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This is Us: Rabbi Shlomo Menkes

My father is American and was in the military during the Korean War. He wanted to go to Israel, where he met my mother. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She’s still alive, thank God. She grew up in Warsaw and I mean, if you want an interview that’s interesting, she’s interesting.

My mother, she should live and be well, was saved by Gentiles. They were paid to save her and her cousin. They were paid, that’s true, but they treated her well. In Poland, there was no such thing as public school. Every religion was in charge of teaching their children, or every community. So, where she was saved, which was out in the countryside, there was only a church. The school was run by nuns, and before they started their day they had their prayers. And every single day the priest would get up and say, “Who killed our Lord?” And the kids would say, “the Jews, the Jews,” every day. I don’t think they did that in the churches in America. I don’t believe so.

When she ended up at the farm where she lived, she wasn’t a Jew anymore. They dyed her hair and they told her, “Listen Lilka, you are no longer Lilka from Warsaw ghetto Jew, you are now a Gentile.” She was smuggled. She wasn’t allowed to go out with the family. She and her cousin had to stay in the closet when people came over. She was given a background story and she had to stay true to that when anyone asked. She had a younger brother but he was just a baby and couldn’t be separated from their mother, so he ended up dying with her.

And one day my mother overheard a conversation while hiding in the closet. A group of people came to visit to look out the window and watch the Germans destroy the ghetto by burning the buildings. You see, they couldn’t get the Jewish people out of their hiding places, so they started to burn the ghetto. People came to see how Jews were burning as they were jumping out of buildings on fire. It was something people came to look at to see. She heard the adults saying, “is it right or is it wrong?” It was actually a question. Some Jews deserve it, while others don’t, you know — like the doctors and the lawyers — maybe they don’t deserve it. But you know, those other Jews, those kinds of Jews, that’s okay. And she heard this, “this kind of people, that kind of people.”

She made up her mind from that point on. She was a little girl and she said, “for the rest of my life, there’s no difference. They killed every kind of Jew. We are all one people.”

You know, when I was younger, I read a book written by a Catholic priest who says he doesn’t understand why any Jew lost his faith after the Holocaust. A Jew shouldn’t have lost his faith after the Holocaust — they did nothing wrong. He says, “we Christians, what kind of faith do we have that would have allowed something like this to happen right under our noses?”

So, you know, there are a lot of Jews here on the mountain. Slowly but surely, they will come out and hopefully, some of the Christians here will help. But I’m learning to live in a community like this and hopefully, having a positive influence on not only the Jews, but also the Gentiles, will help with that situation, with the hatred and things like that.

We still have to face this hatred – like what happened in Pittsburgh. If you think about the evil in this world – many times it starts with one person. The Torah teaches us that if one person can create so much evil imagine how much good one person can do to counter it.

Everybody – every human being can contribute to the improvement of God’s creation.

Rabbi Menkes and his wife are founders of Gan Yisroel West in North Fork, a summer camp that hosts hundreds of Jewish children each year. He currently divides his time between North Fork and Santa Monica, and hopes to move his family here full-time in the future.

This is Us is a series of local profiles with first-person stories, written in a way we can get to know the people in our community on a little deeper level. Click here for more information about this series.


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