Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Our Huynh Family

These words were presented on Shabbat Vayera (Fri, Oct 30, 2015) as part of “Throwback Shabbat: The 60s and 70s,” a 50th anniversary celebration of Woodlands Community Temple.

Beginning in December of 2010, the world watched with extravagant hope as the Arab Spring protests brought with them the possibility for democracy taking root across the Middle East. While Tunisia has succeeded in adopting a new constitution and electing a parliament, by the spring of 2011 Syria had plummeted into civil war. In the north, the Free Syrian Army receives support from the U.S., to the east ISIS continues its fanatical drive, elsewhere other armies have sprung up, while the Syrian army itself, backed by Russia, Iran and Iraq, attempts to battle them all.

 Syrian children march in the refugee camp in Jordan. The number of Children in this camp exceeds 60% of the total number of refugees hence the name "Children's camp". Some of them lost their relatives, but others lost their parents.

Syrian children at a refugee camp in Jordan.

As of September, the civil war has created more than four million refugees seeking safety and asylum elsewhere. Most are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq while thousands have fled to more-distant countries. Turkey has the greatest number of refugees – 2.1 million. The European Union has approved a plan to take in 120,000 refugees. Israel, always in a tenuous and even precarious relationship with Syria, has chosen to send humanitarian aid by way of Jordan. And the United States has pledged billions in humanitarian aid and 100,000 entrance visas.

I’ll come back to this, but first I want to take a look backward with you, to the year 1979. Still a young congregation, in 1979 Woodlands had some 300 families, 30 families on the waiting list, 400 kids in the religious school, a six-year-old sanctuary (the one we knocked down thirteen years ago), and a plan to renovate the old building by bringing all offices downstairs from the second floor, creating seven classrooms upstairs, expanding the Sanctuary to provide an office for the Cantor and, underneath the Sanctuary, a Youth Lounge. Things don’t always work out as planned.

Notable events from around the world in 1979 include: the U.S. resumed full diplomatic relations with China, Ohio agreed to compensate the families of those who were injured and died in the Kent State shootings, the Shah fled and the Ayatollah rose to power in Iran, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shook hands and signed a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.

35 Vietnamese refugees wait to be taken aboard the amphibious command ship USS BLUE RIDGE (LCC-19). They are being rescued from a 35 foot fishing boat 350 miles northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea.

35 Vietnamese refugees being rescued 350 miles NE of Vietnam after 8 days at sea.

A few years earlier, in 1975, President Gerald Ford had declared the end of the Vietnam War as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and Communist rule. From then until 1995, nearly 800,000 South Vietnamese refugees fled by boat, seeking political asylum throughout Southeast Asia. By 1978 and 1979, their numbers had grown so large that nearby borders were closed and an international humanitarian crisis began. Western nations cracked open their doors and over time 200,000 of these “boat people” came to the United States.

In 1979, one of those families – Kim Ly Huynh and three of her children – came to us. Here’s how it happened.

Then rabbi of Woodlands, Peter Rubinstein, had reached out to HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). HIAS had originally assisted Jewish families fleeing 19th century persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe, working out of Ellis Island and the Lower East Side to resettle newly-arrived Jewish immigrants. Toward the end of the 20th century, HIAS was expanding their efforts to include assistance for non-Jewish refugees in the aftermath of conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Czechoslovakia, Haiti, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia and many more. Vietnam was on their list.

Peter signed us up to assist with the boat people and work was to begin a month or two down the road. But a call came in that very same day announcing that a family was in the air and was soon to arrive at JFK airport. Details are murky, but corroborating reports place Gerry Weingast at the airport to pick them up. Gerry drove Kim Ly, the mom, along with three of her children – Nganh (her daughter), Tich-Ha and Tich-Boi (the two boys) – to the home of Amy and Morry Stein, who ran Camp Echo Lake and therefore (or so Amy tells me) Peter felt they were uniquely qualified to bring a family into their home. It was supposed to just be for a weekend while housing was secured for them elsewhere. But Amy felt a powerful surge of duty and mitzvah, and persuaded her family to keep the Huynhs with them for six months. Amy’s thinking was that Kim Ly and her children had much to learn and it would be easier with the stability of one place to stay and an American family to guide them along the way.

Of course, the Steins were in no way alone in this monumental project. The entire congregation got involved, donating time, goods and services to assist the Huynhs. Morry made passionate appeals to the congregation. Irwin Miller, Mel Oppenheim, Don Moskovitz and Stephen Stein all provided much-needed dental services, as well as heroic efforts to keep these otherwise incredibly well-behaved children from screaming their heads off. Ron Reiss helped them find an apartment. Joel Walker served as project leader, providing legal services as well as a steady, patient and unflappable presence in their lives. In many respects, Joel became a surrogate father. Iris and Nat Adler arranged for a different temple family to host the Huynhs each night for dinner, and for weekend activities to keep them busy and to help acclimate them to American life. Nat helped with taxes. Eileen Stein became Kim Ly’s friend and confidant, and her entire family became the Huynh’s extended family.

