God selected a very holy escort for the souls of the Israelis murdered in Bulgaria, on the very anniversary of the deportation to Auschwitz of 13,000 Parisian Jews. You see, our colleague, Rabbi Michael Goldberger succumbed to renal cancer on that day last week. I'd like you to know of him, at least through this article, if you don't already. For he was remarkable and much beloved by his family, friends, colleague, community and students.
He looked up to my teacher, Reb Zalman, as one would a good and true father, teacher and mentor.
Photo note: Rabbi Michael Goldberger, z'l on the floor in the foreground with remotes showing film of the Torah dedication he organized in Dusseldorf.
Perhaps twenty years ago an e-mail arrived inviting us to a Shabbat overnight at the home of the chief orthodox rabbi of Dusseldorf, Germany. Strange, it seemed personalized. Why would he write to us?? It would turn out that Rabbi Goldberger was facing a massive influx of Russian immigrants to his town and was wondering how to help them live meaningful as Jews in Germany. He'd heard of the work of Project Kesher throughout the NIS and wanted a consult. Well, that was his starting question, upon arrival we discovered he was deeply immersed in the spiritual revitalization of Judaism, within Orthodoxy, within Germany and very connected to Reb Zalman (aha!). But he had a problem that weekend...and perhaps you saw the film he brought to the ALEPH Kallah one year about how he evolved that problem into an amazing opportunity.
The problem was that a Torah had been found buried in the ground and was too damaged to be repaired. He wanted to honor the life and perishing of that Torah by having a new Torah written and dedicated within Germany. He canvassed every Jew and obtained a small donation towards each and every letter. Created beautiful "letter donor" certificates and planned a magnificent ritual that would be broadcast for Crystal Nacht on German national television. The keynote speaker would be the Chief Ashkenazi Orthodox Rabbi of Israel. But...
In the weeks leading up to the Torah dedication, the Chief Rabbi faxed a cancellation note. He found himself unwilling to dedicate a Torah in Germany, instead he would be speaking at a Crystal Nacht commemoration in another German city. Talking about destruction, rather than renewal. Rabbi Goldberger, Michael, as we came to know him, was devastated. The role of the Chief Rabbi as a leader of the Jewish future was, to him, essential. My husband Barry and I sat down low with him as he grieved the collapse of plans. Eventually, a new concept emerged, from the brilliant ability to transform difficulty into opportunity that so characterized this amazing man, he would contact the President of Germany to be the lead speaker. And he was.
Another stunning challenge that Rabbi Goldberger faced was trying to open a Jewish day school in Germany. We recently attended a bat mitzvah in Germany, but when Michael wanted to open a day school, it was a virtually inconceivable concept. And, the authorities did not want to grant a permit for the school. Undeterred, he did research and found the papers for a Jewish day school from before the war that had been under the auspices of his community. Then they required a minimum number of students to re-open the school. He tried and tried but couldn't meet the minimum. They lowered it. Still not enough children, they lowered it again. Finally he told them: "It is not my fault that Germans killed all the children. We must be allowed to re-open with even a handful of families. It is justice to do so." They allowed the school to be "re-opened." He created a magnificent school with a Hebrew immersion education option. Or at least this is how we recall things at this time. What courage!
When approached by a family of five wishing to convert to Judaism in Holland where conversion can be virtually unattainable, who better to advise than Rabbi Goldberger? The family had been unable to secure conversion from any source, even though they were actively practicing Judaism--kashrut, Shabbat, sukkah, etc. for many years at this point. One of them is an energy worker who transduces Torah and Kabbalah at a very high level – it seemed absurd, and deeply frustrating. Rabbi Goldberger immediately agreed to help, to join in the mentoring and eventually their giyur occurred through the beit din process he developed.
Michael Goldberged was very attuned to HaShem; to how inter-connected All Is. He recalled a time when a man came up to tell him that during the war he had to shoot a Russian soldier in self defense. As the man he’d shot fell, the man heard the falling soldier uttering the Shema. Michael's sermons will be coming out in a book this fall, I pray also in translation. He was a scholar who always found a humanitarian point to pursue within Jewish text and tradition.
He sparkled with humor and sang as though already an angel. A funny moment was when a woman came up to him in synagogue in Dusseldorf and asked him to call the police because "there is a woman here wearing a kippah." His clever answer that quickly diffused her concern-- "Show me where this is against the law and I will call the authorities immediately." He made a CD with his dear friend a Hazzan, Marcel, so beautiful and then when he friend shortly preceded Michael in death with the same illness, he made a CD in his memory. I will try to obtain and bring some for our chevra to Kallah and Ohalah.
Rabbi Goldberger moved to Zurich to be closer to family and received another significant rabbinic appointment and day school to head. Of his five children, one was severely disabled physically and intellectually, really beyond my imagination. The loving care and parenting was creative and exquisite. We again visited Michael in Zurich just before the High Holidays, when his renal cancer was already unstoppable. He was passionately was working the two jobs while turning out creative psak halachah such as finding a way to allow women to attend cemetery funerals (not allowed in some European Orthodox settings). Entering a classroom with him, every student stood at attention to honor their beloved teacher. Michael Goldberger studied Reb Zalman's ideas deeply, a dog-eared Integral Halachah sat beside his telephone.
Michael also loved Swiss Cheese Racclette, with gusto he and Pnina, his deep, sweet wife and children introduced us to that fascinating, yummy dish. Rabbi Michael Goldberger became my mashpia and a role model for the integration of tradition and change. When I would ask after the welfare of Jewish Renewal folks in Europe during calls, he would give an update rich in joy at the accomplishments of each and every one within his acquaintance or mentorship.
I wish you had all known him-- a rabbi, scholar, innovator and mensch of the highest order, Rabbi Michael Goldberger.