Hope for the New Year Revived by Tale of Lamed Vav

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The world must contain not less than 36 righteous individuals in each generation who greet the Shekhinah’s presence each day. Jewish mythology

On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birthday of world, the beginning of a New Year full of possibilities. In the weeks leading up to our High Holy Days, however, I have encountered many events that make me doubt those possibilities. 

Evidence of climate change impacted our summer travels. In Frisco, Colorado, we watched helicopters dump water and flame retardant on a mountain only six miles from my daughter’s home, one of many wildfires burning throughout the West.  In July, Larry and I traveled with a group on land tours of Norway and Iceland. The first country was magical; the latter was other-worldly; both were beautiful. But Norway, like most of Europe, was experiencing the hottest summer in history, and farmers were facing withering crops and dry pastures for their domestic animals. Meanwhile, Iceland had weeks of record-breaking cold and rain that resulted in rotting crops. 

We returned home to the news filled with stories of corruption and indictments at the highest levels of our government, our mailbox filled with contentious election with ads vilifying good people with lies, and, the television blasting information about the latest mass shooting, this time in Jacksonville, Florida. None of this made me feel hopeful for the coming year. 

In the final scene in Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye and his neighbors are gathering their meager belongings to leave their “tumble-down, work-a-day Anatevka” after they are evicted by the Russian government. Motel the tailor suggests to the rabbi that this would be a good time for the Messiah to come. ”We’ll have to wait for him someplace else.” the rabbi replies. “Meanwhile, let’s start packing.” Yes, I agree with that wise rabbi: we could use a miracle.  

I didn’t get a miracle, but thanks to Laurie Clevenson, editor of the Jewish World, I did get a heartfelt lesson in Jewish mythology that renewed my faith. 

In the book of Genesis in the Tanakh, God concedes to Abraham that He would spare the city of Sodom if the patriarch could find just ten righteous men. We know how that ended: Not even one such man could be found. Sodom and its sister city Gomorrah were destroyed, and Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.

The Biblical passage developed into a Talmudic legend. In every generation, says the sages,  there are thirty-six righteous people upon whose merit the world is kept from entire destruction. The Lamed-Vav tzaddikim, as they are known in Yiddish,  are“humble servants of their fellows,” states an eponymous website, “tirelessly working to dry tears, show compassion, and shoulder the burdens of those who suffer.” 

The Righteous Among Us

Abraham desperately sought just ten such people five thousand years ago; in more modern times, the count is raised to the mythical Double Chai; the number 18 (meaning life) times two. These individuals are hidden, so hidden that no one knows who they are,  not even the others of the 36. When one of them dies, another is secretly “crowned,” waiting anonymously, silently, humbly for his or her call to come forward and help repair the world.

I feel we have examples of  Lamed-Vav tzaddikim in our own history. Abraham himself comes from obscurity to become the father of  the Jewish people. Against all odds, David slays Goliath; Judah Maccabee leads a rebellion against those who want us destroyed. The Lamed Vav website also gives examples of women: Ruth, an ancestor to King David, preserved not only Naomi, but future generations by being faithful. Esther, through her selfless bravery, saved her Jewish brethren from from certain destruction. And Deborah, instrumental in delivering Israel from Canaanite bondage, later served as judge. Each of these individuals came from the shadows to keep Judaism alive.

And we have all known such people in our our lifetimes. I have been fortunate to meet what I consider Lamed-Vav tzaddikim through my writing. Claudia “Clyde” Lewis supported and advocated for her sister Andrea, who was born with intellectual disabilities, resulting in Andrea living a life never initially imagined by those who wanted her institutionalized.  Tony Handler, 79-year-old seven time cancer survivor, has served as a beacon of hope for those who are diagnosed with the dread disease. The sole member of his family to survive theHolocaust, Harry Lowenstein immigrated to America to become a successful Florida, businessmen and the person behind the construction of the Kissimmee synagogue. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Lowenstein, “and I was determined to build another one.”

I loved the entire process of writing each one of these stories: interviewing each person; researching background information; writing and re-writing draft after draft to make sure I captured their voice in a story in which they would be proud.More importantly, I loved learning about each of these tzadakim, these people who quietly have made their mark on the world to make it a better place. 

