Reflections on a providential pilgrimage
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER
'I have come away with a stronger sense of urgency regarding my own responsibility to speak the truth, as my conscience impels me, with charity, even if it be politically risky or its outcome, at best, uncertain. Silence in the face of evil can only be a strategy, not a response: the work of patience awaiting the right time and place to speak, but never an answer in itself.'
(Editor's note: Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger participated in an Oct. 28-Nov. 8 trip to Eastern Europe with a group from Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany. He visited Vienna, Austria; Budapest, Hungary; Krakow, Poland; and Prague in the Czech Republic.)
So far, as I have learned, I am not halakhically -- that is to say, "canonically" -- Jewish.
My maternal grandfather, Max Magdal, was a Russian Jew from the Kiev area whose parents migrated to the Midwest during the pogroms of Alexander III in 1883. I wanted to learn more about -- and to experience firsthand -- my Jewish roots.
I am eternally grateful for the invitation from Rabbi Scott Shpeen and this historical congregation to join in an amazing adventure which, I must say, has left an indelible impression in the depths of my soul.
Rabbi Shpeen heads the Temple Beth Emeth Reform Jewish congregation, the country's fourth oldest, which is celebrating its 180th anniversary this year. On Oct. 28, I joined 40 members of that congregation for a 10-day pilgrimage to sites of Jewish religious, cultural and historical heritage, in and around the cities of Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Cracow (Krakow).
A sense of soul-bonding is the first and most fundamental impact that this remarkable journey has had on me. I think I can speak for us all in saying that we are most grateful to God for the providence that has brought us together.
It has been only two days since we returned from our 10-day pilgrimage, which seems to have packed more learning, adventure and tools of personal enrichment into a brief time than any school semester I have ever experienced.
Every day was full of surprises, discoveries and sentiments, from our arrival Sunday a week ago in Vienna, atypically whipped with gale force winds that delayed the deplaning of our luggage, to our tour of the Terezín (a.k.a. Theresienstadt) concentration camp northwest of Prague, where so much of the world's great talent and experience would be squandered.
It was there that it began to dawn on me not only the evil of the Nazi ideology that led to the Shoah (Holocaust), but its rank stupidity -- and, ultimately, suicidal stupidity.
Of course, this became even more luridly evident as the full destructive nature and goal of this dehumanizing and cannibalizing death machine was exposed in all its demonic fury. You really have to see it for yourself as you tour the museums of the remnants to which this monstrous terror-state reduced human beings and their every earthly possession, but could never kill their spirits.
I must pause to add a parenthesis about the professionalism and solicitude of the people at Ayelet Tours and their overseas agents. Amid every challenge, from the foreboding weather on our arrival in Vienna to the management of an event-packed schedule -- including the high point of our meeting with Cardinal Péter Erdo, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest -- not a single item was lost or a courtesy overlooked.
The emergence of good in the midst of so much evil was evident everywhere. We heard the stories of people who sacrificed their own lives to save others -- often, through the most heroic and ingenious ways.
History is full of "what if's." Many people, we were to learn, chose not to act and to see if they could "ride it out" or "work behind the scenes." Tremendous responsibility falls on those in positions of authority whose political, moral and religious leadership might move the dial, however slowly, in one direction or another. How different would the outcomes have been had some of them spoken out more publicly?
I include among them such leaders, those in the highest ranks of our ecclesiastical hierarchy right up to the pope -- then as well as now. But I refrain from casting a judgment that history might be tempted to but that only God, who alone reads the heart and mind, finally can.
As one of my high school teachers often reminded us, when the index finger of the right hand points to another person, the other three fingers point right back at me.
That said, there is much to be learned by asking honestly what could and should have been done then and what we should do now.
I have come away with a stronger sense of urgency regarding my own responsibility to speak the truth, as my conscience impels me, with charity, even if it be politically risky or its outcome, at best, uncertain. Silence in the face of evil can only be a strategy, not a response: the work of patience awaiting the right time and place to speak, but never an answer in itself.
The maxim of the common law is that silence betokens consent. For that reason, one can never remain silent in the face of evil. That is a powerful lesson that this experience is driving home to my heart, as I pray it will to all with the eyes and the ears to see and hear what human history is telling us.
Another of the more startling and unsettling revelations to grapple with, even today, is the inability or unwillingness of so many persons of age and experience to see, identify and take action against evil right before their eyes. Children, morally innocent of evil, in their poetry and drawings perceive it and presage it. But no one arrives to protect them.
Unfortunately, this is a historical archetype that repeats itself time and again, even in our time. Regard the violence that faces the innocent in an inconvenient place at the wrong time: the refugee from the inconvenient country or the child in the wrong city, the inconvenient unborn or the inconvenient elderly, or the faithful, God-fearing worshipper in the wrong place where only one faith or no faith, or ideology or race or nationality, is tolerated.
Now, I would not be telling the whole story of our pilgrimage if I described only the more disquieting and somber threads of these incredibly rich and colorful days together, which also have brought much joy and even entertainment. The many moments of the humor, singing and dancing, and the breathtaking beauty of the land and cityscapes which surrounded us are part of the memories that our little group of 43 will always treasure.
How much I look forward to the good we can continue to do together in our communities, joined together by a faith centered on a God who is ever-present to us and ever-faithful.
(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)
(November 16, 2017)