On October 17, 1895, Yechezkel Taub was born in a small Polish town, to a prestigious rabbinic family. His father was a popular Chassidic rebbe, meaning he had a large group of devoted followers. These Chassidim were not the ones we imagine when we think of Eastern European Jews. They were a rather affluent group and perhaps more worldly than some of their co-religionists.
When his father died, Yechezkel succeeded him and he became the rabbi of a city called Yablon; his followers were known as the Yabloner Chassidim. The story until this point is a typical Chassidic tale. But in the 1920’s, Rabbi Taub did something remarkable. He encouraged his followers to emigrate to what was then Palestine and set up a community there.
For a Chassidic rabbi to encourage his followers to move to Israel in the 20’s was simply unheard of. Anti-Zionism in the observant community was at its height. Moreover, there was no system in place to help them make Aliyah. Nowadays people making Aliyah complain about the slow pace and inefficiency of the Israeli bureaucracy. Back then, making Aliyah was life-threatening. Bedouin attacks, food shortages, malaria, with no government support whatsoever.
And that’s exactly what happened. Rabbi Taub brought a large group, about a hundred of his followers to Israel and they established or tried to establish a community in Northern Israel in a place they called, Kfar Chassidim. And it did not go very well. They didn’t know how to cultivate the land, they didn’t know how to defend themselves against attacks, or against illness, and people were dying left and right. To top things off, after the Chevron massacre, anti-Jewish violence was on the rise in Palestine.
His followers said forget it. This is crazy. We’re going back. But Rabbi Taub did not let them go. “There’s no way,” he said. “You’re staying here.” Rabbinic authority meant something to them and he forced them to stay.
So what did he do? Rabbi Taub reached out to a political group, the young Religious Zionist organization, Mizrachi, and made them a deal. Rabbi Taub owned a lot of land. The wealthy Yabloner Chassidim back in Poland had financed the purchase of the land that made up Kfar Chassidim. The plan was that when the community would be fully established in Israel, they would all immigrate and live there. And when they would arrive, they would each have their own personal plot of land waiting for them.
But Rabbi Taub was really stuck and so he bartered the land away. He gave Mizrachi half the land and in return they taught the Chassidim how to defend themselves, they trained the Chassidim in agriculture, and transformed K’far Chassidim into a sustainable community.
A few years later, when anti-Semitism in Europe made Poland a less desirable place to live, some of his Chassidim from Poland started coming to Israel. They knew they had a place to live – or so they thought. Upon arriving in Israel they learned that their beloved rabbi had sold their land. Not something they wanted to hear.
They were fuming. And the brunt of their anger was directed at Rabbi Taub. He was no rabbi, they said, he was a thief! A gonif! People were so upset, he was even beaten by some of his own followers.
The Yabloner Rebbe was despondent; his followers who had been living there for a decade were still barely getting by, his followers who just came from Poland were threatening violence, and his followers back home, were receiving damning reports from those who just arrived, and they no longer trusted him, which meant that his source of funding was now completely shut off.
The rabbi decided he needed to go to America to fundraise, to try pay his Chassidim back, and get his community off its feet.
However, while he was in New York, World War Two broke out. He tried to keep busy, he tried to be helpful, but there was not much he could do but nervously wait for the war to be over. As time went on, shocking rumors turned to facts and the Rebbe received the devastating news – his family and all of his followers in Poland had been massacred by the Nazis. The Yabloner Rebbe had nothing. And, he had nowhere to go. He couldn’t go back to Europe, he couldn’t go back to Israel empty-handed, he felt angry at G-d for all that had happened, and he felt completely lost.
So Yechezkel Taub decided that he would no longer be a rabbi. Not only would he no longer a rabbi, but for all intents and purposes, he would no longer be a practicing Jew. This former Chassidic Rebbe traveled to Los Angeles, shaved his beard, and changed his name from Yechezkel Taub to George T. Nagel. He didn’t live in the Jewish section of LA. He stopped keeping Shabbos, stopped eating kosher. The Yabloner Rebbe for all intents and purposes, was dead. George Nagel took his place.
With his new identity, things picked up; George Nagel did pretty well. He got into construction and built up a mini-empire, all the while maintaining a healthy distance from the Jewish community. In his 70’s, he decided he wanted to live a more meaningful life and so he went back to school and received a bachelor’s and eventually a Master’s in psychology. He had hopes to work with those struggling with addiction.
And it’s at that point, already in his late 70’s, at his graduation ceremony, that he receives a visit from a nephew of his. This nephew, a staunch Zionist, Ehad Yonai, tells his uncle that it’s time to come home. “Come home?!” asks George Nagel aka Yechezkel Taub, “You’re out of your mind! They hate me in Israel! Not only am I a gonif, I’m now an apikoress, I’m a heretic. They’ll eat me alive!” But this nephew of his, a former pilot in the IDF, persisted until he finally agreed, not to stay, but at least to visit.
Nagel comes to Israel, he hasn’t been there in about 50 years, and the first place they go is Kfar Chassidim. Upon arriving at Kfar Chassidim, he’s told there’s a surprise waiting for him. They drive the car to the main dining hall and the room is packed with people. He walks into the room, and the group all gets up on their feet and motion for him to sit at the front of the room.
And then a man gets up, an old Yabloner Chassid, one of the people who despised their rabbi for bringing him to the wasteland, one of the people who called him a crook, and he says, “Rebbe, you saved my life. Had it not been for your insistence on us staying here, we’d be back in Poland, and we’d be dead.”
Then he turns to thirty, forty men, women, and children by his side, and he says, “Rebbe, this is my family. They are all here thanks to you.”
And then another chassid gets up, points to her family, and gives the same exact speech. And then another, and then another, and then another.