 

Three Leave Positive Legacies

In the past month, I believe we have lost three of the 36. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, not only moved us with her songs and her voice but also was a leader in the civil rights movement. Senator John McCain, the maverick senator from Arizona, was lauded as a war hero, a public servant, and one of America’s great champions. Admired by both sides of the aisle, Senator Charles Schumer stated that his friend was  “never afraid to speak truth to power in an era where that has become so rare.” Hours after McCain’s death, news of Neil Simon’s passing was announced. The Pulitzer prize-winning Jewish playwright had revolutionized Broadway with his funny but biting views of Jewish urban life. Each of them shaped our world with a positive, long-lasting legacy. 

Hope and Mitvahs

In a 2010 Rosh Hashanah article, Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan spoke of “the thirty-six blessed humble souls whose merit keeps society from falling apart,” those individuals whose character and deeds are so exemplary that being around them raises those around them to a higher level.  With billions of people on the planet, she suggests remembering the African saying, “It takes a village.” “If we could develop 36 lamed-vavnik communities,” Rabbi Danan suggested, “we could have the critical mass to tip the balance of human history in a new direction.”

No matter what the number, this beautiful myth offers hope that the morally outstanding individuals can somehow affect the whole world. What can we do? First we need to treat everyone as if he or she is a Lamed Vav, as we never know—despite anyone’s level in life—if that person is a chosen one. Secondly, each of us should strive to be kind, compassion, and a mensch. Maybe one of us is a hidden Lamed Vav Tzadik? And finally, we can each be doing whatever we can to be a positive force in making a difference in the lives of our family, our community, and our world.

Tikkun Olam, my second book, is launched!!

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I am thrilled  to announce the release of my second book!

TIKKUN OLAM: STORIES OF REPAIRING AN UNKIND WORLD 

About my book:

Tikkun Olam is a collection of essays that were originally published in the (Capital Region) Jewish World and more recently the (Orlando) Heritage Florida Jewish News. Many reflect my own life: growing up in a very close knit family in a small town on Lake Champlain in Upstate New York, getting married to Larry and raising our children Adam and Julie, spending my career in adult education, and volunteering in my community. Since retiring, I have the opportunity to not only to share my stories but also to capture the heartwarming accounts of others who, through their actions, are helping to make the world a better place. My first book, There Goes My Heart, was published in 2016. Feel free to share your comments  and your stories with me at shapcomp18@me.com.

   From my Amazon page:

“Tikkun Olam is the Hebrew moral principle of “repairing the world,” that every individual should leave the world a better place than he or she found it. Marilyn Cohen Shapiro shares her journey to her “highest self” through thoughtful and often witty writings, which span a lifetime of experiences, from childhood, marriage, motherhood, and retirement. Throughout her journeys, she never loses her unwavering beliefs in truth, kindness, and community service—her insight colored with healthy doses of humor and compassion.”

To order Tikkun Olam:

Samuel Johnson wrote, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”.Please ‘complete’ my book by ordering a copy of my book from Amazon in either paperback or Kindle edition, click here. Online reviews are very much appreciated.Tikkun_Olam_Cover_for_Kindle

Shabbat with Synagogue of the Summit brings Shapiros solace

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Shabbat in the Rockies with Synagogue of the Summit

My husband Larry and I were enjoying our annual stay in the Colorado Rockies. As we had done many years before, we were hiking, spending time with our family, and taking advantage of all a summer in Summit County has to offer. The world surrounding us, however, was filled with troubling news. Both of us—especially me—needed to find peace and comfort. Fortunately, we were able to find both when we joined Synagogue of the Summit (SOS) for Friday night Shabbat service at Sapphire Point on this past June. 

The overlook sits at 9,500 feet between Keystone and Breckenridge atop of Swan Mountain Road. We placed our potluck snacks onto the waiting tables and set up our lawn chairs in anticipation of the evening service. We joined several SOS congregants for an easy hike along the half mile Old Dillon Reservoir trail, offering spectacular views of the Ten Mile Range and the Continental Divide. 

Barry Skolnick, SOS’s lay leader, began the service shortly after the hikers’ return. I will lift up mine eyes unto mountains from whence shall my help come, Skolnick said, quoting Psalm 121. My help shall come from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth. Barry swept his arms to point to a perfect blue summer sky etched with the Gore Mountain Range as Lake Dillon Reservoir sparkled below. 

