I will introduce this letter with the following quote from the Book of Isaiah which we will chant on this Shabbos:
“Zion said, ‘Hashem has forsaken me; the Master of All has forgotten me.’
Can a woman forget her nursling, or not feel compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:14, 15)
This letter is dedicated to the memory of my beloved younger sister, Dorothy Oboler, whose full Jewish name is Alta Chaya Yocheved Devorah bas Shlomo. My sister’s yahrtzeit – the anniversary of her passing – is on the 17th of Av, which this year begins on Thursday evening, August 6th. When my sister began to study Torah, “Devorah” became the first name that she used the most.
Devorah always had a passionate and loving concern for any suffering individual or group that was being ignored or mistreated by others, and she would arise on their behalf like a mighty warrior. She also had an intense dislike of prejudice towards any group. These noble character traits were reinforced by the ethical education that she received from our leftist parents who also practiced what they preached within their own lives.
When Devorah was about 20 years old, she began to suffer from an illness which was later diagnosed as a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy – an illness which physically disabled her and which also caused various complications which later shortened her life. Although her body became very frail, she maintained her strong spirit. Her disability caused her to be mostly homebound, and she therefore developed a special sensitivity and concern for the needs of those who were in a similar situation.
Even before Devorah was stricken with this disability, she was a radical rebel against the trend in modern western society to idolize youth, physical beauty, and physical strength. She had the old-fashioned Jewish appreciation of elders, spiritual beauty, and spiritual strength, but most of the students at the public school she attended did not have this appreciation. Many of them were also prone to physical and verbal violence against others. These were the main reasons why, at age 13, she decided that she wanted to go to a Torah-committed high school.
She initially had difficulty finding one that was prepared to accept her, for she had little Torah education, and the administrators felt that it would be difficult for her to follow the various Torah classes. The one high school that lovingly welcomed her was the Beth Jacob High School for girls, which was located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and which was in the large Chareidi section of the neighborhood where the majority of Jews were Chassidim. Most of the teachers and students at Beth Jacob were also Chassidim. At first, it was quite a culture shock for my sister, who had grown up in a family of leftist social activists who were not traditionally observant. She was pleased, however, that the staff and the students had spiritual values which included an emphasis on doing acts of loving-kindness. It was a relief for her to be at Beth Jacob, for the atmosphere there was much more gentle, loving, and spiritual than the atmosphere at the public school she had previously attended.
At the beginning, it was a culture shock for the Chassidic teachers and students to have my sister as a student in their school, as due to her background, she questioned everything. Fortunately, her teachers were wise enough to realize that her questioning was due to her sincere searching, and not because she was disrespectful of their beliefs and customs. They therefore began to admire her spirit, and she experienced not only their love, but also their respect. As the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos states in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, “Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own” (4:15).
Our mother was initially annoyed by the modest dress code at Beth Jacob, and she planned to complain about it when she was scheduled to meet with my sister’s teachers. The night of the meeting, my mother became very inspired by a rebbe of my sister, Rabbi Yehoshua Gudlevsky. His loving nature, his idealism, and his inner, radiating holiness made a deep impression on her; in fact, she forgot about her objections to the dress code! She also became interested in an organization that Rabbi Gudlevsky founded called “Keren Hayeled” – an organization devoted to helping needy children in Israel, especially new immigrants, and to enable them to get a Torah education. The material and spiritual help that Keren Hayeled gave to these children also counteracted the efforts of Christian missionary groups that would offer large sums of money to needy Jewish parents who would agree to enroll their children in a missionary school. Both of my parents had a respectful relationship with our Christian neighbors, but they also had a healthy sense of Jewish dignity and pride; thus, they were offended by Christian missionaries who would try to wean Jews away from their heritage and faith. My mother therefore asked Devorah and me to help her in collecting contributions from various neighbors for the work of Keren Hayeled.
While attending Beth Jacob, my sister also learned that Chassidim are not a monolithic group. For example, within Williamsburg, there was the large Satmar Chassidic community which had its own schools, and their approach differed in some ways from the approach of Beth Jacob. Devorah never became Chassidic, but throughout her life, she maintained affection and respect for her Chassidic friends and teachers.
After my sister graduated from high school, she attended the Beth Jacob seminary for teachers. She began to do some teaching; however, she was not able to continue, due to the emergence of Muscular Dystrophy. The severe symptoms of her illness prevented my sister, who had both physical and spiritual beauty, from getting married. Her friends from Beth Jacob got married and began to raise children, but they did not forget my sister. They remained loyal friends throughout the years of her suffering, and this was a source of comfort to her. A year before Devorah passed away, she received a special honor from the members of her Beth Jacob graduating class. They asked her to be the guest speaker at the class reunion, and they hired a limousine to bring her to the gathering in the Boro Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.
