Pilgrimage to Rivesaltes

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram
The President of France, François Hollande, explained to his own citizens this week that: the roundup of thousands of Jews in Paris during World War II was a crime “committed in France, by France… Not one German soldier, not one was mobilized during this entire operation.” (JTA) It happens that this year my Hubbatzin Barry Bub and I visited Rivesaltes, the detention camp in France where my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman), was imprisoned for a time during World War II. Many Vichy French policies and practices imitated those of the German Third Reich; they even sought to revive some imagined “French race.” Knowledge of this is being lost, studies show over 40% of French young adults are unaware that on July 16-17, 1942 the French police rounded up 13,000 Parisian Jews of all ages, they were held near the Eiffel Tower and then deported and murdered at Auschwitz. I dedicate this article to their memory.

Visiting Rivesaltes

Numerous Rivesaltes prisoners died of the work, treatment and residential conditions, including Jews, métèques (immigrants from North Africa), Tsingales (Roma/Gypsies), Freemasons, Communists, children, and others such as homosexuals and those mentally ill or disabled.

More after the jump.
Rivesaltes was also used to imprison Spanish freedom fighters. Between six and seven thousand exiles from Spain were murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp. When the German occupation advanced, the Vichy government and its local workers ensured efficient transport of those held there to death camps, including a great many Jews. One of several clustered roadside Rivesaltes monuments reads: “Only the rare person survived.”

Reb Zalman essentially survived because it was confirmed that proper emigration papers were awaiting him. This year, upon hearing we’d be in France, he suggested a ritual be done in memory of the Spanish fighters. He recommended this be in the local river under an aqueduct where the Rivesaltes prison guards would sometimes let him wash. We did so this past fall, the impact has taken time to integrate, and in view of the 70th anniversary of “all this,” and the scenes of atrocities from the Middle East and beyond, it’s time to try again; to write this as it came to be, an affirmation of the Shmei Rabbah, the Great Name of which we speak when saying Kaddish.

Ironically, Rivesaltes is within the land of the original Kabbalists, not far from the charming walled city of Pezanne where “Ghetto” is honestly emblazoned above the small street sign Rue des Juifs (Jew Street). A municipal plaque explains that a mikveh was once located in the cul-de-sac where we stood and that “for their safety” the Jews were locked into the Ghetto each night.

A short drive and we are in beautiful Perpignan. Unabashed signage relates that monks supervised the lives of “converted Jews who lived in the houses on the square.” Fartiq, my mother would have said in Yiddish at this point, “nothing more” did the municipality signage offer by way of clarification.

The castles and walled towns of Southern France are fairytale-beautiful despite the horrors that occurred in every period within, around and beyond. Before arriving at Rivesaltes, we stayed with a friend, a Dutch Reform priest friend married to a woman who was a “hidden Jewish child” during the war. Their lovely walled, artist-filled, village of Minerva sits at the intersection of two gorges. The signage at the gorges? “On this spot” were numerous Cathars burned at the stake as part of the Catholic Church’s completely successful annihilation of a Christian variant in Southern France. The Cathar heresy? Dedication to living modestly, helping the poor, telling no lies… and not following orders of those differently inclined.

Reb Zalman asked us to create a memorial ritual for the young Spanish freedom fighters at the bridge or aqueduct “where they sometimes took us to wash.” It is unclear whether the camp itself can be found though a friend has given us directions taken from a book about all the internment camps. So we follow what we think is the correct river, seemingly forever; it is only a mud river bed in most places. No Rivesaltes Camp appears. But suddenly — there! A billboard for some nice-looking Rivesaltes Condos, how odd. We ask two men walking along the road for the bridge and the camp, they guide us to what they are sure is the spot.

“Non-non,” says an old man smoking on the embankment, he points to the highway, “nord — north.” Why, I ask him, were the young Spanish men interned and murdered en masse? He was quick to reply, and in decent English: “The Allies feared these young men would take down Franco’s government and institute socialism; Franco had put down the socialist revolution of 1934.”