Skolnick’s beautiful voice and the guitar and percussion accompaniment of musicians Ron and Betsy Cytron immediately drew me into the Shabbat service. Some of the melodies and prayers were new, but others were familiar to me from our congregations in Upstate New York and Florida. Board members and congregants were called up to light the Shabbos candles (non-flammable, to conform to the fire ban in the mountains), and take part in readings throughout the service.

Just before the Kiddish, Leah Arnold gave a short dracha—sermon—on Parashat Balak, the Torah portion for the week, The passage from Numbers recounts the story of Balak, the king of Moab, who summons the prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. On the way to his mission, Balaam is berated by his donkey (Yes, the donkey talks!), who realizes that an angel of God is blocking their way. Whenever Balaam attempts to pronounce his curses, his mouth instead pours out blessings.

In a moment of pure synchronicity with my own feelings, Arnold reflected that this particular week seemed to be filled with curses raining down on those who were trying to make the world a better place. “The possibility of turning back curses lies not directly with God or magical donkeys or angels,” Arnold shared with me later, “but with us, and our ability to channel the Divine within ourselves by following the prophet Micah’s words: ‘to seek justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’” 

Her closing poem was a reminder to all that calling out for God to help us do what He wants of us  is more useful and effective than simply cursing our situation. “I meant to curse you.” Arnold said, reading from a poem by Stacey Robinson. “Instead, I called out Your name.”

After the closing prayers, everyone shared challah, wine, and the food attendees had brought. Larry and I were warmly greeted by many members of SOS. One had a daughter and son-in-law moving to Frisco, four blocks from my own daughter’s family. Another sported a shirt from a golf community near us in Florida. His wife and I, both writers, found we had been impacted by a collection of children’s drawings and poems discovered after the Holocaust and captured in the book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Another couple owned a condo in the building next to ours. As we made our way back to our car, I told Larry we had found our summer Jewish home in the Rockies.

Over the next few days, I learned more about the congregation through research on the SOS website and conversations with its synagogue board members.

Although Denver has had a significant Jewish presence—over 40,000 in the 1970s—the Jewish population of Summit and adjacent Eagle counties was small. Religious services were held in the Interfaith Chapel at Vail, requiring a ride over Vail Pass. A beautiful drive, but treacherous during the winter months in the Rockies.

Recognizing the need for a Jewish community in Summit County,  Sandy Greenhut of Dillon organized the Summit County Jewish community and formed Synagogue of the Summit in 1990. The first years barely drew enough people for a minyan—the required ten adults over the age of thirteen. Meetings and High Holy Day services, as well as a Sunday School for children, were held in people’s homes for the diminutive but enthusiastic group. 

By the mid-1990’s the population of Summit County grew, as more people discovered life in Colorado. The Jewish population increased. Many purchased second homes or moved permanently to the mountains. “SOS membership now ranges between 120 and 140 families. About half the congregation are permanent residents, while the other half spends two to six months in Summit County,” stated outgoing SOS president Jonathan Knopf.

Jackie Balyeat, the incoming president, is optimistic about the future of the synagogue. “As newer members move into the county, they bring their previous work experiences enabling the congregation to tap into a variety of talents allowing SOS to offer different programming as well.” 

Although the majority of the congregants are retirees, young families are always welcome and SOS has several. The synagogue offers educational programming customized to the age of the children. There have been one or two Bar or Bat mitzvahs each year. 

SOS has no permanent building, a situation supported by the congregation. “This gives the congregation the opportunity to hold services in places all over Summit County,” explained Knopf.  Activities have been held in Breckenridge Library, the Frisco Senior Center and historic chapel, and the Silverthorne Municipal Building. Churches have also opened their doors to SOS, including Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church and the Dillon Community Church, where High Holy Day services will be held this September. In August, Skolnick conducted  a Shabbat Morning service at the historic Temple Israel in Leadville.   The building dates back to the 1880’s when Jews were participating in the mining days.  Although it is no longer an active synagogue, it is open for special events like those offered by SOS. 

Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, serves as the congregational rabbi six weekends a year. She also officiates at High Holy Day services, the annual Passover Seder, and special events. Whether run by “Rabbi Ruthie” or lay clergy, whenever possible, services and Torah studies are held at breathtaking outdoor locations throughout Summit County, including Sapphire Point, Keystone Mountain, and Lily Pad Lakes hiking trail. 

Along with spiritual events, SOS offers many social, cultural and outdoor programing.  Upcoming events this summer include potluck dinners, a hike to Shrine Pass near Vail, and a field trip to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. 

