ChabadNewOrleans Blog

A Tribute to My Aunt, Sima Karp

This is one of the more challenging posts that I have written. How do I compose a memorial tribute for an aunt who was only eight years older than me? My father’s extended family is uniquely close. Our grandparents advanced the ideal of a close family as something very important to them. To give you an idea, this week after my aunt Sima’s passing, my son in Tel Aviv was having a hard time coming to grips with it. His study partner, noticing that he was having a hard time concentrating, asked him what’s going on. When Sholom told him about the loss in the family, he couldn’t understand why the passing of a great-aunt would be something so impactful.

As a teenager, Sima was the fun aunt that came to New Orleans for summers to work in Camp Gan Israel. When I moved to New York for school, we shared time in my grandparents’ house. After her wedding, as her family grew, she moved into a home across the street from my grandparents, and we saw each other all the time. When I got married, she took a real interest in Malkie and our family. As our children grew up and went to New York for school, Sima very graciously opened her home to them and took the initiative to make sure that they were ok. When we were planning the weddings of our daughters, Sima was an immensely helpful resource. She guided us through the process on many levels. Just three months ago, while in the midst of a fierce battle with a horrible illness, she heard that our daughter Sara gave birth. She called Malkie to find out what she could do to help Sara. Only when Malkie assured her that she was coming to New York to be with Sara, did Sima relent in her efforts to help.

I would like to share three (of many) things about her life that are inspiring. Having been raised on the ideals of helping others even at the expense of one’s own comfort and convenience, Sima lived these ideals on many levels. She was a founding member of Ten Yad, an organization devoted to assisting brides, who’s families cannot lavishly provide them with their wedding and household needs. Ten Yad set the gold standard for the Mitzvah of Hachnasas Kallah, assisting brides in a dignified manner, making them feel like this important time of their life should be as stress-free as possible.  

Sima and her husband Laibel opted to have an open home. Countless people spent Shabbos at their table over the years. In addition to ample supplies of delicious food, Sima would reign over her Shabbos table while dispensing wisdom and advice, laced with humor and wit. She provided so many with a listening ear and a pragmatic guiding voice. She had a blunt style and told it like it is, but you felt with certainty that she truly cared. I watched as many of their erstwhile Shabbos guests came to the Shiva house this week, with a feeling of having lost a close loved one.

Last but not least, Sima’s devotion to her parents, my grandparents, was legendary. All of my father’s siblings were devoted children with exemplary dedication to the Mitzvah of honoring parents. Whatever the reason, Sima undertook a significant portion of their care. The dignity that she gave my grandmother, in her final years of life, even as Bubby’s health and strength were fading, was in itself a Torah lesson for all of us. Sima’s home became Bubby’s home and the home was open to all of us, the rest of the family, to visit Bubby as if it were her own house.

Hashem works in mysterious ways that we do not understand. While the blessing for honoring parents is long life, shortly after my grandmother’s passing, Sima began her own battle with the disease that would ultimately take her life. Our extended family rallied around as a support network. We collectively recited the entire book of Psalms daily for over a year. Sadly, our prayers were not answered in the way we had preferred, and Sima passed away two weeks short of her 57th birthday. Our hearts go out to her husband and children. We beseech Hashem to give them strength as they go through this challenging time.

On the day of the funeral, Malkie and I got a note from two of our younger children. They undertook to recite Sima’s chapter of Tehillim until her next birthday. They wrote that they are doing this because surely, she used to say Tehillim and now they want to say it for her, and because they know that she really cared about them. These kids hadn’t seen her since before the pandemic. The closeness they felt from years ago, left such a profound impact on them that they articulated themselves in this way.

We yearn for the time that the prophet Isaiah speaks of, “He (G-d) has eliminated death forever, and the L-rd G-d shall wipe the tears off every face.” May this take place very soon with the coming of Mashiach.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Indoctrination or Self Discovery

This morning I had the pleasure of participating in a unique ceremony. In Hebrew it is called “hachnasa l’cheder” – initiation of a child into Jewish education. There were a group of little boys who had recently had their first haircut, who were being introduced into the formal Jewish schooling. Now these kids have been in school for years, but this ceremony utilizes several rituals to impress upon the child the sweetness and goodness of Torah learning. We place honey onto the Alef Bet, which they lick and read. They read certain verses off a honey cake and eat it. Finally, they are showered with candy that “comes from” the Angel Michael, who rejoices in their accomplishments.

Some might accuse us of engaging in indoctrination of young minds into things that they cannot yet fully grasp. They argue that we should let the children grow up a bit before exposing them to religious doctrines so they can choose for themselves whether they want it. Seems like we are bribing three year old kids with honey and candy so that they associate Torah with enjoyment.

To which I say, first of all, I could think of worse things to be imparting to little kids than a love of Torah. How tragic is it that if they associate morals, kindness, and holiness, with a fun time? Imagine how terrible it would be if a generation of kids grew up believing the absurd notion that G-d actually cares about them not killing, stealing, lying and cheating. What an awful world it would be with no juvenile perpetrators of crime… How unfortunate to have children growing up with imaginary heroes like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and King David, instead of those real-life heroes like Sponge Bob and the Ninja Turtles. Let’s not forget Harry Potter and Wonder Woman (after all she is now Israeli...).

But to the heart of the matter, there is a much deeper way of understanding this idea. Indoctrination implies super-imposing something upon someone, which they did not posses previously. Kids are not born with political or societal biases. Imposing a political or societal viewpoint upon a child would be a form of indoctrination (and still I believe that parents have a right and imperative to educate their children in that form).

