My Promise To An Elderly Progressive Activist

Editor’s Note: Jeff Oboler, Yosef Ben-Shlomo Hakohen, a longtime progressive and spiritual activist in New York, passed away on Sept. 25 in Jerusalem. He was the director of the Martin Steinberg Center for Jewish artists, 1976-1985, perhaps the most important communal and resource center in New York for those who were exploring the creative and spiritual arts rooted in the Jewish experience. After the center closed, he made aliyah and distributed “Hazon,” his online spiritual teachings. Oboler once wrote, “language and the arts are not the essence of our people’s soul, they are rather the ‘garments’ of this collective soul. They are the outer expressions of our people’s soul, but they are not the soul itself. I therefore sought to help spiritually-searching Jewish artists to rediscover the inner soul of our people.” A shloshim” memorial will be held at the Brotherhood Synagogue, Oct. 23 at 4 p.m., 28 Gramercy Park South. Just a few weeks ago, he submitted this essay to The Jewish Week, which we post in his memory.

Yosef Ben-Shlomo Hakohen

During the early 1980s, I served as the director of the Martin Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress – a center for Jewish artists in the performing, visual and literary arts. (I was then known by my English name, Jeff Oboler.) One of the Center’s participants, Naomi Mark, had called me and told me about Kaya Williams, a woman in her 90’s who had been active in the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress in the 1930’s.

I realized that it would be a mitzvah to visit Kaya, a widow living alone, and so I went to meet her at her apartment on the Upper West Side. She was pleased that I was working for the American Jewish Congress, and told me about her activities for the women’s division during the days when they were especially concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and the ways in which the German government was spreading anti-Semitic propaganda to other countries, including the United States.

At that time, Kaya was chosen to go on a speaking tour to Jewish communities all over North America in order to alert the Jewish population of the growing danger. Her prime target would be liberal American Jews who were concerned about social and political issues.

When she first starting speaking, she had to overcome her initial shyness. However, she spoke from her heart. She had documentation proving the German government had declared war against the Jewish people, and that it was actively spreading anti-Semitism to other countries. What she wasn’t prepared for was the indifference and cynicism among many Jews.

Kaya told me that the negative reaction that she encountered was a very painful experience for her, causing her to become somewhat disillusioned about her community work. She began to offer criticism of the passive reaction of the leadership of certain Jewish organizations during the early 1940s when reports of the murder of European Jews began to reach the United States.

At times, as we sat, she suddenly became silent, and I saw that the topic was too painful for her to talk about. During one conversation, she looked at me with great intensity and told me that I must not be silent when the State of Israel will once again be endangered. She said that I must speak up, even if many don’t believe me.

I couldn’t understand why she seemed so worried since, when we spoke, Israel was not in any immediate danger. Yet she seemed to sense that some great danger was on its way. I promised her that I would indeed speak up and follow her example, but I had to reassure her again and again, before she
accepted my promise.

Today, almost 30 years after that conversation about the Six Million, I find myself living in an era when there are governments and terrorist organizations that are calling for and striving for the destruction of the State of Israel, which has a population of about six million Jews. And most of the world is indifferent.

My father was a progressive Jewish social activist who had a passionate concern for the security and welfare of his people. However, both he and I were aware there were some progressive Jewish activists who are concerned about all people but their own. For example, there are some progressive Jewish activists who do not offer strong condemnations of those seeking to destroy Israel; instead, they strongly condemn Israel, and they blame Israel for the lack of peace in the Middle East, due to their disagreement with some of its policies. They ignore, however, the following reality: Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas believe that the State of Israel has no right to exist regardless of its policies, and the Palestinian Authority has renewed its alliance with Hamas, without demanding any change in Hamas’ position on Israel. The PA itself still engages in anti-Jewish incitement which includes anti-Jewish libels from the dark ages; it still refuses to recognize Jewish roots in Jerusalem; and it still refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

One does not have to be a political expert to realize that our enemies are planning another war against us. Other Arab countries, such as Egypt, may also join the next war.

Our tradition encourages each of us to have empathetic compassion for the suffering of the Community of Israel, and the Talmud states: “Whoever shares in the suffering of the community will gain merit and see the comfort of the community.”

There are those us who need to do a “tikun” – fixing – of that cold attitude towards the suffering of Israel. We need to begin this tikun by engaging in a process of spiritual renewal that will enable an empathetic compassion for the endangered six million Jews of Israel. Moreover, this would be a good way to honor the memory of the Six Million.

Through this spiritual renewal, may we merit the full comfort and redemption of the Community of Israel which is described in the following prophecy from Jeremiah that will bring us to the dawn of the messianic age: “Then their souls shall be like a well-watered garden, and they shall not continue to agonize anymore; the maidens shall rejoice in the round-dance, young and old together…. I shall transform their mourning into joy… and gladden them after their grief.”

May we be blessed with true shalom.