Beyond Wine Country

Soon the lush terrain of wine country is no more. We move beyond the river, searching rotary after rotary (traffic circles) outside the town until, flanked by 16 wheelers heading to Spain, we reach a scorched barren arid plain with vast sharply peaked mountains beyond barely visible through roiling waves of heat. A camp — there! Flags flying.

A  young soldier with peach fuzz over his lip halts our entry with his inquiry:

“Mais non, ce n’est pas Rivesaltes. Ici, nous avons beaucoup de personnes indésirables. Il… nouveau camp; pas Rivesaltes. Les conditions sont très différentes ici…hmm …Rivesaltes, ma famille a travaillé à Rivesaltes  très longtemps –terrible. Je suis désolé mais c’est vrai, ils étaient employés par le camp.

Meaning: “This is not Rivesaltes. Here we have many undesirables (North African refugees (some call them infiltrators). Conditions are very different here … My family worked at Rivesaltes — it was terrible. I am sorry, but it’s true. They were employed by the camp.”

Truly Tilting

We continue through the rotaries to – is that – a – windmill farm? The huge installation as far as the eye can see looms higher than those we know in the states, and at its foot, a small sign: Rivesaltes Museum. It takes us a few stunned moments to look across the “highway”, and there are the monuments with hearts drawn from the abundant white gravel — the word zachor, “remember” inside of one heart; and desiccated flowers left by those who pause to remember or try to understand. Wind gusts toss burning sand at us that quickly leeches dry our skin, lips and eyes. I can’t help but cringe at Reb Zalman baking in this hell. Wreathes have been laid, each perfectly dried to pallor, flaking away bit by bit.

After adding our own gravel memorial thoughts, we turn and wonder does the museum sign arrow point down the deep sandy road that runs in front of the windmill farm? Despite fearing entrapment in the sand, and our water supply down to a few ounces, we decide to persist, thinking we might not easily find this spot again. About twenty minutes along, another tiny musée sign obscured by scrub points across the way. We drive through taller scrub and then, there it is. The camp itself is the musée — broken open crude concrete prison bunks, many graffittied, and rows of roofless privies — waves of heat rising from the fractured baking decay — for as far as the eye can see.

Barry and I walk among the concrete fragments very separately, in silence. I was among those who took depositions of Holocaust survivors and Allied soldiers some decades back, so storied ghosts are re-triggered to scrape their nails along the surface of my soul. In-woven are thoughts about Reb Zalman.

An engine sound startles and is fear-filling in this utter isolation. An unmarked white van — there, parking. Who? Why? A man and a reluctant girl pulled by the wrist emerge and head toward a section in the other direction. Does she need help? Who would knowingly come here in this heat?

They haven’t seen us. We stalk them quietly. Rounding a corner we see them 30 feet away, beside the remains of a wooden hall. They spot us and turn away so as to not intersect paths. Worried for the girl, I call out a greeting as we hasten toward them. They turn away from us, Barry shouts to wait, and then they do pause until we catch up.

Pourquoi êtes vous ici? Why are you here?” We demand. The man answers in French, roughly meaning: “We live in a nearby village. My grandfather worked as a Vichy prisoner guard and others in the family served Vichy policies enthusiastically. I want my daughter to understand this sin. She and her friends often make war humor; sometimes I catch them in burnt Jew humor. I have brought her to make her aware there is nothing funny here.”

“Papa says the school presents the matter improperly, that they wash over hard truths. So he brings me here. I so very much did not want to come.”

“She must,” he says, “understand our family’s place in this matter. We were several French police in our family. I tell you the job of police is to defend all the people of the land; not entrap them, send them to work camps and escort them to be murdered.” He is literally tearing at his hair in distress, scraping his arms with his nails. Old scabs and scars abound.  “Stop!” She implores him and assures: “I and my friends will never do such things. Nous sommes civilisés — We are civilized people.” Silence.

The father stares at his daughter and finally spits out: “Civilisée est une illusion — Civilized is an illusion. People act like animals to each other; it takes so little pressure for this to happen. Did you know I was in a gang in my youth? No? We have much more to discuss.”