Of course, once an apartment was secured, Woodlands fell all over itself contributing furnishings and supplies so that the Huynhs could begin their new life in earnest.

The kids were enrolled in area schools, including Rye Country Day and the White Plains school. They were sent to summer camp: Tich-ha and Tick-boi to Echo Lake, others went elsewhere. Nganh loved walking Amy and Morry’s dog Max who, in return, came to love Nganh. And Kim Ly went to night school, learning English and earning a license in cosmetology.

Thus, the early years of their new lives moved forward.

Down the road something quite surprising happened. Because of the language barrier, no one originally knew that Kim Ly had a fourth child. Tich-duong, the eldest and the one in whom their original hopes for survival had been invested, was the first to leave Vietnam, sent by his parents with a gold bar and a close family friend to seek refuge in Hong Kong. Relieved of the gold, Tich-duong was abandoned in Hong Kong and forced to survive on his own. But survive he did. And when temple members learned of Tich-duong’s existence, they jumped into action, working with HIAS to try and rescue this child. Andy Block, who was working for Citibank, reached out to the affiliate there. Tich-duong was found, and brought to America for a reunion with his family. Amazingly, as he stepped off the plane to greet his family and soon-to-be new friends, he brought gifts with him. This one had the knack for survival.

In time, the children grew into adulthood and built lives of their own. Nganh attended college, earning a PhD in Biology & Biomedical Sciences from Virginia Commonwealth University. Tich-ha attended Pace University and completed his degree at Westchester Community College. Tich-duong attended Skidmore College. And Tich-boi went to Brandeis where he earned a BA in biochemistry and biology.

Today, Nganh works for the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, DC. Tich-ha is a realtor here in New York and has two kids of his own. Tich-boi and Tich-duong are both IT guys. Tich-boi lives in Boston and has a 5½-year-old child named Jacob who loves to read, especially “Magic School Bus,” and adores playing with the iPad. Tich-duong works for a mutual fund company in Connecticut.

Eventually, Tich-duong bought the White Plains apartment for his mom so she’ll never have to worry about a place to live ever again. Today, Kim Ly owns a nail salon in Elmsford and also works as a crossing guard in White Plains. All of them are United States citizens.

Kim Ly’s husband never made it out of Vietnam. He died there.

As the family became increasingly independent, the temple’s involvement in their lives lessened. The Chai Fund, which had been established to raise money to help the Huynhs, was repurposed a few years ago as the name for our General Fund. The Steins, the Adlers and Amy Stein became and remain the closest of friends, and they remain in touch with the Huynhs to this day.

Tich-boi, Ngahn, Jacob & Kim Ly (circa 2013)

Tich-boi, Nganh, Jacob & Kim Ly (circa 2013)

Peter wrote me the following: “In many ways we got back from the family more than we could ever give. It was beyond saving life. It was saving a family. It was enacting the Jewish values about which we always talk but rarely engage so fully. It was watching heroic members of Woodlands putting themselves out beyond expectation or compare. It was about a synagogue realizing the fulfillment of a mission, the core of their identity, the blessing of our nation and our faith. The Hyunhs helped us become a greater, more loving and caring and noble family.”

In this 50th year of our temple’s life, it is with tremendous pride that we remember all that was done for the Huynh family. We have always strived to be a caring community. Frequently, we demonstrate that through social justice activities, community service projects, and inreach to offer compassion and love for our own. It’s a major part of why we love this place so deeply. And it continues to be a driving force behind temple involvement for so many.

A Syrian refugee holds a baby in a refug...A Syrian refugee holds a baby in a refugee camp set in the town of Harmanli, south-east of Sofia on November 12, 2013. Bulgaria's asylum centres are severely overcrowded after the arrival of almost 10,000 refugees this year, half of them Syrian. The influx has fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment in a country already struggling with dire poverty. AFP PHOTO / NIKOLAY DOYCHINOVNIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian refugee camp in Bulgaria (Nov 2013).

Which brings me back to the Syrian refugee crisis. With 100,000 visas approved, a whole lot of Syrian families are on their way. Like Peter before me, I reached out to HIAS and asked if we can help. With one-room apartments in Manhattan renting at a minimum of $3000 a month and luxury apartments topping out at $80 million, it should come as no surprise to learn that New York isn’t really where HIAS or any other resettlement organization wants to spend their money. Most of the refugees are headed for Texas, Ohio and Michigan – places they can find homes and futures.

