50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus (2013), directed by Steven Pressman

fifty childrenI recently read The Fortunate Ones, a novel by Ellen Umansky, about a child sent by her parents on a kinderstransport to England to escape the Nazi regime and its persecution of Jews. Fifty Children deals with an American couple from Philadelphia, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, who arranged for 50 children to travel from Vienna to the United States in 1939 to rescue them from almost certain death in German concentration camps.

Theirs was a mission against formidable odds. There was a wave of anti-Semitism in America, a general reluctance to allow foreigners into the country, and President Roosevelt who, while sympathetic to the cause, did not want to alter the number of immigrants allowed into the country. Even some Jews opposed the Kraus’ plan to enter Nazi Germany to extract the children, afraid that it would arouse more anti-Semitism.

What made it even more problematic was the cooperation between Austrian and German civilians, which did not auger well for the Jews of Vienna. The Nazi policy was to make Austria free of Jews, and the Austrians did not protest this decree. One child as an adult many years later hauntingly said about this particular moment in time. “ Everybody could get out. Nobody would let us in. Everyone could have been saved.”

In spite of these hurdles, Gilbert and Eleanor travel to Nazi-controlled Vienna and then to Berlin to secure safe passage for the children. The film is based upon the first person memoir of Eleanor Kraus whose granddaughter, Liz Perle, gave the manuscript to Steven Pressman, the filmmaker. The film uses archival footage as well as contemporary interviews with some of the children who were members of the 50 children group.

The Kraus’s strategy began with a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State George Messersmith, who was sympathetic to the Kraus’s request. Then they had to find a place to house the children in the United States until arrangements could be made for foster families to take them. Moreover, they had to collect 50 affidavits from American families willing to take in one of the children. Furthermore, they had to interview the children to determine to best candidates to take. This they did with the help of Dr. Robert Schless, their American physician, who spoke fluent German. Finally, they obtained 50 passports for the children to make the voyage to their new home.

50 Children raises the issue of rescue at what cost. How much risk should one take to save the life of another? In Jewish law, it is clear that one should come to the rescue of another even if it involves some minimal danger to life and spending one’s financial resources. The basic Torah source is the statement in Leviticus 19:16: “Thou shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Our Sages tell us that saving one life is tantamount to saving the world, a very meritorious deed.

Aaron Kirschenbaum, Professor of Jewish Law at Tel Aviv University, writes that, according to Jewish Law, one does not have to give up one’s life to save another. However, one should not focus only on protecting oneself when someone else’s life is at stake. Every case has to be evaluated on its singular merits. Speed is critical and to hesitate in helping may even be sinful.

Kirschenbaum cites the late Benjamin Cardozo, a legal scholar: “Danger invites rescue. The cry of distress is the summons to relief.” To help someone whose life is in danger is a manifestation of the Jewish spirit.

Furthermore, Kirschenbaum cites Maimonides who does not limit the obligation to rescue to actually finding someone in dire straits. Rather, he expands the requirement of rescue to include anyone who is simply aware of danger to somebody’s life. What is critical is determining whether one actually has the ability to successfully save another’s life.

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus assume that they can rescue the 50 children in spite of the odds. Their optimism and willingness to take risks in the face of huge obstacles serves as an example of the good that can be done in times of crisis.

Wonder Woman (2017), directed by Patty Jenkins

wonder womanIn the course of my career as a high school principal, I had many faculty meetings. I would present a list of agenda items and the staff would give me their thinking on them. On occasion, a teacher would say to me that the problem under discussion was simple. All we had to do was one thing and then things would be fine. This kind of simplistic thinking in most cases did not work. The failure to see complexity doomed the suggested solution.

In Wonder Woman, an exciting and thoughtful rendition of the famous comic book heroine’s origin, Diana as a young Amazon warrior first sees the world’s evil in a simplistic way, but through her life experiences realizes that evil is complicated and cannot be reduced to the evil of one bad man.

The movie opens when Diana is a child growing up on a remote island with Amazons, mighty female warriors. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta shares with the daughter the story of Ares, the god of war, who desires to corrupt men and encourage them to battle one another. Queen Hippolyta allows Diana to train for battle, knowing that there will be an eventual showdown between Diana and Ares at some future time.

