “do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” can arise on any day. It is easy to think, “That’s not my responsibility,” or ‘Let the government do it,” or ‘I don’t have the time now.” But Micah’s call is as timely and merits a response by each of us today, even more than in the 7th century when Micah lived.

What can you do to answer the call?

 Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the D’var Torah articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Beth Israel.

Post a comment