However, parents impressing upon their child that they are human is not indoctrination. It is simply acquainting them with the reality of who they are. Nothing wrong with telling a kid that they have blue eyes or brown hair.

For a Jewish child, learning about G-d and Torah, is simply acquainting them with their reality. Our Neshamas are who we are. It is not separate from the essence of who we are. Therefore, introducing a child, even at a very young age, to the beauty of Torah and Judaism, is simply putting them in touch with who they are. The sooner they are aware of their identity and reality, the more successful humans and Jews they will be; and the better off they will be for the rest of society.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

What if it were your kid?

I did my civic duty this month by showing up for jury duty. Yesterday was my last of the four days assigned to me. Just before noon, 50 of us were called into a courtroom for a jury selection process called “Voir dire.” The process had been going on all week and they were having a hard time finding the jurors they needed to begin the trial. It was unique in that there were three defendants, each with his own defense team. We watched as the group before us completed their voir dire, leaving a void of six jurors that needed to be filled by members of our group. Shortly after 2 pm, the prosecution began their presentation. By the time the third of the three defense attorneys got up to do his shpiel, it was already 6 pm. Knowing that there was a long road ahead of us, a few people in the group started to grumble about how late it was.

The attorney realized that he needed to get people to focus and take the process seriously, so he used the following tactic. He started addressing some of the grumbling folks and asked them if they had children. “Imagine,” he said, “if your child was taken into custody for something they hadn’t done, and the court was in the process of jury selection to ensure that they got a fair shake at justice. Would you want them to hurry up through the process because it was late and people were getting tired, hungry, and impatient? Or would you want the attorney to take his time and get the best possible group of jurors for a fair trial? Of course, for your child, you would want every effort exerted on his behalf. Well, you need to see that the same is done for the folks in this trial.”

This caused me to reflect on an idea that I heard as a young Yeshiva student. In the original Chabad Yeshiva in the town of Lubavitch, the youngest group of boys (after Bar Mitzvah) were entrusted for mentorship to Reb Michoel Bliner. He was an elderly chasid whose very presence was a valuable lesson for the boys in how to be a Jew and a chasid.

He would begin his first lesson each year with the following story. A simple villager received a letter with important information. Being illiterate, he brought the letter to the melamed (teacher), who the villagers hired to educate their children. As the melamed read the letter, the villager fainted. It contained the news of his father’s passing. Reb Michoel would ask the boys, “why didn’t the melamed, who had firsthand knowledge of the letter’s contents, faint, while the villager, who heard it secondhand, fainted?” He answered, “because it was the villager’s father.” He would then declare to the group of 13-year-old boys, “when you study Chassidus, you must approach it as if we are speaking of your own father (Hashem).” Only when you are personally invested in the subject matter, will there be the capacity for real impact.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The "G" Word

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the event arranged by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, honoring Israel, at the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion. After the formal program, I had a chance to meet and speak to Governor John Bel Edwards along with several of my Chabad of Louisiana colleagues.​

I introduced myself as a Rabbi from New Orleans and thanked him for not being afraid to bring G-d into the public discourse. I told him that when he encourages citizens to pray, whilst addressing crises such as the pandemic or a hurricane, it makes me proud that he is the governor of my state. He modestly replied that while some may be uncomfortable with his approach, he has received encouragement from others. He then said to me that he did not expect to hear this from me, because I was the first Jewish person to ever express that sentiment to him.

Now I understand why Jews are wary of this type of thing. The separation doctrine has always been seen by Jews as a protection against the encroachment of a predominantly Christian society on Jews and other non-Christians. Sometimes that encroachment is insidious, and sometimes it’s well-meaning, yet equally inappropriate. But we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Under the banner of the separation doctrine, we have made a religion out of secularism. We cringe at the mention of G-d or prayer in a public setting. We are afraid to speak of a morality based on a Higher Power in our public discourse. We are raising generations of young people for whom obligation to G-d and Divine values, is simply not on their radar.

Removing G-d from the public discourse leads to the potential (some would argue actual) result of relegating our society to an amoral state. From there it is a short slippery slope to immoral.

Of course, we need to stand strong against a violation of the first amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Never should we be subjected to one group’s version of religion over another. But the framers were not advocating for removal of G-d from American society. Certainly, atheists or agnostics have their rights protected as well. Nobody can force them to accept or practice any religion. But, in the same way, they cannot force others to adhere to their way by removing any reference to G-d. The declaration of independence explicitly speaks of rights “endowed by a Creator.”

This is a complex issue that cannot be properly addressed in this forum. There are nuances and subtleties that must be tackled as the issue is analyzed and discussed. There are major issues being dealt with in our society as we speak, where the shadow of this issue looms large and cannot be ignored. The big picture question is, are we better off in a G-dless society or a society where G-d plays a central role, while we work diligently to ensure that one religion is not given ascendancy over another?

I will conclude with a story. Once during a journey, the Baal Shem Tov instructed his disciples to hastily exit the carriage in which they were riding. They rushed away from the wagon and their driver. A few hours later, they encountered the wagon driver and were ready to continue their journey. He asked them why they ran away. The Baal Shem Tov replied that he sensed they were in danger of being murdered. The wagon driver admitted that at the time he had been overcome with a temptation to murder them and take their belongings. It had since passed, but he wondered how the Baal Shem Tov knew. The Baal Shem Tov replied, that they had driven past a church and he saw that the driver did not cross himself, so he knew that driver was, in that moment, a G-dless person, who would stop at nothing for personal gain.

Over the millennia, we Jews have been persecuted both in the name of religion as well as by the G-dless. The answer is not as simple as the story might imply, but I hope this starts a conversation about these complex questions. I welcome any respectful feedback and dialogue.

In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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