So what can we do? HIAS and others have set the following three goals for themselves. One, to address the needs of the most vulnerable by committing to welcoming 100,000 add’l Syrian refugees into our country. Two, address the needs of refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan by committing as much humanitarian aid as possible. And three, elevate the Syrian conflict so that it is viewed and responded to by our government as a critical foreign policy issue. This will include petitioning the President to take bold leadership, to engage our member of Congress who will be the ones to decide the funding for assistance.

HIAS and other organizations are asking three things of us. First, to get involved with advocacy efforts that aim to have our nation’s leaders commit resources and immigration visas to saving Syrian lives. Two, finding out if there are any resettling activities in our area and doing what we can – through donations and volunteering – to help. And lastly, signing onto websites like to donate our dollars in support of their efforts.

There are security issues to be managed in bringing Syrian refugees to the United States. No doubt, our government will be supervising that very closely. Interesting and, admittedly, somewhat off-putting is the notion of us – Jewish men, women and children – extending ourselves to help Syrians, people from a nation that has never brokered a peace with Israel and certainly has a history of treating its Jewish citizens miserably.

But what can we do? The rules of tzedakah and of gemilut hasadim don’t say, “Help someone only if they are your friend.” Judaism teaches us to help anyone in their moment of need.

And this is where I end. Once upon a time, Woodlands Community Temple did what it could to help strangers. In the time since, we have done similar things more times than any of us can count. The question is, this time, when it’s the Syrians, will we step forward to help?

In this week’s parasha, Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent when three strangers arrive. He runs to greet them, runs to prepare food for them, and runs to help them feel as comfortable as possible on whatever journey they are taking. Such a wonderful message for us this week. When strangers approach, our ancestors – Abraham and Sara from millennia ago, and the families of this temple from decades ago – opened the flaps of their tent. Opened them wide. And said, “Come in. Naturally, come in.”


Thanks for Nothing (a Sukkot reflection)

maxresdefaultWhile procrastinating about writing for tonight, I watched what I thought was a pretty extraordinary and wonderful film called The Road Within. Released without much fanfare earlier this year, it’s about three teenagers – one with Tourette Syndrome, one with obsessive compulsive disorder and the third suffering from anorexia – who flee from their residential facility and embark upon the first great journey of their lives. I think what I love about this film is that these three teens, whose medical conditions are typically ones that debilitate an individual’s chance at having any sense of normalcy, set off on a road-trip which not only exacerbates their conditions but liberates them from constant enslavement to those conditions as well. Nothing goes away but, as the characters evolve, each tests the boundaries of what they can achieve in spite of their disability.

We’re finishing up the week of Sukkot, Judaism’s harvest festival and a time during which we wave the lulav, sniff the etrog, and spend time in the sukkah, all to celebrate and express our gratitude for God’s gifts. The ritual for waving the lulav has us do so in six different directions, the purpose of which is to affirm that God’s presence is everywhere, no place is devoid of the Divine.

That’s all well and good when life chugs along without disappointment or pain. And for a while, a lot of us get to live lives like that. But even for the most privileged among us – and by that, I not only mean materially but also physically and emotionally – time comes when we learn our lessons. It may wait til we get old and we learn that old-age hurts; it may come sooner when illness or setback or loss finds us and pushes our lives into a deep hole. But it does come. Eventually, we all learn what it means to live without.

In The Road Within, Vincent, who has Tourette Syndrome, complains, “This <bleep>ing sucks. Can’t I get one <bleep>ing advantage out of this <bleep>ing illness? [My tics] only come when I don’t want them and only in the worst <bleep>ing moments!” But Vincent soon discovers that he can live life, and he can do so with grace, with intelligence, and even with a smile. He may be a fictional character, but I’ve encountered him many times.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reelected President so often they had to pass a law to keep that from happening again, was paralyzed from the waist down by polio at the age of 39.

Oprah Winfrey was born in rural Mississippi to an impoverished, teenage single mom. She was raped at the age of nine, pregnant at 14, and lost a son during infancy.

Sylvester Stallone was a forceps-baby, complications from which resulted in the severing of a nerve that caused paralysis in the lower left side of his face, including parts of his lip, tongue and chin. This is what gave him his famous snarling look as well as slightly slurred speech. Truly, “a legend was born.”

And Marc Zupan, a paralympic Gold medal-winner in wheelchair rugby, he’s rock-climbed, sky-dived, and been a guest at the White House.

We all know someone whose life has been destroyed by something that plagued them. But we also know someone who rose above the worst that life had thrown at them, and prevailed.

