Hebrew Can Save Your Life

Chaim Grade was a poet of the mid-twentieth century in Europe. The son of a Hebrew teacher, he received a religious and secular education. He became one of Lithuania’s greatest interpreters of Jewish literature. He fled the German invasion of Vilnius in World War II and sought refuge in the Soviet Union. Later he moved to the United States. In his memoir, My Mother’s Sabbath Days, he recalls sneaking into the Soviet Union and being cornered in a forest by Russian soldiers. They examined his Hebrew bible and, although Grade did not speak Russian, he could tell from their looks they suspected it was some kind of German code book and that he was a spy. They were going to kill him. All of a sudden a Russian officer rode up on horseback. He spoke with the soldiers and demanded to see the book. With a bemused expression he marked the book and gave it to Grade. He then ordered the men to leave. Grade was alone in the forest, his life spared. The Bible was marked on a page from the prophet Jeremiah, with the words: “I am always with you, says God, and will protect you.”

What happened? Most likely the Russian officer had been a religious Jew before the Russian revolution and had studied the Torah in Hebrew school. Without betraying his background he was able to save Grade and through Hebrew send him an encoded message – “Don’t worry, chaver; you are not alone.”

I share this story because I am spending two weeks on faculty at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (the first Reform Jewish camp, established in 1952) in the unit that has 83 high school students spend the summer here speaking only in Hebrew. It is called Chalutzim (pioneers). There is no other program like this for Reform Jews in the country. This is a program that is vital to the future of Reform Judaism because we need to make sure that we keep our Hebrew alive. Hebrew is more than a language. It is a way of looking at the world, a bridge to the Bible, and a means of keeping us close to our Israeli brothers and sisters. Olin Sang Ruby has been offering this program for decades. The number of graduates who are confident in their Hebrew cannot be measured.

I have been on staff at camp for many years and on faculty for now three years. I have never been more honored to be here than I am now. Hebrew is truly the secrete of the secret sauce that makes this place so special. It permeates each unit and every meal. We should all aspire to have Hebrew a stronger part of our identity. It will be Hebrew that keeps us centered and keeps us as one people.

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