Message of atonement arrives after 29 years

October 14, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the Jewish season of atonement, there comes to the Suburban Orthodox Congregation a letter of apology. It arrives from a moment 29 years in the dimly recalled past, from a man finally coming to terms with his own conscience.

"Never too late," Rabbi Ervin Preis says softly, as he holds the letter in his hands. "It's a lesson for everyone."

"Rabbi," says Jeannette Goldman, a secretary at the synagogue, on Seven Mile Lane in northwest Baltimore County, "you've got to do a sermon on this on Yom Kippur."

"Yes," the rabbi agrees. "This is very, very moving."

Jeannette Goldman remembers when it all began. She was working at the synagogue on that morning in 1968 when everyone discovered there was a break-in. A sense of violation filled the air. Charity money -- tzedaka, it's called -- had been stolen from the synagogue office, and a duplicating machine, a typewriter, and an addressing machine. The thief was never found, and no one knew if the act had been random, or a gesture of religious contempt.

Until now.

Now there came a letter, which turned into a sermon Saturday, which was Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of solemn atonement. The letter was signed "Mark," no last name, and here is what it said:

"Twenty-nine years ago, I made an unforgivable mistake. I broke into your congregation and removed money and small electronic items. I had completely forgotten about it over the years but recently this transgression has become a heavy burden. I now beg your forgiveness and hope that you will pray for me.

"I was a young and foolish man who was taught by my grandfather to dislike Jewish people. I now know that this vague, unfounded hatred was learned behavior passed on by generations. Although my crime was minor and I have never committed any other acts against Jewish people, I feel an unbearable guilt for the undeserved, hatred feelings I expressed as a younger, uneducated man.

"Over the years I have acquired knowledge, and images of Jewish persecution through history; how these persecutions were overcome; and the great contributions Jewish people have made to better world society. Enclosed is a money order that should cover the present day cost of the items that were stolen. Please forgive this transgression and overdue compensation.

"Peace, love and good luck to you all, Mark. P.S. Ignorance isn't bliss. Ignorance is dangerous."

Enclosed was $200, which was nice but only a small part of the message: People can change; behavior, and emotions, don't have to be set in stone.

On Saturday, the letter became the topic for Rabbi Preis' sermon. Yom Kippur is the day in which Jews stand before God for judgment, and ask for forgiveness in the coming year, and hope to atone for sins of the previous year. But it was also a time for the rabbi to talk about the sins of all mankind, and the nature of change over the course of generations.

"This letter," he was saying yesterday, "gives the lie to the feeling so many people have. You know, 'Come on, I can't change now, I'm set in my ways.' But we can change. It's difficult, but it can be done.

"This fellow talks about 'learned behavior passed on by generations.' He was the product of a grandfather with hatred. We all adore our grandparents. Imagine how hard it was to realize, what his grandfather taught him was wrong. Imagine how brave it was for Mark to admit it."

Yesterday, the rabbi talked about the stages of human repentance: Learning you're wrong. Regretting it. Making recompence. Making commitment not to do it again.

In his Yom Kippur sermon, he told his congregation, "We all know that [change] is one of the most difficult things to accomplish. By the time we are adults ... and clearly, by the time we have reached AARP age ... the idea of changing our habits, of adopting some new attitude, of viewing life from a different perspective, appears to be in the realm of the impossible. We are set in our ways."

After reading aloud the letter from Mark, the rabbi lingered over ,, the notion of grandparents -- anybody's.

"Their lessons," he said, "are the eternal lessons of our heritage. And Mark's grandfather taught him to hate us. So why shouldn't he? ... One doesn't casually turn his back upon the traditions of a family. But he began to learn.

"I hope that Mark doesn't hate his grandfather. He still owes him honor and respect -- even if he realizes that his grandfather was a product of his grandparents, and even those before him."

And now, 29 years after the fact, there begins a new history in one family: of religious tolerance, and atonement for the past.

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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