The congregation also is connected to the greater Denver Jewish community. Several members participated in the recent 22nd Annual Leadville Jewish Cemetery Cleanup Weekend sponsored by B’nai Brith. More than eighty people of all ages, are signed up to participate in the congregation’s first Annual Mitzvah Day on July 15th. The congregation will take on four service projects throughout Summit County, including trail clean-up in Breckinridge; landscaping of the Frisco-based safe house for Advocates for Victims of Assault; a path upgrade along Lake Dillon; and repair work at the Silverthorne Blue River Horse Center.

More information about Synagogue of the Summit is available through their website http://www.synagogueofthesummit.org

  

  

In Quest of the Elusive License Plates….

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Larry skipping to our car after finding a license plate from Chihuahua, Mexico

“Delaware!” my husband Larry yelled as we drove past a line of parked cars on Galena Street in Frisco, Colorado. “We got Delaware!”

In our life, “Getting Delaware” is a big deal. Within the first ten days of our five week search for license plates, we had gotten the license plate of the elusive Eastern seaboard state. Could Rhode Island be far behind?

Road Trip Entertainment

Today, while heading for their annual family vacation, children sit in the back seats of a SUV watching Toy Story or Frozen from a strategically placed rear-seat DVD system. When our children Adam and Julie were young,  high tech electronic baby sitters were not available.  We resorted to supplying them with books and food and some random toys to keep them busy.  

We also had aces up our sleeve. On long trips, I read them books—Superfudge and Tales of a Four Grade Nothing were the most popular. At night, we played P’Diddle. The first person to see a car with a missing headlights would yell the eponymous game’s name. The winner could punch his or her sibling in the shoulder. (Of course, Adam and Julie liked punching each other.) And if all else failed, we would pull out our old radio show cassette tapes and listen to Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, and the Lone Ranger. Not a Disney or Pixar movie to be found. Amazingly, we managed to get through our trips!

A New Game

For many years, our annual family vacation was spent at parents’ cottage on the New York side of Lake Champlain. The four of us would often take a day trip on the ferry from Port Kent to Burlington, Vermont. During those crossings, Larry encouraged us to check out the license plates. It became a game for us to see how many states we could find squeezed between bumpers. We could pick up ten or twelve states, mostly from the northeastern part of the country. “Dad would become pretty obsessed about our finding those license plates,” Julie recalled. 

Our game continued when our vacations expanded to Cape Cod. We would find an occasional Georgia or even California, but most people who headed to the Cape were from the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. A family vacation to Acadia National Park gave us a chance to expand our repertoire. I think that Larry was as excited to find that license plate from Alaska as he was to see Cadillac Mountain and Thunder Hole.

We Pursue the Plates

The children went along with their father’s fascination, but it wasn’t until Adam and Julie were out of the house and we began traveling out west to several national parks that his interest in tracking down all fifty-two plates intensified. and I became his mostly willing Pursuing the Plates Partner.

Fifty-two? That is part of “The Official Rules of the Game.” We are obligated  to find all fifty states, including both the yellow and turquoise New Mexico plates, and Washington, DC. We also track Canada’s ten provinces and three territories—including its newest Nunavut— as a bonus. (Bet many of you didn’t know all that information about Canada! See how much you can learn  plate pursuing!) Larry, the statistician, is in charge of keeping track of all our finds in his head and categorizing them by regions. I, the writer, am responsible for writing down each state as it is found and keeping the tally sheet with me at all times. 

Sightings Vary

No matter how complicated the rules, we are always able to pick off the big states—California, Texas, and Florida— quickly.  Non-contiguous Alaska and Hawaii are more difficult because of the distance—but we have found them almost every year.  Washington DC may be small in area, but anyone who has experienced the District of Columbia during the summer can understand why its 700,000 residents head out every July and August for cooler climes.  

The small states are the most problematic. As noted above, a license plate from Delaware is a coveted prize, as is West Virginia and New Hampshire. And Rhode Island? Legend says that Rhode Islanders consider any drive that takes more than twenty minutes a road trip. The probability of a “Little  Rhody” driving all the way to Colorado or Utah is slim. They usually are the last plates we find—if they are found at all.  

Many of the plates have been spotted while we are on the road, usually with Larry—the designated driver— behind the wheel.  Example: “Wait! Is that Maine in front of us?” Larry shouts.  He then speeds up the car and gets closer to targeted car to confirm. “Yes!  We got Maine!” We are lucky we haven’t yet “got”  a ticket for speeding or tailgating in the process.

