By Donald H. Harrison
Peter Pan, whose silhouette along with those of other storybook characters provided a backdrop at the New Children’s Museum for speakers at the Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School gala dinner, famously declared that he wanted never to grow up. That being impossible, speakers who extolled community philanthropist and honoree Emily Einhorn suggested on Sunday evening, June 4, that an even better alternative is to grow up practicing true Jewish values.
Detroit banking executive and civic leader Gary Torgow, who chairs Michigan’s Civil Rights Commission and is a long-time president of Yeshiva Beth Yehuda, shared three inspirational stories illustrating those values during a keynote speech to more than 300 attendees of the dinner chaired by Kimber Wrasch.
The first story concerned an Orthodox Jewish family who before leaving on a vacation hired an Irish maid, circa 1920, and told her that they would be back December 25th. The maid, never before exposed to Jews, realized that they wouldn’t be home in time to decorate their house for Christmas, so with the little money she had, she purchased a tree and Christmas lights for the house, and had them all waiting in glorious display upon the family’s return.
Another person, suggested Torgow, might have been embarrassed, or even have disciplined the maid for putting up symbols so inappropriate to a Jewish home, but the patriarch of this family instead complimented the maid for her generosity of spirit, and all the work she had put into the decorations, and gave her a $50 bonus, which was a large sum in those days. Then he explained that as beautiful the decorations were, they did not belong to the Jewish holidays, so had them — with thanks – removed.
Torgow said the story had been told to him by the man who then was the editor of the Detroit Free Press, whose mother had been that maid. The editor grew up with a love for the Jewish people, borne from the kindness with which his mom had been treated.
Clearly how we treat others can have an unimagined lasting impact.
A second story told by Torgow concerned a Shabbat dinner at which his own Orthodox family’s guests included the then-governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, and her husband Daniel Mulhern. It was supposed to be a private affair, without publicity, but Mulhern was so impressed by the peace and sanctity of Shabbat observance that he wrote an extensive article about it in his Everyday Leadership blog.
For 24 hours beginning on sundown Friday, there’s no cars, cell phones, TV, VCRs, X-Box, PDAs, you get it. Instead, they remember G-d who did some awesome work before He rested on the seventh day. And they savor – or kvell in – the gift of family. The supper-service began with a beautiful prayer of tribute to the women of the family. At another point the fathers stood and blessed each of their sons, with a Hebrew blessing the dads read while pressing their lips to their son’s heads. Five baby-to-toddler grandchildren were passed about, or padded around, throughout the meal. Jennifer and I reflected on our way home how this central experience of Shabbat in the Torgow family combines with the technology black-out to produce a highly counter-cultural experience: Their adult children tend to stay near home. Three of the four adult Torgow children wheeled their children home that evening in strollers. While many of us celebrated our Thanksgiving weekend as a once-a-year family gathering, bookended by snarling air and road traffic; these folks experience the family gathering every week.
As great an effect that Shabbat observance had on non-Jewish guests, suggested Torgow, so too can Shabbat outreach to unaffiliated Jews produce profound results.
In his third instructive story of the evening, Torgow told of a young man who had gone to Hebrew school tuition free, and later became a business success. Wanting to repay the kindness that had been done for him in his early life, he called the principal of his alma mater — a man whom he had never met — and asked that a nursery school student be designated whose education he could fully support through 12th grade graduation.
He didn’t know the boy’s secular name, but did ask his Hebrew name so that he could include him in his prayers, just as he included the Hebrew names of his own children. Throughout the boy’s schooling, his benefactor prayed for his success. One day his daughter came home and introduced the young man she wanted to marry. It was the very same young man. In fact, that young man did become a member of his family.
Teaching our children about acts of loving kindness and the keeping of the Shabbat were central themes of the talk by Torgow, who recently was designated by the Israeli government to head the “Mosaic United” program for which Israel has allocated $50 million to help strengthen deserving Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
According to Selwyn Isakow, who introduced Torgow and has been the driving force behind the Shabbat San Diego program, Israel has recognized that if Jewish communities in the Diaspora become weakened and diminished, this ultimately will have an adverse effect on Israel as well.
Honoree Einhorn was showered with compliments by speakers for her leadership in the San Diego Jewish community including service on such boards as the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, 2-2-2 San Diego, the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education and the Leichtag Foundation.
Einhorn and her husband Dan sent both their children, Max and Estee, to Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School after the honoree had spent some time observing the Orthodox school. In an article written for the evening’s program by Sherry Saavedra, Einhorn disclosed that what had sold her on Soille was an unscripted incident when some girls were walking in the hallway and one of them dropped her pencil box, scattering its contents across the floor. Instead of laughing at her, or simply leaving her behind, the other girls kneeled to the floor with her and as a team helped her retrieve her possessions.
“I thought ‘Wow, this place is really different.’ You could tell that they had the right values,” Einhorn told the writer.
Among those paying tribute to Einhorn were her children Max and Estee, today adults living in San Francisco and New York. Max noted that his mother typically deflects compliments, “but mom you deserve every compliment you receive.”
Einhorn did not grow up in an Orthodox family, and describes herself as a non-Orthodox Jew who supports the Orthodox institution because of the values it teaches. About Max, who won and then donated to charity a $36,000 award from the Helen Diller Family Foundation’s Teen Tikkun Olam Award for exceptional philanthropy, Einhorn commented that under Soille San Diego Hebrew Day’s tutelage, “he became a person who was so sweet and humble, respectful of elders and kind to young children. I think the school influenced him a lot because he was around a culture and a community that really valued those things.”
Daughter Estee said of Einhorn that whereas so many people in the community relied on her leadership, she nevertheless continued to be a devoted mother, attending every soccer match and school play. “As I grow older, I know how difficult it is to allocate your time, and I wonder if there are two of you,” said Estee.
Einhorn recalled in the printed program that while in high school, Estee “founded a group that mentored kids at a Chula Vista domestic violence shelter by helping them with school work and teaching English to those in need.”
Both Max and Estee received their undergraduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Max in finance and Estee in urban studies.
Before calling her up to receive an art work from Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School in appreciation of her many accomplishments, the school’s headmaster, Rabbi Simcha Weiser, related that there is a Jewish tradition that when people die, they will be asked at the pearly gates, “Did you think about the big picture?”
He added: “Emily Einhorn did not find a community to belong to, Emily Einhorn builds a community.”
As her son Max had anticipated, his mother’s short speech was largely consumed by thanking others, in particular Rabbi Weister whom she complimented for the “boundless wisdom that he imparts.” She said Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School has a commitment to deep thinking, and wound up her talk with a compliment to her husband Dan, who had grown up in a more traditional Jewish home than hers.
“Dan,” she said, “we are in this as one soul. May be continue to go from strength to strength.”
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World, www.sdjewishworld.com. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.