What is the difference between history and memory?
Why would someone who dedicated his life to ensuring a vibrant Jewish present and future focus on the demolished Jewish cemeteries of eastern Europe — places that seem to embody the opposite of life?
What obligations — and blessings — does a grandson carry if one of his parents’ first gifts to him is his extraordinary grandfather’s name?
Those are all formidably serious topics; Rabbi Moses Josef Rubin of Pomona talks about his grandfather — also, of course, Rabbi Moses Josef Rubin, of Romania and then, eventually, Brooklyn, who died five years before his namesake was born — with both reverence and unmistakable love.
He also tells a fascinating story.
Both Rabbis Rubin headed Geder Avos, an organization devoted to protecting and restoring Eastern European Jewish cemeteries; today’s Rabbi Rubin will talk about it at a program co-sponsored by the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College and the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, presented at the synagogue. (See box.)
The younger Rabbi Moses Josef — who more frequently goes by Moshe Yosef — is a Chabad-Lubavitch chasid, following in the tradition of his mother’s family; his grandfather “also was of chasidic stock,” although not Lubavitch, Rabbi Rubin said. “He was very much ultra-Orthodox, but also very much not isolationist Orthodox. He saw himself as a rabbi for klal Yisrael. He was fully engaged with the very observant, the somewhat observant, and the not very observant.”
Rabbi Rubin’s grandfather’s story began in Romania. “He was the son of a chasidic rebbe who led a very small group of chasidim,” Rabbi Rubin said. “His grandfather and great-grandfather were bigger rebbes,” in a line that stretched back directly to the Ba’al Shem Tov; one of Rabbi Rubin’s ancestors was the first Belzer rebbe.
“My grandfather grew up in a traditional chasidic home — and he went to university.” That was in an ancient Romanian town then called Kalusenburg, and now known as Cluj. “He spoke 10 languages, and unlike many sons of rabbis or of rebbes, who went to university and never came home, he very much came home. He kept his chasidic garb.
“He was an Old World Jew and a New Age man.”
Rabbi Rubin was born in 1895, so by the time World War II started, he was in his mid 40s. (By contrast, his grandson is 38 years old. The generations run long in the Rubin family.) “He was deep into his life and career,” his grandson said. “He always balanced the Jewish and the worldly. He was immensely learned in Torah and perfectly educated in the general culture. He saw Torah in everything; he was a Torah Jew who saw himself as connected with every Jew.
“He was unusual — but he wasn’t the only one. There was a cadre of rabbis like that. There were other rabbis like him — but there weren’t enough.”
After nearly 20 years as chief rabbi of Câmpulung Moldovenesc, a city in Bukovina, Rabbi Rubin moved to Bucharest, which somehow was relatively untouched by the war. “Bucharest is a major eastern European capital city; about 150,000 Jews lived there,” Rabbi Rubin said. Most of them survived the war. Romanian Jews in other parts of the country were slaughtered, but not in Bucharest. “My father” — that’s Jacob Rubin, born in 1938 — “says that he wasn’t really a survivor.” Not that he didn’t survive the war; it’s that he didn’t suffer through it. “He lived in an apartment. The family had access to money, and a somewhat normal life.”
Bucharest is in southern Romania. It was very different in other parts of the country. So Rabbi Rubin and others in his small synagogue “created a rescue committee, which sent aid to the ghettos, particularly in Transnitria, and saved so many lives in the fall of 1941 and the winter of 1942.
With Nathan Klipper, another largely unsung hero, Rabbi Rubin “was able to save many Jews.
“Refugees streamed into Bucharest, and my grandfather asked that every Jewish family take in a refugee. He made a yeshiva, and I think there were about 170 boys in it.
“Romania was among Hitler’s closest allies,” until it wasn’t, Rabbi Rubin said. Later, in 1944, it “deposed its dictator and switched sides. My father said that he remembers running into a shelter when the Americans were bombing Bucharest, and then later running into shetlers because it was the Germans doing the bombing.”
Romania’s war history largely has been forgotten.
“In his writings, my grandfather noted that Romania was like an almana,” a widow, “a woman with no voice. He tried to give it another voice.”
After the war, the Rubins — Rabbi Moses Josef, his wife, Sara, and their sons, Samuel, who became a heart specialist in Montreal, and the 17-years-younger Jacob, a now-retired electrical engineer who spent most of his career in Clifton — left Romania, eventually making their way to the United States.