And speaking of dangerous situations: Larry views every parking lot as a plethora of potential picks. He often takes circuitous routes through rows and rows of cars in search of an elusive New Jersey or West Virginia. I live in fear that my “Plate Patroller” will be so preoccupied in his hunt that he will get hit by a car backing out of a space. And sometimes, I am not afraid—just angry. As he usually has the keys to the rental car, I often find myself standing next to the locked passenger door, waiting in the rain or blazing heat or wind until Larry finishes his final scan and returns.  

Bounty Hunter in Action

At times, Larry has resorted to tracking down the actual drivers. While carrying groceries into our Colorado rental, Larry spotted a family sporting University of West Virginia sweatshirts walking into the condo next to us.  Larry tore after them to ask if they were from the Mountain State.

When they answered yes, Larry immediately followed up with the second, and more critical, question: “Did you drive your own car?”

”Sorry! It’s a rental!” 

Darn!

Unexpected Treasures

A few times, our search has yielded hidden treasures. We were walking into a Kansas City Royals vs. San Francisco Giants spring training game in Surprise Stadium in Arizona when Larry saw a license plate from Canada’s Northwest Territories. Not only was it the first time we had ever spotted a plate from that far-flung Canadian region, but also it was shaped like a polar bear!

We had another exciting find at Bahai Honda Key in Southern Florida, when we spotted a license plate from Germany. The owners—a young couple from Munich—had shipped their old Volkswagen van over to United States. After time in the Keys, they were continuing their journey through Mexico and Central and South America.

Now that we have Delaware, we only have eight more plates to go: non-contiguous. Alaska and Hawaii; New England’s New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont; Washington, DC; and West Virginia. Luckily for us, we have three more weeks in Colorado to find them. Wish us luck!

Update: An hour before I was to send this out, Larry found New Hampshire AND Chihuahua, Mexico! Wow! Only seven more to go!

Repairing the World

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The following is the first essay in my upcoming second book of essays, Tikkun Olam: Living Kind in an Unkind World. Look for it on Amazon soon!

The Shabbat prayer book in our synagogue includes the following meditation: “I harbor within—we all do—a vision of my highest self, a dream of what I could and should become. May I pursue this vision, labor to make real my dream.”

Melting glaciers and rising seas. The threat of nuclear war. The uptick of racist and xenophobic acts. Despite or maybe because of the current state of our world, it is more critical than ever for me to find “my highest self.” I am determined to use my moral compass to point me in a direction that follows my values and helps create change for the better for others.

Until recently, I did not consider myself an activist. I was—admittedly—marginally involved in the Vietnam War protests and the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment fight. Although I have voted in almost every local, state, and national election, I have minimally involved myself in campaigning. 

Recent headlines, however, have inspired me to become politically involved in the democratic process. In 2016, I participated in organized phone calls and mailings to support candidates in whom I believed. Two years later, I continue to be an activist. I participate in a grassroots organization to effect change at a local level. I contact my legislators on a regular basis through phone calls, emails, and letters. In addition, I have met with my United States representative, worked on post card campaigns, written postcards to encourage voter participation in recent off-year special elections, and provided financial support to organizations and publications that support my views. Even though these efforts are often met with defeat and disappointment, at least I have made a sincere effort to make a difference. 

In turn, I work to be more accepting of those whose political views differ from mine. I listen more carefully and non-judgmentally without rushing in with my own opinion. I have expanded my reading to include a wider range of media and publications in belief that my knowledge will help me better understand why people think like they do. Such research also gives me insight as to how the country and the world got to where it is today .Maybe—just maybe—if friends and family members talk and share and communicate, we can encourage our government to take a more bi-partisan approach. 

Finally, I strive to be kind. Whether it be coaching a local Special Olympics track and field team with my husband; extending a smile to strangers, or offering a helping hand to those impacted by recent natural disasters, I believe individual acts of goodness can make a difference. “Not all of us can do great things,” Mother Theresa said. “But we can do small things with great love.” 

Tikkun Olam, the Hebrew expression translated often as “repairing the world” is the Jewish moral principal that states every individual should leave this world better than he or she found it. This is the vision of my highest self. Through my voice, my writing, and my actions, I hope “to do small things with great love”—to make our country and this world a better place for our own and future generations.

