March 31, 2020

Crossing paths

A television comedy director on hiatus takes a brief journey to Eastern Europe to look for the birthplaces of her grandparents. While there, she meets a
professor documenting the lives of the last remaining shtetl Jews. The professor encourages the director to visit a few of these aging, isolated survivors, and the visits change her life and theirs.

“The genesis of this project lies in a series of paths that fortuitously crossed, creating a meaningful link between people from all over the world,” writes Zane Buzby in an introduction to The Survivor Mitzvah Project, an organization created solely to provide food, medicine, heat, shelter and human contact to aged, lonely Holocaust survivors living in tiny towns and villages in Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Slovakia and Latvia.

This project won’t last much longer. Buzby notes the survivors are in their 80s and 90s, and while they are still alive “it is our mission to see that these elderly and forgotten people, who have experienced firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust, will not be alone and neglected in their final years.”

“A series of paths that fortuitously crossed,” says Buzby, and her words bring to mind a coincidence in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev.

Joseph, 17, is sent by his father Jacob to check on his 10 older brothers, herding their flocks a long distance away. By chance, an unidentified man finds Joseph wandering in the fields and asks him: “What do you seek?”

The 11th and 12th century Jewish scholars Rashi and Maimonides, and the Midrash Rabbah before them, declare Joseph’s mystery man to be an angel sent by God. One can easily see why. If the man hadn’t told Joseph where to look for his brothers, Joseph might not have found them, and thus might not have been sold into slavery by them — though Joseph might not call that fortuitous. And then he might never have gone to Egypt and won Pharaoh’s favor so that he might later save his starving family (including his aged father), and for that matter the known world. Buzby repeats frequently from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5: “Who saves a life, saves the world entire.”

When Jacob calls the young Joseph to set out on this journey, before he even gives him the details of his assignment, Jacob says, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” And Joseph replies with the weighty biblical phrase: “Hineini,” “I am ready” or “I am here” (Genesis 37:13). It’s the same reply his ancestor, Abraham, offered just before God called him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac (Genesis 22:1). The same reply Moses offered when God first calls out to him from the burning bush (Exodus 3:4). The same reply that comes from the prophet Isaiah when, on a visit to heaven, he hears God saying, “Whom shall I send, who will go for us?” “Hineini,” Isaiah says, “send me,” (Isaiah 6:8). Is it ironic or is it the point that our biblical ancestors replied, “Hineini,” before they knew what God or others were going to ask of them?

I imagine that each of us could come up with our own examples of “fortuitous” path-crossing; the encounter with a stranger/angel that changed our life, or at least sent us down an unexplored path. And no doubt, too, we could recall the paths not taken, the times we didn’t say, “Hineini,” when the stranger (or trusted adviser) whose pointed questions — “What do you seek?” — we ended up ignoring, finding ourselves too busy, too focused, too unfocused, too scared, just “not ready.”

You might have read about the Survivor Mitzvah Project last year in The Jewish Journal. Today, with the worldwide economic upheaval, heat and food and medicine cost even more. Buzby and those whose paths she crossed — philanthropist Chic Wolk, professor Dovid Katz, Ludmila who makes the deliveries, Sonia Kovitz, who translates the survivors’ letters and writes to them in Yiddish — all help see to it not only that “100 percent of every donation goes directly into the hands of an elderly Holocaust survivor,” but also that their stories get told and archived. The survivors refer to their benefactors as “di malokhim fun Amerike” (the angels from America).

These days, in the midst of this horrendous economic crisis, many advisers suggest we turn “micro,” focusing small when trying to solve problems. Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman wrote about this idea (“DIY,” Nov. 28), noting that new Jewish philanthropies are tending toward smaller projects. Indeed, in this day and age, perhaps we need to think locally in order to act globally.

Eshman concluded that our job is “not just to change and innovate, but to leave behind something better, something substantial. It likely won’t be actual buildings, but it should be something the next generation can build upon.”

How about, for starters — crossed path by crossed path, person by person, angel by angel — a rescued world?

For more information about the Survivor Mitzvah Project, call (800) 905-6160 or visit