“My grandmother was with my grandfather all through everything,” Rabbi Rubin said. “She lost her whole family in Auschwitz. My father says that if it were not for her strength, his father would have collapsed. She was a much stronger person; she stood behind him and helped him.
Still, it was hard. “My grandfather’s role here was diminished,” Rabbi Rubin said. “He came here with some important perspectives, but nothing comparable to his prewar life.”
But Rabbi Rubin the Elder recreated himself. After a stint as the rabbi of a small shul on Long Island, and a few short-term moves, he and his wife moved to Boro Park, where he became the head of the local rabbinic court.
Oh, and he did some other things too.
In 1950, he founded the World Center of European Rabbis. “In those days, the Claims Conference” — to be formal, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — and the German government were negotiating reparations,” Rabbi Rubin the Younger said. “My grandfather felt that there were exiled rabbis” — he estimates about 400 or so — “mainly in middle or old age,” who were in great need. “They couldn’t become butchers or grocers. They were clergymen. American had a much weaker rabbinate” — there were no community-funded city rabbis — “and a lot of them found themselves destitute. He felt that they needed an enhanced pension.
“I have copious correspondence between him and the German government, in excellent German,” he continued.
“There was a lot of paperwork involved,” he said drily.
He also was a strong supporter of Israel and fund-raised for the Jewish state.
The organization Geder Avos, “committed to preserving the heritage of Central and Eastern European Jewry,” according to its website — grew out of the WCER. “A group of rabbis founded it in 1960,” Rabbi Rubin said; that group included his grandfather. Supporters included Jacob Javitz — the Republican U.S. senator who represented New York from 1957 to 1981 — “who was a proud Jew. What they succeeded in doing was raising consciousness.”
It was “the first organization established after the Holocaust dedicated to the protection and restoration of Jewish cemeteries across war-torn Europe,” again according to its website.
Rabbi Rubin pursued its mission fervently; his correspondence with world leaders on the issue included letters from presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.
Rabbi Rubin died in 1980, and Sara Rubin died six years later. After Rabbi Rubin’s death, Geder Avos lost steam and eventually stopped functioning.
Rabbi Rubin the Younger found himself fascinated with his grandfather’s work. “This man was so involved with Jewish life, and then suddenly, after the war, reports of the destruction of Jewish cemeteries start coming in, and he dedicated his last 20 years to dealing with it,” he said. “The question is why.
“It wasn’t sentimentality. He wasn’t sentimental. It wasn’t historical either. But he felt that by having the sensitivity to preserve the sites, we are preserving something deeper and more essential to the fabric of Jewish existence. Essential to the Jewish soul.
“It’s about where we come from and where we are going. The difference between history and memory is that history is something you know. Memory is far deeper. If a Jewish kid can say ‘This is my grandmother’s place,’ then that kid knows ‘It has something to do with me.’
“It sparks something, a sense of knowing where you are in the story of the Jewish people.
“My grandfather attributed mystical and cosmic significance not only to memory, but to where we are going. In Jewish burial practices, we stop to purify and bury the body. When we do that, we are saying that the story doesn’t end here. If we were to treat human remains as we do other material objects, we could be corrupting our humanity.
“There is something more to the world — the eternity of the soul.”
So, Rabbi Rubin said, the point to maintaining Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe is “having the sensitivity of tapping into where we come from, and the deep Jewish belief of linking to the great Jewish past and the future.”
So Rabbi Rubin found himself more and more drawn to the organization his grandfather created. He helped turn it into a nonprofit organization, and he raises funds for it. He is also a board member of the European Jewish Cemetery Initiative, headed by the prominent Israeli-British businessman Rabbi Isaac Schapira.
He’s also involved in an organization called I.NEXT.G — Israel’s Next Generation. It, too, is about life, specifically Jewish life. “We work with three national platforms that engage with young Israelis — in high school, in the IDF, at university — to strengthen Jewish identity. Everybody wants to be Jewish — and proudly Jewish.”
Who: Rabbi Moses J. Rubin
What: Will talk about “Saving the Jewish Cemeteries of Eastern Europe”
When: On Tuesday, February 28, at 6 p.m.
Where: At the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, 10-10 Norma Avenue
Sponsored by: The Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College and the Fair Lawn Jewish Center
For more information or to register: Email firstname.lastname@example.org