Adapted from “Living My Values, The Jewish World, April 5, 2017

 

Beating the Odds

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Tony Handler (Courtesy of Jack Hall, Tony’s Grandson)

Eric Lagerstrom, a 29 year old from Gresham, Oregon, may have been the official male top finisher in the 2018 St. Anthony’s Triathlon, which was held on a beautiful April day in St. Petersburg, Florida. However, in the pack of over 3000 participants was an individual that many considered the true winner. Seventy-nine year old Tony Handler had completed his 300th triathlon since his “terminal” diagnosis thirty-five years earlier. “I beat Mr. Cancer again,” said Tony with satisfaction.

Waiting at the finish line, as she had done almost every time before, was his wife, Narda, his childhood sweetheart from Newark, New Jersey. “I think I missed only five races in his entire triathlon career,” said Narda

None of this seemed it would be possible thirty-five years earlier. In 1983 Tony was driving Narda and friends home from an evening out when he was seized by excruciating abdominal pains.  His friend took over the wheel and drove Tony directly to the hospital. The doctors in the emergency room determined that his stomach had ruptured and immediately operated.

Death Around the Corner?

Two days after the surgery, Tony was transferred to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The doctors there gave the Handlers the devastating news: Tony  had pancreatic cancer and had at best two more years to live.

Tony, who was forty-five,  refused to accept the diagnosis. After several more surgeries, he was chosen to participate in clinical trials at NIH with nineteen other patients who shared his rare form of cancer.  A willing “human guinea pig,” Tony endured hours of medical protocols, innumerable experimental drug treatments,  and seven surgeries.

While undergoing the  regimen, Tony saw an article that stated  the city of Baltimore was hosting the Bud Lite Triathlon in July 1985.   “I  thought this would be a good way for me to fight the bleak prognosis.” 

Against the Odds!

Tony was not new to athletic competitions. Born in 1939 in Newark, New Jersey, to first generation Jewish  parents, he had participated in Weequahic High School’s cross country and swim teams, serving as the latter’s captain.

Cheering him on in the stands was Narda Mandell. Shortly after his bar mitzvah at Congregation B’Nai Jeshrun in Newark, Tony had met twelve-year-old Narda and they soon became a couple. “I was—and still am—his biggest fan,” said Narda.

After Narda completed high school and Tony completed his stint in the army, Tony and Narda were married on September 27th, 1959. Narda worked as a receptionist in a bank until their first son was born.

 In 1960, Tony was hired by IBM and spent the next 12 years working and going to Rutgers at night to earn a business degree.  Tony received a promotion to IBM’s  to its Washington DC office, and they moved to Crofton, Maryland, to be closer to the company’s Washington office. In 1983, they were living what appeared to be an idyllic life when their world was turned upside down.

Tony was determined to survive. He set his goal to compete in the 1985 Bud Lite Triathlon. Initially, he could only do a slow walk/run.  As his stamina increased, he began running two, five, ten miles. “Running made me feel as if I were fighting back,” said Tony. He dusted off his bike and rode the Maryland countryside. He found a local pool, donned goggles and a Speedo, and began swimming competitive laps for the first time since his high school swim team days. 

The Main Competition

On July 1, 1985,  Tony completed the Baltimore triathlon, which combined a one mile swim, 24.8 miles of bicycling and 6.2 miles of running. Tony was far behind the winning time of one hour and 55 minutes, but he had won a personal victory. “I only had one competitor,” said Tony, “and that was Mr. Cancer.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Cancer wasn’t done with Tony. He faced multiple bouts with six different kinds of cancer, including pancreatic, liver, prostate, and skin cancers, and twenty-one surgeries. 

Through it all, Tony continued his job as an IBM consultant. The management at the company were supportive, never hesitating in giving the time he needed to have the multiple surgeries and finish his recovery. After work and on weekends he continued to work out and participate in triathlons across the United States. “I needed victories wherever I could find them,” said Tony. “Every time  I crossed that finish line, I felt like I beat Mr. Cancer again.”

The Marathon Continues

In 1988 Tony received a promotion to senior consultant and was transferred to Tampa, Florida, where he continued to compete.

By the time he was approaching his sixtieth birthday, Tony had completed 200 triathlons. He set his goal even higher by signing up for the 2000 Florida Ironman Triathlon.  A back injury that was unrelated to cancer forced him to cancel. But in 2001, he completed the Panama City-based competition, which was composed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2 mile run. He felt such a sense of accomplishment, he did again when he was 62.

