'So much good and so much evil seem to walk side by side in the march of history. Even as we have seen in our own experience in the aftermath of disasters and tragedies...the most noble flowerings of humanity emerge even from the ashes of destruction.'
(Editor's note: Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger is on an Oct. 28-Nov. 8 trip to Eastern Europe with a group from Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany. He is visiting Vienna, Austria; Budapest, Hungary; Krakow, Poland; and Prague in the Czech Republic. Upon his return, he will share his thoughts about the trip with members of the synagogue and the general public Nov. 10 after the temple's 5:30 p.m. Sabbath service. Congregation Beth Emeth is at 100 Academy Rd., Albany. For information, contact Deb Sokoler, firstname.lastname@example.org or 518-436-9761, ext. 230.)
It's Sunday evening in chilly Cracow (Krakow), Poland, as I write this, unwinding after a six-hour bus trek over the snow-dusted Carpathian Mountains, with warm memories of Friday's Sabbath service in Budapest's Dohany Street synagogue -- Europe's largest -- still vivid.
Tomorrow, a long and somber day of prayer and reflection at Auschwitz and Birkenau summons us. I look forward, with both apprehension and hope, that we will be wounded by our visit to the World War II concentration camp site, yet better off for being there.
Every day has been packed with surprise, discovery and sentiment, from our arrival last Sunday 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.
I am on pilgrimage with some 40 members of the Congregation Beth Emeth, the oldest reformed synagogue in the United States, celebrating its 180th anniversary this year. Last year, at Rabbi Scott Shpeen's invitation, I decided to join them for this 10-day tour of Jewish history and heritage sites in Central Europe.
As it unfolds, it is proving nothing short of life-changing.
The presence of Dr. Stephen Berk, the much-respected historian from Union College in Schenectady, is providing us with searing insight and analytical perspective that -- in situ -- puts us back into settings where humans treated humans with unimaginable cruelty.
At the same time, this journey is wrapped in prayer and contemplation as we pause in silence, lighting candles that alone can speak the words of the heart that lips cannot utter.
It is too soon to attempt to encapsulate in a few paragraphs the depth and breadth of this shared experience. So many of my traveling companions and others whom we have met along the way have personal and family accounts to relate -- at once unique, yet reminding us of our common humanity and the relevance of our life stories.
There are the present stories, like that of the young Polish woman who only learned at 13 from her non-observant grandmother that she was halakhically -- that is, authoritatively -- Jewish.
There are the past stories of which even the stones speak: the dense forest of "resurrected" tombstones (once buried themselves beneath the new city) in the ancient graveyard near the Old-New synagogue in Prague, epitaphs etched with the personal qualities of the decedents.
There are the stories that might have been told by artists, scientists and scholars who, had their lives not gone up the chimney, might have saved us from so many diseases, wars and other catastrophes.
So much good and so much evil seem to walk side by side in the march of history. Even as we have seen in our own experience in the aftermath of disasters and tragedies, whether natural or brought on by some malicious intent, the most noble flowerings of humanity emerge even from the ashes of destruction.
I have been reading stunningly beautiful and poignant poems written by children confined in the ghettoes and camps, revealing truth and wisdom rarely expressed so eloquently by persons scores their age. They seem to sense the evil crouching at their heels that many an elder would deny or dismiss.
Yet, like birds in the night, they go on singing. That is one of the most startling and unsettling revelations to emerge: the inability or unwillingness of so many adults to see, identify and take action against the evil right before their eyes.
The children, morally innocent of it, perceive it and presage it, but no one arrives to protect them. Unfortunately, this is a historical archetype that repeats itself time and again.
While more lies ahead, this is already shaping up for me to be a pilgrimage of a lifetime. It has long been dawning on me that I understand my own Christian faith so much more deeply as I explore its roots in the Jewish faith. We remain united in our faith in a God who does not abandon His people throughout the course of history, even when we descend to or are cast into the deepest recesses of our hells-on-earth.
Though we may live and theologize in different time sequences, we are both messianic peoples who recognize humanity's helplessness to save ourselves without a God who breaks into our history. Our commitment to family and community, our religious rituals and the virtues we champion in the lives of those whom we seek to emulate are all of a similar thread.
Somehow, my own eucharistic faith, my sense of how the sacrifice of the Mass plunges us into the life of our Lord and Savior who Himself quite copiously "bled" the Scriptures (the law and the prophets) from every pore throughout His public life -- somehow, that faith is fortified and intensified as I walk, commiserate, laugh and pray with my Jewish sisters and brothers.
Together, we seek to be light for the world by being true to the God who calls us forward and who, I fully believe, wills that we be together in the end, in the promised everlasting joy of God's kingdom come.