Normal life changes for Diana when she grows up and rescues an American pilot, Steve Trevor, who has crashed into the sea. Interrogated by the Amazons, he reveals that he is an American spy gathering intelligence to fight Germany, a country at war with the United States. He has valuable information that will save lives, and this information resonates in Diana, who sees her life’s mission as saving lives and ending world conflict.

Allying herself with Steve and his noble cause, she gradually discovers that evil is not one-dimensional, residing only in one person. She understands that evil affects many people whose motivations are complex. Eradicating evil will take a lifetime, not victory in one battle.

Judaism believes in the reality of evil, and maintains that man is largely responsible for bringing it into the world. Man possesses an evil inclination, which, if left unharnessed, can lead man to do terrible things. It must be counterbalanced by a good inclination, which keeps man on the correct moral path. Man has a choice to make many times during each day to determine which inclination he will follow.

Rabbi Raymond Apple makes an interesting observation: There is a “paradoxical fact that when a person chooses to do evil, he does so not because it is evil but because he perceives it as good. We might question his judgment, regard him as having a warped view of what is good, and reject his probably subjective criteria of goodness – but he believes, nonetheless, that what he is doing is good in some sense.”

When General Erich Ludendorff, the personification of evil, shares his thinking with Diana, it reflects this notion that his destructiveness is good for the world: “You know your ancient Greeks? They understood that war is a god. A god that requires human sacrifice. And in exchange, war gives man purpose. Meaning. A chance to rise above his petty mortal little self. And be courageous. Noble. Better.”

Diana disagrees and expresses an optimistic, nuanced view of the world: “I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves.”

Wonder Woman ‘s early belief that evil is one-dimensional morphs into a mature understanding of the nature of evil, an evil that manifests itself in the world in many ways and requires more than one strategy to defeat it. Her complex vision of evil is a reminder for us not to seek simplistic solutions in the face of evil.


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Life, Animated (2016), directed by Roger Ross Williams

life animatedAs a young married man, I do not recall ever praying to have a boy or a girl, but I do remember praying for a healthy child. My parents had a Downs Syndrome child and I understood viscerally what that means to parents. It changes their lives forever. Every decision made has to factor in what the consequences are for the special needs child. Life is no longer “business as usual.”

I was reminded of this as I watched Life, Animated, a fascinating look at Owen Suskind, an autistic child, and his parents Ron and Cornelia who confront a challenge when Owen develops autism at the age of three. Owen becomes anti-social, withdraws from human connection, and ceases to talk. The symptoms are ultimately diagnosed as a form of autism.

Faced with the prospect of having a child with whom they will be unable to communicate, Ron and Cornelia begin to lose hope for the future until one day they discover that Owen is learning about life and how to speak from watching animated Disney movies. It is an “aha” moment for the parents who suddenly see light at the end of the therapeutic tunnel.

Owen begins to speak, to read, and eventually to write by learning the dialogue in all of Disney’s animated movies. Watching the films even gives him a way to interpret the behavior of other people. He can deduce appropriate human responses to social situations by reading the visual cues present in the normal conversation of cartoon characters and, by extension, in real human beings. What becomes clear through therapy is that the stories and characters of Disney cartoon features stay the same, and this gives Owen a sense of security. Watching Disney movies is not a cure for autism; rather, it is one idiosyncratic avenue of therapy that works for Owen and perhaps others.

The notion that sameness and routine can be therapeutic is one way to view Jewish ritual. Beverly Jacobson, a special needs school head in London, writes: “Jewish ritual has a beneficial role to play in treating autism sufferers. The structure of the religion itself has a very powerful positive effect on children with autism. The rituals create a huge sense of security around them.”

Benay Josselson, a parent of an autistic child, decided to send her child to a Jewish day school, and in her instance, it worked out well. Part of the reason was the school’s positive attitude towards inclusion of its special needs population. Moreover, the school’s teaching of Jewish rituals provided a stable and comfortable environment for his learning. Daily prayer and observance of Jewish holy days also served to embed religious behaviors in its special needs students who appreciated the positive results of daily routines.