She spoke to them about the dignity of the elderly and the disabled who are often forgotten in our modern society, and she urged them to become pioneers in the mitzvah of honoring these precious human beings. She herself was a precious human being, and I miss her very much.
In honor of her memory, I would like to review with you some information about the organization, “Yad Sarah” – Israel’s largest voluntary organization. It began as a mitzvah project of a young Chareidi teacher, Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky, who decided to acquire and lend medical equipment, free of charge, to anyone who needed it. He called the project “Yad Sarah” – the Hand of Sarah – in memory of his grandmother, Sarah, who was killed in the Holocaust. His grandmother was known for her acts of loving-kindness. (The word “Yad” is also used as a term for a remembrance or a memorial.)
Today, Yad Sarah has many lending stations throughout Israel where people can borrow medical or rehabilitative equipment free of charge and free of prejudice; thus, people of all faiths and nationalities use its service. As the organization developed, Yad Sarah expanded its program to include various service projects for elders, for individuals with disabilities, the homebound, and other segments of the population whose needs were not being met.
Yad Sarah’s mission is to keep the ill and the elderly in their homes and out of institutions as long as possible, for home care in their natural environment with the help of family members, neighbors, and/or volunteers is often the most conducive to healthy recuperation, both physically and emotionally. It also costs both family and State much less.
Yad Sarah realizes that the family members who care for their loved ones who cannot function on their own also need support. In order to prevent burnout in the family members resulting from the heavy burden of caring for their dear ones, Yad Sarah has recently begun a support service for them including: strengthening the sense of security and capabilities of family caregivers, providing tools for coping with the patient’s functionality, teaching ways to provide efficient care without wearing down the caregiver, and helping them in exercising their rights. They also started a program in Jerusalem where trained volunteers come once or twice a week to give family caregivers a break. The purpose behind the project is two-fold: to give family caregivers a chance to step out and care for their own needs, and to provide, at the same time, a social experience for the housebound patient.
The Israeli government awarded Yad Sarah the Israel Prize in 1994 for its unique contribution “to the Society and the State.” The prize committee specifically cited its great impact on Israeli life and the fact that it is completely non-sectarian and non-discriminatory in providing help to all who need it.
Yad Sarah is a Chareidi-sponsored organization which has brought together volunteers from all the diverse communities living in Israel. Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews, as well as volunteers who aren’t Jewish, are working together in a spirit of unity to serve other human beings who are in need. It is a project that has won international acclaim, and officials from many countries have come to Israel to study Yad Sarah’s innovative programs in order to see how these services can be provided in their own countries.
I will conclude this letter with a quote from the portion from the Book of Isaiah which we will chant on this Shabbos:
“Listen to me, pursuers of righteousness, seekers of Hashem: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Avraham, your father, and to Sarah, who bore you” (Isaiah 51:1,2)
“Look to Avraham, your father, and to Sarah who bore you” – “Look at them, and go in their ways” (commentary of Radak).
Have a Good, Sweet, and Comforting Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Poem and Comments:
1. There was a period when my father and sister were considering the possibility of joining me in Israel. My sister was temporarily living in a Jewish nursing home, and she sent to my father the following poem:
I do not know dear papa, what I ought to do;
My choices seem so limited; my choices are too few.
I can stay in this nursing home and get good care each day,
Or move with you to Israel, a country far away.
I am a young disabled woman and need people to help me.
But though my body’s “shackled,” my soul yearns to soar free.
I am a good American – I love this great country,
And here I can get all the care my doctors want for me.
But my soul is not American; my soul belongs to God;
Yet this body versus soul war makes deciding all too hard.
When I mention Israel, my body shakes “NO!”
While my soul sighs for the “promised land” where “milk and honey” flow…
One thing is very certain, one thing is all too clear,
That deciding not to go now means both must remain
Till one day in the future, God softly calls for me;
My bones can then be buried here; my soul finally gets free;
And off it will swiftly soar to the place of drifting sand,
But only see before it, God’s holy “promised land.”
2. You can learn more about the work of Yad Sarah by visiting their website: http://www.yadsarah.org/index.asp?id=198
3. Today, Keren Hayeled continues to do good work for children in Israel. It provides a warm home for orphans, as well as for children from dysfunctional families. Its programs and services are designed to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of these children. For information on the heartwarming work of Keren Hayeled, visit: www.kerenhayeled.org/ .
A contribution in memory of my sister can be made to any of the above organizations.