It is a universal principle of human relations that the poor are rejected and targeted for additional burdens imposed on them by everyone else. Fearing to be poor themselves, or fearing that we may owe the poor something, we avoid them and keep them at a distance lest we be inconvenienced.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. Once in a while we meet someone who goes out of his or her way to help those who cannot help themselves and who ask nothing in return. In fact, these Tzadikim, as we call them in Hebrew, deal with people who cannot possibly do anything for their benefactors even if they wanted to do so.
Two examples come to mind. One is Dr. Ursula Falk, herself a Holocaust survivor who came to this country destitute. By destitute I mean utterly wiped out. Poor usually means of less income or substance than others in the community. Destitute means that one literally has no food and no clothes. A destitute person lives in the street. Destitute people starve.
Today, Dr. Ursula Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice. But she is more than that. She helps people who need help and goes out of her way to ease the pain of widows and those who are lonely and without help. This makes her a Tzadik. There are some who were so badly mistreated in an early part of their lives that they harbor resentment against the whole world and leave out their anger on all they encounter. Ursula Falk has done the opposite. This, although she came from the mouth of hell to succeed here despite unbelievable obstacles.
Not long ago, a prominent Jewish woman shouted that Ursula desecrated “Kristallnacht”, although the shouter was not there. Ursula was. That same “macher” in the Jewish community also used some foul language to let it be known that Holocaust survivors “desecrate my synagogue”.
This kind of aggression is unusual. Much more common is a total lack of sympathy for those who had the good fortune to come to this country. Common is that Jews born here sit in judgment of those who, through no fault of their own, conduct themselves in a manner reflecting their fears and memories. Few can tolerate differences or behavior not conforming to the expectations of the native born.
One great exception to this was the late Rabbi Martin Goldberg of Temple Beth Zion. I met Rabbi Goldberg shortly after I arrived in Buffalo. I left my family in Cleveland because I needed to find an apartment here before they could come. That was almost impossible, as every landlord I approached rejected me because I had two and one half children (Clifford was “in the oven”). Then a colleague told me to see Rabbi Goldberg at Temple Beth Zion. This non-Jewish man claimed that Martin Goldberg would help me because Martin Goldberg did all he could to help anyone who asked.
I made an appointment and told Rabbi Goldberg my problem. He had never seen me before. He nevertheless made numerous ‘phone calls to members of his congregation asking them to let me have an apartment. He finally succeeded when one member of the congregation agreed to let me have an apartment within walking distance of my employment.
That was not all. Rabbi Goldberg said that he believed a beginner like me could use an extra job. He offered to appoint me to teach on Saturday and Sunday in the temple school. He then arranged to have my oldest child attend Sunday school without payment and introduced us to members of the congregation on Friday night.
What he did for me was minimal compared to what he did for others who needed it. He consoled a woman about to lose her husband to cancer by walking with her several times a week. He visited Jews in the Presbyterian nursing homes when no one else had time. With the largest congregation in town, he had the time.
Once in a while we meet Tzadikim like Ursula Falk and Martin Goldberg. They teach us what we could be. They show us the way. Unfortunately we also have Jews who won’t even greet another Jew because he is an immigrant. We have Jews who insult the very name Jew as they violate the most basic of Jewish ethics. The Talmud tells us that a Jew would rather jump into a fiery furnace that insult another man. Yet, there are those elitists among us who usurp Judaism for the purpose of establishing a self perpetuating oligarchy within our community, with a view of creating a stratified hierarchy allowing a few to “lord” it over all others. This arrogance has destroyed us in the past and is our enemy in the present. How much we miss Rabbi Martin Goldberg, who taught us so much by merely living among us.