Life, Animated is an unusual film, giving the viewer a taste of what it is like to have a family member with autism. There are no easy panaceas, but the movie clearly indicates that solutions of some kind may be found within the confines of a loving family willing to think out of the box for answers.

Owen’s parents, Ron and Cornelia, never give up on Owen. They obtain the necessary help to navigate Owen’s life as a young man and they continue that support as he attains manhood. Sensing their own mortality and inability to support him when they are no longer here, they try their best to enable him to live independently.

That is the endgame of parenting for all parents who want to see their children thrive and manage life on their own. In their eyes, Owen leads a meaningful life, even it is not conventional. One of characters in the film asks: “who decides what a meaningful life is?” The answer is not the same for everyone. It depends on who we are, what are our God-given talents, and the support we have from family and friends.

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Sully (2016), directed by Clint Eastwood

sullyAs principal of a high school, I would often interview teachers for positions in the school. Resumes often were superb, but the person had no teaching experience. I remember one candidate in particular who took pride in the fact that he had a perfect SAT score. I did not hire him because there was no empirical evidence that he would succeed, let alone survive, in a high school classroom.

The difference between someone who possesses sterling academic credentials and someone who possesses exceptional real world experience is at the crux of Sully, the film that depicts the famous “miracle on the Hudson,” in which the pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, landed a commercial jet, US Airways Flight 1549, carrying 155 people on the Hudson River in New York with no loss of life.

The opening scenes of the film depict the investigation of the incident by the airport authorities, who question why Sully chose to land on the Hudson River rather than simply fly back to LaGuardia Airport from which they had just departed. They argue that computer simulations of the flight that replicate the large flock of birds that flew straight into the plane’s engines indicate it was possible for it to return to LaGuardia safely.

Through flashbacks, we see the flight as it unfolded in real time. It becomes clear that the flight simulations do not consider the human factor in making the right decisions under pressure. When the group listens to the cockpit recordings, they understand how critical the human component is in making good decisions at stressful moments, when life and death are at stake. Sully reminds them: “No one warned us. No one said ‘You’re going to lose both engines at a lower altitude than any jet in history. But, be cool, just make a left turn for LaGuardia like you are going back to pick up the milk.’ This was duel engine loss at 2800 feet followed by immediate water landing with 155 souls on board. No one has ever trained for an incident like that. No one.”

Jewish tradition shows great respect for the learning that one acquires over a lifetime. The Bible exhorts us to stand up before the aged, even if the old person is not necessarily a scholarly man. We simply revere age because it tells us that a person has experienced much in life, and that experience makes him a valued and respected member of society.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg writes: “People have some idea that there’s nothing to learn outside of a university. We think: What does the average person on the street know? This attitude is destructive because it stops us from learning the many bits and pieces of wisdom that are available. Just the fact that someone survives from day-to-day, and copes with life’s obstacles, means he’s picked up valuable tips on living.” Moreover, Rabbi Weinberg observes: “We assume that unless a person is a recognized scholar, or successful business person, he lacks wisdom. But the truth is, anyone who’s had life experience possesses great wisdom. You may be shocked to find out how much your parents know about the issues you’re grappling with right now. As Mark Twain said, ‘I spent four years in university, and I was amazed at how much wiser my father got while I was away!’ “

Sully’s many years of experience as a pilot enabled him to do extraordinary things when an emergency demanded a quick response to a life or death scenario. Textbook learning alone would not have prepared him for dealing with such an unknown and unpredictable crisis. Only through the crucible of life experience, for which there is no substitute, do we acquire the practical wisdom that enables us to overcome life’s challenges.

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The Finest Hours (2016), directed by Craig Gillespie

finest hoursRescue missions are inherently unpredictable. In Israel there are many rescue narratives, the Entebbe rescue being the most famous. Before any rescue attempt is made, the plan is intensely scrutinized to obtain the optimum results: saving those in danger and making sure no one, including the rescuers, gets hurt. That is why the Entebbe rescue is so highly praised. The lives of ninety-four hostages, primarily Israelis, and the 12-member Air France crew were in jeopardy, all of whom were threatened with death. As a result of the 90-minute Israeli operation, 102 were rescued.

