A Word From Rabbi Allen

August 14, 2020
By Beth Mordecai
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A Word From Rabbi Allen


Recently, I’ve been thinking about my grandfather, Harry Allen. It was his yahrzeit last week, so it makes sense, but in truth he has been on my mind. I’d like to tell you about him.

Harry S. Allen was raised in Denver, Colorado, the child of immigrants from Marianpol, Lithuania.  Like many Jews of that time, they owned a store with their home in the apartment above.  Grandpa served in Europe during WWII as a navigator on B-24 bombers flying missions out of Italy.  He flew something like 50 missions and was awarded two purple hearts among other decorations and commendations. He used to remark about his choice to join the Air Force instead of the army, saying that you could kill more Nazis with a bomb than with a gun.

He met Bubbe – Anne Arbitman – just before Pesach 1944 in Omaha, Nebraska.  They went out on a few dates before Grandpa had to ship out to Tuscon for more training.  They hit it off and Bubbe even told her sister Mary that she was going to marry him.  One of the things that they spoke about on their first date was Zionism and Israel which always was a huge part of their lives as individuals and as a married couple.  They realized their dream of living in Israel when they made Aliya from Lincoln, Nebraska in 1987 after retiring.

Grandpa worked for various state government agencies in Colorado and Nevada; he worked for the nuclear energy commission for a short time in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  His longest professional post though was at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.  A member of the Chancellor’s staff, he was charged with developing a university think tank to plan the future for the institution.  From that moment on he was a Cornhusker for life and all of the grandchildren were required to learn the Nebraska fight song! We still sing it at family simchas.

With Bubbe they raised 4 children, had 12 grandchildren and to date have 29 great grandchildren, four of whom are named after him in some way.

Grandpa loved a good debate.  Even if I was able to land a few good points in there, Grandpa always seemed to win.  He was unflappable, always listened, and always answered you on point.

One of the most important things to Grandpa was family unity.  He seldom missed a simcha or a party, and Bubbe and Grandpa’s home was one in which the whole family, regardless of personal Jewish practice, could at least always eat comfortably. As an aside, that was always the rule with my parents as well. “Make whatever Jewish choices that are meaningful to you so long as you always eat in our house!”

In reading the parasha this week, I was reminded of this commitment to unity Chapter 14 of Deuteronomy begins – “Banim atem Ladonai Eliheichem You are children of the Lord your God. Lo Titgodedu – do not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead.”  In context it is a nod to the surrounding culture the Israelites would encounter that glorified death by means of mutilating one’s flesh. Because we are God’s children, we have a special obligation to celebrate life instead of reveling in death.

The Rabbis, playing on the root gimel, daled, daled riffed on this, saying that in addition to the verse indicating not to make any gashes in your physical body – it also means do not make yourself as a people into different groups.  Stay together as a nation.  Do no harm to the body politic of the Jewish people. For Grandpa, this represented the ideal of family life.  Even though each part of the family had their own views on parenting, on Judaism, on Israel – on just about everything – Granpda insisted that we love each other even though at times we may not like each other.  Preserving the whole was a top priority and loyalty to family and country was key first and foremost.

As a staunch Zionist, Grandpa felt this value intensely regarding his support for Israel.  He respected other Jew’s opinions on Israel but when they went over the line in his perception, when they caused rifts to be made within the nation of the Jewish people – that he could not abide.  Grandpa saw all Jews in the world as his family – even the ones who he wished were not his relatives.

Grandpa not only lived this out with his family and with Jews around the world, but he felt it as an American and a human being. This was his strength and this is one of the legacies he has left us.

I suspect that if Grandpa were alive today, one of the most painful aspects of our present culture for him would be the fact that we are so divided. Our political affiliations have taken on religious fervor. Our commitments that used to be personal are now red lines we impose on others. Mistrust and suspicion are rampant and even basic facts are contested as to their veracity. We can’t ask him, but I have a sense that because of his deep commitment to lo titgodedu – ­to strive individually and collectively to see those things that unite us as more significant and potent than what divides us – he would not have a very rosy outlook about the future of our country or of the world.

And yet our Torah lesson this week, need not lead us to lament our failure to implement a worldview that privileges a diverse unity, but perhaps to remind ourselves precisely why it is so important. We need not always agree with one another. But we must never forget that our strength comes from our commitment to each other, as American citizens, as Jews, and as human beings.

I still hope, despite my cynicism and skepticism about current trends, that we can reactivate this principle in our personal lives and within our national conversations.

I invite you to join me in a prayer this Shabbat, that the message of our parasha and my Grandpa Harry – of unity through diversity, of exchanging ideas in respectful debate, and of commitment to one another – be an inspiration us to continue our strength in unity as a CBM community, as the Jewish people, and as citizens of the world.

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