Us: Rabbi Israel Zoberman, founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim

What can we do in the New Year to help build inclusive communities amid a time of polarization?


My first exposure to Poland was at age six months in 1946 when my family of Polish Holocaust survivors returned home from Siberia and Kazakhstan, then the USSR. We left after only four months. Some 1,500 Jews had been murdered by Poles who begrudged our survival and eyed our property. This summer, I traveled from my home in Virginia Beach to Poland and Lithuania. My father’s hometown of Zamosc in southeastern Poland was on the itinerary.

I am still overtaken by breathing the air there of generations of my ancestors who lived, loved and labored till the tragic onslaught of Nazi terror. Imagine my speechless elation at being in the restored Sephardic “Renaissance Synagogue” built in the early 17th Century, the only such edifice in Poland, which officially opened again in 2011.

My great-grandmother, Dina Menzis Zoberman, was a descendent of Spanish and Portuguese Jews whose industrial and communal leadership in Zamosc was immense. Dina and her husband, Rabbi Yaakov Zoberman, perished in the Belzec death camp along with other family members and many of Zamosc’s 14,000 Jews.

During my trip, I led our 17 member group in the kaddish prayer. Half a million entered this latest of the six major Nazi death camps to be cared for – the American Jewish Committee played a pivotal role – and only three survived at war’s end. Two of them were murdered following testifying in court.

In Lublin, we were at the once renowned Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva and the touching Brama Grozdka-NN Theater in the old Jewish quarter which preserves the rich Jewish past by very dedicated Gentile Poles. I’m still haunted by the photo of a Lublin Jewish boy who resembles my grandson, Danny, and the grim struggle and fate of the Jewish children and helpless parents in the ghettos and camps.

At the Majdanek death camp, the first major one to be liberated by the Russians as part of the Allied forces, I mentioned in Hebrew to a number of Israeli officers from the delegation that they arrived 70 plus years too late.

They responded that there was then no State of Israel.

“That’s the point,” I retorted.

Of the 360,000 lost lives there, 120,000 were Jewish.

There was so much more to this trip, but, at its end, I continued by myself to Israel. How rewarding it was to know that there is a welcoming Jewish state following unfathomable destruction, To top it all, the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, whose homeport is Norfolk, arrived in Haifa with close to 6,000 sailors and pilots aboard following bombing ISIS targets.

It was the first American carrier to arrive in Israel in 17 years, spending July 4 there, and it was greeted enthusiastically, reaffirming the special bond between the two democratic allies. I fondly recall being present when a Torah Scroll originally from Germany was presented to this incredible vessel.

Had there been back then in Europe the kind of interfaith relations we are fortunate to have here in the U.S. — a model of cooperation between different religions and denominations-the incredible dimensions of the Holocaust would have been curtailed. The tragic past teaches us that democracies are vulnerable systems of government that require education, vigilance and active participation by concerned and knowledgeable citizens.

When hatred and bigotry raise their ugly face it is our duty to stand up to them loudly and clearly. Indifference is a gift to those plotting to subvert our freedoms. We have painfully learned that poisonous ideas concerning the “other” lead ultimately to genocidal gas chambers.

The Independent News posed a question to community leaders, writers and artists: What can we do in the coming New Year to help build inclusive communities amid a time of polarization? If you would like to share your own thoughts, respond to this project or even complain, please email

The author is founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim in Virginia Beach and Honorary Senior Rabbi Scholar at Eastern Shore Chapel Episcopal Church. The son of Polish Holocaust survivors, he and his family lived in the Wetzlar Displaced Persons Camp in Germany after the war. This is adapted from a longer essay.

© 2017, 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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