In The Finest Hours, there is a crisis of a different sort that is the catalyst for the rescue mission. It is February 18, 1952, near the coast of New England. An oil tanker, the Pendleton, on a stormy winter night suffers a hole in the ship, allowing in huge amounts of water. The dilemma: how to keep the ship afloat until rescuers come. Ray Sybert, the ship’s engineer, recommends that they try to run the boat aground to keep it afloat. Moreover, the challenge of the rescuers is enormous because of the inclement weather and raging sea.

Bernie Webber, a Coast Guard seaman, is tasked by his superior to take out a large motorboat and rescue the tanker’s crew. Three brave men accompany him. The waves almost capsize their boat, but miraculously they get beyond the fierce waves and continue towards the tanker.

Once the Coast Guard crew finally arrives at the sinking ship, they realize that there is not enough room on the boat for all the sailors. However, they persist in trying to get all the men on board. Most make it to the rescue boat. Once the last man hops on board the Coast Guard boat, the Pendleton sinks.

In the melee of trying to rescue the men amidst torrential rains and waves, the Coast Guard crew loses its compass. How they find there way back in the dark is a minor miracle, and the viewer rejoices in their success against all odds.

Jewish tradition tells us that it is a good deed to save someone’s life. It is derived from the Biblical commandment ‘You shall not stand aside when mischief befalls a neighbor (Leviticus 19:16).” We are responsible for our neighbor’s welfare. This commandment is an extension of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one would love himself. The question arises, however, to what extent should we put our own lives in jeopardy to save someone else’s? This is the scenario on The Finest Hours in which Bernie Webber and his Coast Guard crew knowingly endanger their own lives when they attempt to rescue the crew of the Pendleton.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, quoting the Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law, speaks of two approaches to this dilemma. The first is to consider the level of risk and not be overly cautious when it comes to evaluating whether a rescue attempt will fail or succeed. When human life is at stake, we should be willing to assume some level of risk and not be apathetic to a cry for help, even if it means endangering ourselves.

The second approach is to take great risks when it comes to saving another person’s life. The Sages say that entering into great danger is justified is there is at least a fifty per cent chance of success. This means that both the rescuer and the person whose life is immediately threatened will survive. Saving the life of another is considered an extreme act of kindness, for which there is much Divine reward.

The Finest Hours, in exceptional visual terms, recounts one of the greatest small boat rescues in the history of the Coast Guard. It skillfully dramatizes the tactical and emotional challenge faced by Bernie Webber and others to encounter personal peril when that is what is required to save human lives. Bernie does not take the easy way out; rather he courageously confronts danger and becomes a hero worth emulating.

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Hacksaw Ridge (2016), directed by Mel Gibson

hacksaw ridgeIn Israel, I am a member of a synagogue with a large cadre of volunteers. The volunteers serve in many different capacities, each calling upon their unique talents to strengthen the infrastructure of the congregational community. One person may help with organizing the prayer service, another may focus on taking care of members who have suffered the loss of a loved one, another may be in charge of building repairs, and so on. There is a clear recognition that people are different and contribute in different ways to the overall health and wellbeing of the community.

This mindset exists in the military as well both here in Israel and in America. Different units specialize in different areas, and bring their specific expertise to the table. However, in Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of Desmond Doss’s experience in World War II, the soldiers in one unit do not fully comprehend or appreciate the fact that one soldier operates under a different set of givens than the others and contributes to the greater good in his own idiosyncratic way.

Desmond Doss is a conscientious objector and refuses to carry a weapon in war, even within his own combat unit. He wants to serve as a medic and save lives, not end them. His fellow soldiers view him as an unreliable ally and coward and they make his adjustment to the military miserable.

A military court prepares to court martial him for disobedience, but at the proceeding they change their view of Desmond when he explains his perspective on the war and on his personal vision of military service: “When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, I took it personal. Everyone I knew was on fire to join up, including me. Why, I had a job in a defense plant and I could’ve taken a deferment, but that ain’t right. It isn’t right that other men should fight and die, that I would just be sitting at home safe. I need to serve. I got the energy and the passion to serve as a medic, right in the middle with the other guys. No less danger, just… while everybody else is taking life, I’m going to be saving it. With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me to wanna put a little bit of it back together.”