When he retired from IBM in 2003, Tony and Narda moved to Solivita, a 55 plus active adult community located in Central Florida. 

Playing It Forward

As a cancer survivor, Tony was determined to “pay it forward.” Soon after their move, he organized the first annual community-wide three mile walk/run in Solivita to raise money for the American Cancer Society (ACS). Beginning in 2012, several Solivita clubs joined together to establish an annual Relay for Life event that supported ACS. Tony’s run/walk was folded into the community’s umbrella fundraising efforts. As of 2018, the combined efforts have raised over $700,000, of which $60,000 was raised by Tony’s walk/run event.

His story of survival and his fundraising have earned Tony state and national recognition. In 2013, Tony qualified to compete in the National Triathlon Age Group Championship in Milwaukee. At the concluding banquet, Tony was given  an award for being the  “Most Inspirational Athlete.” In 2015, Tony qualified to represent the United States on Team USA at the World Age Group Triathlon Championship in Chicago.  

In 2016, Tony was the recipient of the  “Geriathlete” award at the Growing Bolder Awards banquet in Orlando, Florida. He, along with other Central Florida seniors, was lauded for  “pursuing his passions and living lives of purpose while making a difference in the lives of others.    

Determination and Exercise

Sadly, Tony is the only surviving participant of the twenty original participants in the 1983 NIH clinical trials. Doctors at the Moffitt Cancer Center continue  to track Tony’s progress and oversee his life-saving medications and monthly chemo injections. His remarkable medical history has been the subject in professional journals and conferences. Researchers agree that what Tony often calls his “crazy exercise routine”appears to have been a factor in his longevity.

Along with their busy life in Central Florida, the Handlers enjoy the pleasure of three sons, one living in Maryland and the other two in Florida with their wives and five grandchildren. 

Tony views the St. Anthony’s Triathlon as another victory against Mr. Cancer, a fight he hopes to continue waging for as long as his body is able to.

“I beat the odds,” said Tony. “I just hope my story is an inspiration to other cancer patients to “NEVER GIVE UP.” 

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Narda and Tony Handler

Patriot Weissman was POW in World War II

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Staff Sargent Melvin Weissman

Melvin Weissman didn’t have to fight in World War II. 

As a machinist for an essential industry, he needed permission from his company to even enlist. He was first rejected by the army as he had flat feet. But the twenty-two year old was determined to fight for his county.

Undeterred, Melvin, along with several of his friends, tried to enlist in the United States Army Air Corp. This time, he was accepted, flat feet and all. When he said good-bye to his family, Weissman was overcome with emotion. “I knew I would never see my father again,” Weissman later told his daughter Diane Silverman. 

After basic training, Weissman was assigned as a flight engineer flying B-17s with the USAF, 94th Bomb Group, 331st Squadron, out of Bury-St. Edmunds, England.

Worries of a Jewish GI

Weissman had grown up in Brooklyn, the son of Nathan and Dora Weissman, Jewish Russian immigrants. He knew that “H” for Hebrew,  Jewish designation on his dog tags could cause a problem if he was captured by the Germans. He requested that his tag be changed to “P” for Protestant, to be worn on each bombing missions. 

Weissman and his fellow soldiers flew ten successful missions over Germany. On his eleventh mission, however, the plane was hit. He and several soldiers jumped out the plane safely; others lost their lives when the plane crashed.

When his parachute brought him into enemy territory, Weissman realized that he had accidentally worn the dog tags with the Jewish designation, the letter  “H.” He quickly tossed them away before a ten year old German boy found the scratched and bruised solider and turned him over to Nazi soldiers.

During his interrogation, Weissman was asked questions in English from a commander. In the same room, behind a screen, was another commander telling the interrogator in German what questions to ask the captured soldier.  Because his parents spoke Yiddish in their house, Weissman understood the Germans and knew the questions ahead of time. To further hide his Jewish identity, he gave his name as “Veismann,” a more German form of his Jewish name.