201In the Talmud (Sukkah 23a), we’re taught that one may use an elephant as one of the walls of our sukkah. An interesting argument occurs there: “If he used an animal as a wall of the sukkah, Rabbi Meir declares it invalid and Rabbi Judah valid, for Rabbi Meir was wont to say, “Whatever contains the breath of life can be made neither a wall for a sukkah nor a side-post for an alley, nor boards around wells, nor a covering stone for a grave. In the name of Rabbi Jose the Galilean they said, “Nor may a bill of divorcement be written upon it.”

Pretty outrageous stuff, right? But it begs the question why one would even consider using an animal in any of these circumstances. Accusations of exploitation and mistreatment aside, I can imagine someone justifying this because they simply have no other options. And before you start yelling at me that no circumstances can justify mistreating animals, I am inclined to agree. But as often occurs in the Talmud, what they’re speaking about may not be what they’re speaking about.

Sukkot, as I’ve mentioned, is our gratitude holiday, our Thanksgiving. And much as we Americans consider it a fairly sacred national observance to prepare turkey and all the fixings, building a sukkah is the same kind of sacred (in this case, religious) observance for Sukkot. But if for Thanksgiving you can’t afford a turkey, what then? Families try to figure out some way to make Thanksgiving happen, whether it’s getting a turkey through the local food pantry or serving bowls of cereal because that’s all you’ve got and Thanksgiving needs to happen so cereal it is. The issue here, of course, is not Thanksgiving and it’s not the bowl of cereal; it’s continuing food-insecurity in America. When we hear about a family serving cereal for Thanksgiving, or even when we drop off our turkeys here at Woodlands for Hudson Valley Community Services to distribute to families living with HIV or AIDS, our minds (and our hearts) need to go to that next place, that next question: What do I do about the fact that there are people living in my community (in Westchester, for God’s sake!) who have nothing but cereal, or nothing at all, to serve at any meal in their home?

That’s what Sukkot is all about. And what that elephant holding up a sukkah is all about. If we can understand the blessings present in our own lives, then perhaps we can better see and respond to the lack of blessing in other people’s lives. A well-known Hasidic story has a rabbi imploring a very wealthy person to stop limiting their meals to bread and butter alone. “If you can survive on only bread and butter,” says the rabbi, “will you then assume the poor can survive by eating rocks?” Where we have blessing, our appreciation of those blessings can help ensure we don’t miss the blessing that is missing from other people’s lives.

Tonight, we’ve heard from five congregants who have shared their thoughts about the challenge of living these imperfect lives of ours and, despite the difficulties encountered along the way, the desire to (and sometimes, the success at) coaxing a sense of beauty and abundance right there in the middle of it all. It inspires me to hear from fellow journeyers that others are figuring how to feel grateful for life’s goodnesses even while struggling with its adversity.

20140405114919-campfire-picEarlier this evening, before the Silent Prayer, we read the words of Noah benShea, reminding us that during our efforts to “build a fire” in our lives, we sometimes have to scratch at the ground “hoping to find the coals of another’s fire,” but all we come across are ashes. While some will crumble in despair because no light, no warmth remains, others will be comforted by their understanding that “somebody else has bent to build a fire,” “somebody else has carried on.” That too can be a blessing.

When my son Jonah died at the age of 19, it felt for a while as if my life was over. I was emptied out, broken-hearted and irretrievably lost. In time, however, I began to remember all the goodness that had been Jonah’s life, his antics, his energy, his kindness. And though I will never cease missing him, I will scratch at the ashes on the ground, forever grateful that I got nineteen amazing years to experience him and to love him. Each Sukkot, I remember how he always jumped in to help us build our family sukkah. His spirit was delightful, uplifting and inspiring.

I won’t say I’ve mastered the art of expressing gratefulness for life’s bounty even when that bounty eludes us, but I’ve definitely gotten better at it. And while unfortunately life provides each of us with opportunities to practice gratitude-amidst-hardship, it also showers us with an embarrassing abundance of riches-without-any-cost-other-than-being-human, for which I will always be practicing my thank you’s.

The traditional greeting during Sukkot is “Moadim l’simkha,” which means something like, “May the moments in your life always place you on a path that brings you to a deep, abiding sense of joy.”

Moadim l’simkha,

P.S. Thank you, Joshua Spodek, for writing about People Who Succeeded Despite Adversity.

And just in case you’d like to read a bit more, here’s a poem written by W.S. Merwin, an American poet who was particularly prolific during the 60s anti-war movement. He lives in New York City and is 88 years old. This is entitled “Thanks.”

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

To which I add Anne Frank’s immortal words, “In spite of everything.”

W.S. Merwin’s poem is published in Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005).