In the crucible of battle on Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond’s comrades change their view of him. The Japanese attack ferociously and many Americans die and become wounded. Time and time again, Desmond is there to tend to his fellow soldiers and help them get to safety. Against all odds, he rescues 75 men. Later Desmond becomes the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Desmond remains true to his principles and becomes a hero, an invaluable member of his brigade. His commanding officer, Captain Glover, asks Desmond to forgive him for misjudging him: “All I saw was a skinny kid. I didn’t know who you were. You’ve done more than any other man could’ve done in the service of his country. Now, I’ve never been more wrong about someone in my life, and I hope one day you can forgive me.”

Misjudging someone is at the core of Hacksaw Ridge. The inability to see another’s perspective almost prevents Desmond from serving his country. Consider how many more lives would have been lost without his intervention.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us: “judge every man favorably.” It is important to give every person the benefit of the doubt. Always try to see the good in the other. Moreover, the Talmud teaches us: “Anyone who judges others favorably will be judged favorably in Heaven” (Shabbat 127b). Hacksaw Ridge reminds us that those who see life differently from us may teach us by example how to lead a life of virtue and meaning.

Julius Caesar (1953), directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

julius caesarI taught an eighth grade class for a number of years in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Israel. The secular class began in late afternoon and there were only two hours per week devoted to English language study.

However, I still wanted to introduce the students to classic literature, and so I created a unit on Shakespeare in which the students read and acted out a few seminal scenes from the great bard’s plays. Included was the assassination scene in Julius Caesar. The kids had fun wearing makeshift togas and learned about something about the wielding of political power. Moreover, we reviewed some of the classic lines in the play in their context.

This cinematic version of Julius Caesar still has legs although it was filmed in black and white over sixty years ago. The reason: the stellar cast which included Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, James Mason as Brutus, and John Gielgud as Cassius.

The story begins in Rome when Caesar is at the height of his power. Some, however, see his rise to power as a reflection of his unflinching ambition and as a threat to Rome. They recruit the honorable Brutus to join with them in a plot to murder Caesar and, by doing so, save Rome. Brutus’ participation gives the conspirators respectability and the courage to move forward with their plans.

After the assassination, Brutus gives permission for Antony to eulogize Caesar, and his emotional speech turns the crowd against the conspirators. His funeral oration beginning with the famous words “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” is a speech for the ages, and Brando executes it in iconic fashion. This sets the stage for war between Antony and Brutus and their respective constituencies.

When I discussed the themes of the play with the students, I inwardly lamented their lack of exposure to great literature, the touchstone of superior culture. Of course, I understood that Torah study was primary, but one can still learn from great literature and the study of the humanities in general. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a rabbinic scholar with a PhD in English from Harvard, writes that the humanities gives us insight into the human soul: “Great literature presents either a rendering, factual or imaginative, of aspects of the human condition, or a record of the artist’s grappling with the ultimate questions of human existence: man’s relation to himself, to others, to the cosmos, and above all to God.” As such, reading exceptional works of literature can help us navigate our own lives.

There are lines in Julius Caesar that express truths about life in a poetic way that touch the heart as well as the mind. Moreover, they coincide with Jewish sensibilities. Here is one of them: “Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but once.” This passage makes us think about how to confront fear. Another passage: “There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune/ Omitted, all the voyage of their life/ Is bound in shallows and miseries/ On such a full sea as we are now afloat/ And we must take the current when it serves/ Or lose our ventures.” The message here is to take advantage of the moment. Evaluate the present and then act boldly to determine your future.

What I found in instructing students of all ages is that life lessons that were embedded in sacred Jewish texts often emerged in the secular texts I was teaching in my English literature classes. My students, many of whom were not reared in observant Jewish homes, connected with the secular source more easily than with the sacred. In teaching, I understood that when it comes to student learning “the readiness is all.”

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