I have often told Jewish students that they are miracles. If your grandparents survived the Holocaust, that means your existence here and now is a miracle. If your parents emigrated from the USSR, then your being here now as a Jew is also a miracle.
I'm an American Jew through and through. All of my grandparents were born here in America, and so were many of my great-grandparents. Am I still a miracle? Do I have any miraculous stories to tell? Do I have any ancestral existential threats that I can claim to my existence?
I will often meet the parents and grandparents of my students, and I'll ask them for stories. Boy do they have stories! Their lives were under threat many times. Their Judaism was hidden, denied, ridiculed … the fact that here stands a Jewish "child" coming out of their trials and tribulations is a miracle.
But I wonder about me. My parents and grandparents didn't have to hide themselves nor their Jewish identities; do I lose my "Jewish Miracle" status?
Monday was the yahrtzeit of my grandfather, Mr. Robert Klein, or as we called him, Papa. He was one of seven boys. He outlived them all, and it's mostly due to my grandmother's vigilance over his health. He couldn't read Hebrew. He grew up in a small town in Michigan called Ithaca during the Depression. His parents, whom I never met, were immigrants looking for a better life. He fought in World War II along with all of his brothers and brothers-in-law (His parents had seven stars in their window during the war representing the seven boys overseas fighting in the war.
Papa came back from the war, married a nice Jewish girl (my grandma), and wanted to settle down, but times were tough, so it wasn't easy. They settled in a small town in Michigan called Mt. Pleasant with a population of a couple hundred people and a Jewish population of less than a minyan (10 Jews). Nevertheless, it became their home for many years, and it was where they'd raise their Jewish children. But how do you raise your children to be Jewish with less than a minyan of Jews in the city?
Papa was a proud and smart Jew, he just never had the chance to learn how to read Hebrew, so he took it upon his shoulders. He set up a Hebrew school above his hardware store and eventually built a synagogue with the few other local Jewish families. They invited all the Jews of Mt. Pleasant along with the few Jews from nearby towns to come. That synagogue was where my mother, her siblings, and her friends, learned to read Hebrew. It was where they had their bar and bat mitzvahs. And it was where the miracles of my Jewish existence happened that enabled me and my family to be here today.
Since then, I have met some of the families from those days. I even performed the wedding of my grandfather's best friend's grandson, who also carries the legacy of our grandparents' miracles. It was from that synagogue that my mother went on to join BBYO, travel to Israel and eventually to meet my father, a nice Jewish boy from California.
I am proud to say that I carry the status of a miracle, that of a living Jewish child in our generation, and I encourage you to see your miraculous existence too, whether your grandparents' lives were existentially threatened or not.
You don't have to be a rabbi to make miracles. You don't even have to know Hebrew to profoundly impact your Jewish generations to come. You just have to care and take action, like my papa did.
Thanks, Papa -- we miss you! May your soul have an aliyah through the Torah study, mitzvot, and kindness of the multitude of Jewish generations miraculously here due to your efforts.