In little more than a month, Purim will be here again. In addition to masks, groggers, and fun-filled Purim spiels, I hope part of our preparation focuses on the vital messages this festival and the Book of Esther, the text that underlies it, send to us today
The faces in the photo that hangs in the new synagogue in Bad Segeberg haunt me. They seared themselves into my brain the first time I saw it, and they do not let go.
What were these 26 souls thinking when—in hiding–they celebrated Purim in 1936? Their eyes and their smiles betray fear as well as their resolve to celebrate the festival with joy.
There are those who demean Purim and the basis for the festival, the Book of Esther. They say:
“It is the only book in the Tanach that does not mention God!””
“The story reads a cartoon melo-drama. It is obviously a work of fiction”
“I am turned off by the excessive violence described as the Jews take their revenge.”
These criticisms notwithstanding, Esther is our prototype story of triumph over forces that have tried to destroy us.
So what if the story is fictionalized and over drawn? It is an inspiring tale of courage.
First of all there is the courage of Vashti. What a role model she is for women of today who face sexual harassment! When the King wanted her to show her beauty (in the altogether, commentators claim) to his drunken friend, she had the courage to refused. She put her dignity and self-respect above position and power.
Then there is the question of destiny. When Mordecai told Esther to tell the King she was Jewish, she replied, “I can’t” No one sees the king without an invitation, and he has not invited me for thirty days.
This is your Moment, claimed Mordecai. “Who know if you did not become queen just for this opportunity that is uniquely yours to stand up for our people?” What a powerful message.
If we look for them, we all have moments when we are in a unique position to make a positive difference. Esther seized her moment. Will we seize ours?
Certainly the Jews of Bad Segeberg seized their moment in 1936. Their celebration testified that they would not allow the Nazis to cow them.
Each time I stare at the photo I wonder: What befell these brave souls? How many—if any—survived Nazi tyranny and celebrated Purim in freedom at some later time?
Regardless, these brave celebrants are the lineal heirs of Vashti and Esther who placed pride and dignity over expediency and ease.
Few Jews remained in Bad Segeberg when the period of Nazi horror ended. The once proud synagogue in the city crumbled from disuse and was torn down in 1962.
But thanks in large measure to an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, and thanks to the skill and determination of the community’s leader Walter Blender who saw to every detail of the construction of the new building, where the 1936 a miracle occurred. Thanks are also due to the kindhearted support of the Christian community led by Pastors Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening who extended the hospitality of their church to the new Jewish community as it reformed.
Every time I climb the stairs to the sanctuary of Bad Segeberg’s Reform (and only) synagogue Mishkan HaTzafon, I look at the 26 brave faces in the photo, and I wish I could thank each and every one.
I have no doubt. Because of the courage of the Jews of Bad Segeberg in 1936 there is Jewish life-–a thriving and God willing growing Jewish life—in Bad Segeberg in 2016.
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is the former President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT. In 2014 and 2015 he and his wife Vickie spent ten weeks in Germany speaking in synagogues, churches, universities, the Abraham Geiger College, and high schools. He served as guest rabbi at Mishkan Ha Tzafon in Bad Segeberg for the Days of Awe and Simchat Torah last year and is scheduled to do so again during the next High Holy Day season.