Hearing all this, George T. Nagel, already now in his 80’s, decides, my nephew is right, it is really time to come home. And he does. He changes his name back to Yechezkel and eventually, he becomes not only a member of his old community, but with time he assumes the position of rabbi; the Yabloner Rebbe once again.
If you go to Kfar Chassidim’s main cemetery today, you will see a gravestone with his name on it – Here lies, HaRav Yechezkel Taub, founder of K’far Chassidim, the Yabloner Rebbe. (Heard from Rabbi Pini Dunner)
I share this story with you today because it’s a story of second chances. It’s a story of someone who realized that our tomorrows need not be held back by our yesterdays. That just because I’ve fallen short in this area or that in the past, does not mean that I will do so tomorrow. It’s a story of a man who realizes that it’s never too late to make life changes. Big life changes. Monumental life changes! We grow cynical of who we are, accepting our flaws as a given, and cynical to the notion that we can change. A story like this one reminds us that change, radical change is possible. And it’s possible at any and every moment of our life.
But there is one part of this story that we cannot easily relate to. And that’s because that final chapter of his life, the opportunity he had to hear from all those people he impacted – unfortunately, that rarely ever happens.
How many people are there in the world who have touched us deeply who don’t know the impact they had on us? How many loved ones don’t know how deeply they’re loved?
Rabbi Taub had the opportunity, the unique opportunity to hear from those people how he changed their lives, and when he heard that, it changed his.
On July 20, 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, Sergeant Sean Mondschein was killed in battle. After his death, a poem was found on his cellphone; it was a message written to his family and friends just in case he would not return from Gaza. An Israeli song-writer, Chanan ben Ari, put the words to music, in a song titled, Layla Tov, Shon. It goes like this:
Mom, I truly love you!
You were the most amazing mother in the world
More than I could ask for
I didn’t want you to worry, about me going into Gaza,
Please be strong for me.
And if something happens to me, smile with pride.
I love you, Love you, Love you
Dad, You were truly a wonderful father! A manly father,
Even though we had a fight this last month, Think nothing of it.
I love you, love you, love you, I truly do
Shachaf, Shirly, And to all my relatives and friends
I love you! I’ll miss you, And I hope you won’t miss me
Because I’m happy That I had the privilege to fall for my country
I love her, Love her, Love her
So if you read my letters, That means I probably went to sleep
Halachti lishon, Layla tov, Shon. Good night, Sean.
19 years-old, a whole life ahead of him, it’s impossible to wrap one’s head around the tragedy of his death. But is it not also so terribly tragic that had he made it home safely, his parents would have never seen that letter; would have never known just how much he loved them?!
And it doesn’t have to be that way! We don’t have to sit in this room, as so many do at Yizkor, crying about conversations that should have and could have, but never took place. The ‘I love you’s’ that weren’t said. The compliments that weren’t given. The gratitude that wasn’t expressed. Or sometimes even the “why’s?” Why didn’t you do this, Mom? Why didn’t you say that, Dad? And we walk around with these messages, tucked away, hidden in the recesses of our heart, and we are all missing out.
What a pity to have these mediocre relationships we all have, when they could so easily be transformed into powerful, passionate ones, with just a few words. What a pity to not take advantage of the magic of raw unbridled emotion.
What will they say? Will they laugh at me? How will they respond? I don’t feel comfortable, being so vulnerable. And by the time we’re done figuring it all out, it’s too late.
Those compliments, thank-you’s, I love you’s, and frustrations, if we just wouldn’t be so guarded, they can change us, and like the Yabloner Rebbe, they could change the person we’re speaking to. Teachers, parents, children, friends, and even strangers. Let them know how you feel.
A number of years ago, I shared with you a few letters from a project known as the Legacy Letters. These were letters written by family members of those killed on 9/11. They were written after the fact to their deceased relatives. And today, I’d like to conclude by sharing with you one more of those letters that I recently read:
“My dear Joseph, On that fateful Tuesday morning, I was on my drive home from carpooling the kids to school. The radio informed us that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I was worried about you; I knew you were at a conference in New York and that much chaos would ensue. I wanted to call you to warn you, but I didn’t want to disturb you in the middle of your conference. When I came home and put on the TV, I decided to call you anyway, and reached you on your cell phone at exactly 11 minutes past 9 a.m. Mine was the only call that got through to you that day. You told me the air was thick with white smoke, and it was getting difficult to breathe, and that evacuation plans were being announced over the PA system. I told you to call your office to tell them you were safe, then we would talk again. At this point, there was a pregnant pause. I realized, you wanted to tell me you loved me, but you hesitated. You have always been the strong one in our family. You did not want me to think that you feared for your life, that you were not sure of the outcome; you did not want me to worry. I told you I’d pray for your safety. I wanted to tell you that I loved you, but I bit my lip. I did not want you to think that this would be the last time we spoke to each other, that this would be our last chance to say goodbye, our last words.
As soon as I put down the phone, I changed my mind. Why wait? I tried to call you back, but the phone was busy. I tried again and again…but it kept going to your voicemail. I kept hitting redial…then I stared, transfixed with horror, as the North Tower imploded and crumbled like something surreal out of an epic disaster movie. That day, I never got my chance to tell you I loved you. We all loved you! We never got to say goodbye.
All these years later, we still miss you, and we will always love you, though those words went unspoken on that fateful day. I have since mentioned that moment to our kids, now young adults. I told them, “Life is precious and life can be short. If you love someone, if you appreciate someone, take a moment to tell them what they mean to you. Take a moment to thank them. Tell them you love them. Several times a day, if need be.” And that is just what we do to this day. With all our love…till we meet again…on the other side of the rainbow. Yours, Teresa”
It’s never too late to change our lives.
It’s never too early to say, I love you.