Weissman was sent to Stalag 17-B, where he remained a prisoner of war from January 11, 1944, to May 3, 1945. While he was in prison camp,  a neighbor of the Weissmans heard a blurb on the radio that Staff Sargent Melvin Weissman had been captured. His father, who was in failing health, said the he would believe this was true only when he heard from his older son.  A letter finally came to their Brooklyn address on April 2, 1944. Nathan Weissman died the next day.  Weissman’s premonition had come true. “My aunts told me he was just waiting to hear that Melvin was ok.” said Diane

In April 1945, as the war was coming to a close, 4,000 of the POWs at Stalag 17-B began an 18-day march of 281 miles to Braunau, Austria. The remaining 900 men were too ill to make the march and were left behind in the hospitals. These men were liberated on May 9, 1945. Those who survived the death march were finally rescued by American troops.

J is for ?

Weissman and his fellow liberated soldiers were shipped home to New York City. While sailing, Weissman was taken ill. When he arrived, he walked down the gang plank where doctors, pulling him aside, put a giant yellow J on his shirt. When he asked how they knew he was Jewish, they laughed. “We don’t know if you’re Jewish,” they said. “But we DO know you are jaundiced.”

Weissman spent three months in a hospital in New Jersey recovering from his imprisonment and subsequent illness. When a rabbi came in to tell Weissman that his father was dead, Weissman said, “I know. My mother and sisters never mentioned him in his letters, but I knew I was saying my last goodbye to him when I left for basic training.” 

Once he was healthy, Weissman returned home and got a job as a machinist for Templet Industries in Brooklyn, New York. He met Sylvia Laskowitz in January 1948. They were married six months later, on June 27, 1948. Their daughter Mona was born fifteen months later, and their second child Diane was born in 1953. 

Diane remembers a happy childhood, marred only by quirks that she attributes to his status as a POW. 

PTSD

“Dad was not a very trusting person except for his wife and two daughters,” said Diane. Although he never spoke about his war experiences while she lived home, Diane remembers hearing her father cry out in his sleep. She often found him sitting on the edge of the bed, covered in sweat. Diane did her best to soothe him, to try to help him move past his nightmares. 

By 2007, Sylvia, his wife of 58 years,  and Mona had both passed away. Weissman had severe heart problems and reoccurring bouts of  post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) As he was no longer able to live alone, Diane and her husband Mark moved him into their home in Clifton Park, New York. More war stories started coming out. Weissman talked about his time in the camp. Conditions may have been difficult for American soldiers, but he spoke sadly of the treatment given to Russian and Polish POW’s. He also recounted his long days on the death march and his rescue. 

By 2010, Alzheimers had set in, and Weissman became very combative, “a tortured soul.” After some violent episodes in which he threatened Diane physically, Diana and Mark made arrangement to move him to Albany Stratton VA Medical Center. Three days before he was to make the move, Diane found her father dissolved in tears. “What is wrong, Daddy?” Diane asked. 

“I killed a man!” sobbed her father. 

“Do you mean in the war? Do you mean you killed a German soldier?” 

“Yes.”

“Daddy, if you didn’t kill him, he would have killed you. And you never would have been married to Mom or had your daughters, your four grandchildren, and the great-grandchild you have on the way.” 

This calmed him. It was also the last coherent conversation Diane had with her father. Hero’s Way, the hospice unit of VA Hospital, provided the care the exhausted and haunted ex-GI needed in his remaining days. Seven weeks later, on September 11, 2011, Melvin Weissman quietly passed away. His great-grandson Judah Benjamin Rome, who was given the Hebrew name Moshe Dov after Melvin and a paternal great-grandfather, was born November 22, 2011.

Noting Veterans’ Efforts

For several years, Congregation Beth Shalom had had a low-key breakfast on the Sunday before Veterans Day. Soon after his father-in-law died, Mark asked Diane if she wanted to honor her father by having them sponsor the breakfast.

Diane agreed, but only on her own terms. The danish and coffee were accompanied by huge plates of Diane’s luchen kugel, homemade quiche, and fresh fruit. Between seventy-five and one hundred members of the congregation and their guests, many themselves veterans,  attended the elaborate brunch for the next six years until the Silvermans moved to Connecticut in 2016.

Diane still has the American flag that was draped on her father’s coffin, and she proudly displays it on the wall of her living room. “I brought it to every Veterans Day brunch, and I proudly display it on the walls of our home,” said Diane. “It is my way of remembering an American Jewish GI, a former prisoner of war, and the best dad in the world!”

Originally published in The [Capital District] Jewish World on May 31, 2018 and the Heritage Florida Jewish News on June 1, 2018