Rabbi James Rosenberg

Rabbi James RosenbergThey came from Jamaica, Namibia, Brazil, England, Peru, Ecuador, Germany, Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Thailand, India, The Philippines and Korea; and they are all proud and accomplished Rhode Islanders. Once they were struggling immigrants and refugees facing the multiple challenges of adjusting to a new language, a new climate, a new culture.

On Dec. 5, these 13 men and women were honored at a reception at the Smith Center for the Arts at Providence College.  They were honored for their achievements, for what they have given back through their hard work and their vibrant families to the country and the state that has given so much to them.  As one of the honorees put it, “This is a country where everything is possible!”

The program at PC, “My Story, Our Community,” was the culmination of an oral history project that grew out of the combined efforts of Welcoming Rhode Island, one of the 20 affiliates of Welcoming America, and PC’s Global Studies program. On Dec. 5, Providence College students in groups of two or three – primarily freshmen and sophomores – stood with the honorees whom they had visited and interviewed and told their stories, after which many of the honorees themselves offered brief but poignant comments. What was striking to all in attendance was how far these immigrants have traveled from their humble beginnings to become such successful citizens in the worlds of business, health care, community service and the arts.

Rabbi James Rosenberg“The morning that Mendel Muskatev awoke to find his desk was gone, his room was gone and the sun was gone, he assumed he had died.  This worried him, so he said the prayer for the dead, keeping himself in mind. Then he wondered if one was allowed to do such a thing, and worried instead that the first thing he had done upon being dead was sin.”

 

Rabbi James RosenbergRabbi Andrew Klein began his Rosh Hashanah morning sermon at Temple Habonim in Barrington with the following true story:

“When our youngest niece, Jesse, was 6 or 7 years old, she came to spend a few days with her uncles in Rhode Island. On one of our evening walks, Jesse was telling us about the important happenings in her life … her friends, her time at camp, her art work, her annoying big brother …

“At one point, (her uncle) Adam noticed that we were approaching a squirrel lying on its back with its feet up in the air, and he said something like, ‘Let’s cross to the other side of the street; that squirrel up ahead is taking a nap.’

“Jesse said, very matter of factly, ‘… he’s not sleeping; he’s dead, and death is a natural part of life.’

Rabbi James RosenbergPsalm 137 – at least its first six verses – is one of the best known and best loved of our 150 psalms: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion. /There on the willows we hung up our lyres, /for our captors asked us there for songs/our tormentors, for amusement. /How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil? /If I forget you. O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning; /let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I cease to think of you, /if I do not elevate Jerusalem above my highest joy.”

Few words capture more completely the millennial-long love affair between Jerusalem and the Jewish people. To this very day Jerusalem continues to tug at our heartstrings. The contemporary Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), writes: “Jerusalem stone is the only stone that feels pain; there is in it a network of nerves.” This is the very same stone that turns Jerusalem at sunrise and sunset into that magical city of gold and copper and light.

Until my years as a rabbinical student, I never read past the first six verses of Psalm 137. Indeed, during my youthful folk-singing days, I would frequently perform a mournful version of Al Naharot Bavel (By the Rivers of Babylon), which takes as its Hebrew text the opening verses of the psalm; I sang the song for years without realizing that the psalm had a most disturbing “Part II:”

Rabbi James RosenbergMy undergraduate years at Columbia, 1962-1966, corresponded with the height of the folk-singing craze which, centered in New York City’s Greenwich Village, spread throughout the land. Armed with my guitar and my long-neck 5-string banjo, I was a regular performer at the on-campus Post Crypt, an intimate student hang-out directly behind the crypt of St. Paul’s Chapel.