The father turns to ask me, I think hinting it would be nice to have the place to themselves: “Are you leaving? Where will you go from here?” In my simple French I explain: “My teacher, now a wise rabbi, was a prisoner in this camp. We two — me and my husband, we are also Jews. Those young Spanish freedom fighters mentioned on the sign, were murdered by the thousands; they were the ages of your daughter and my two sons. My teacher bids us to do some ritual for them, to look beyond the Jewish experience.” The young girl’s eyes go wide at this, her posture changes from truculent to pensive. We all fall silent.

The father suddenly raises his fist and face rather to heaven and turns towards me: “Je suis un homme laïc, mais vous pouvez dire à Dieu pour moi que j’expie les actions de ma famille, eh?- I am a secular man, but you can tell God for me that I atone the acts of my family, hein?” Silence.

He turns to hug his daughter, ” You know, I am proud of what you say. Eh? At the very least we must try not to be like them.”

The daughter’s only rejoinder is: “Il fait trop chaud. – It’s too hot.”

”Bonne chance (good luck), Madame, monsieur.”  They walk off hand-in-hand. What kind of gang was he in? I wonder.

We ask a lineman working on the windmills to tilt us toward a river. “Left, left and right.” It must be an inside joke, why do all directions given by French people seem the same in this country? He, too, instantly confesses his family worked at the camp, taking my hand as he does, with imploring eyes. What to say? I bless him and those of his town and family with an ever-expanding capacity for kindness. “Oui. Vraiment.” “Yes. Truly.” I am an insecure one with spontaneous blessings, no less trying to do so in French.

We are blessed to leave the ever-sand-entrapping road and heated pauses and pushes, as one steers and the other of us alternately shoves, and we reach tarmac. Some ways along appears a military training camp, open-gated for a visitors day. Maybe this is it?! There we inquire of a young officer-in-training who does not think there is any safe place to enter the river and asks why we seek it. When we explain our mission, he too, says his family were engaged by the Vichy government and worked at the camp, adding, “I am sorry if you had family perhaps die or work there. Such an unforgivable thing.”

What is the purpose of this camp where you work now? Turns out to be the detainment of North African refugees/infiltrators (depending how you see it.) He points the way to a river and “the arch,” which he thinks is what remains of the aqueduct or bridge Reb Zalman so clearly recalled.

Drained from heat and emotion, out of drinking water and no shop in sight, we know we won’t die from persisting, soon find ourselves driving along steeply banked dikes. Finally, indeed near an arching bridge across the river, we park. This is a marshy portion of river, with a low eroded river bank of mud and water pooled only in the riverbed center. Young sun bathers abound, and a few elder fisherman.

I undress down to a bath suit, Barry takes my clothes and settles on the river bank with camera in hand. Gingerly stepping on reeds, I find it difficult to walk in the rich, black, thick mud that threatens to swallow all that has weight. Easily hundreds, perhaps thousands of silent frogs arise at my tread, all bulging eyes, their bodies immersed to stay wet and cool. I continue past their evident niche, toward reflective water. The fishermen and Barry call out, frantically motioning for me to return to the shore.

No, this ritual must be more than a mud bath. I wave to them that it’s OK; though I’m not really so sure.

 Half way across, the water is about eight inches deep, blessedly clear, soothing and cool against the relentless sun and now blistering skin. My soul breaks through before thought arises: “Holy One, please, though I have no merit for your attention, S’il vous plait, faites attention (be careful please), and with bitterness, I call out: Shema Adonai!”

Instead of the rage I’d been carrying along with the Kaddish of Reb Levi Yitzchok since the camp, as I began lifting and splashing the river water upward, a river of gratitude came flowing instead — for Reb Zalman’s survival. And more, for my precious father’s survival, albeit disabled for life, as an Allied soldier. Yes, dear God, such gratitude for all who helped effect liberation, and for all those persecuted and war-deluded aggressors on all sides who attained the awesome, improbable gift of survival.”

Suddenly frogs grab my foreground, as one kicks off against my left leg, and an involuntary “ick” response within leads me to slip and bump into more frogs, and so begins a sinking flailing, until a few staggered steps lead to a bit of surprisingly accessible bedrock.

Floating frogs now pop into view and begin to flicker like holograms as I peer at their faces in trumulant disbelief…hauntingly empty dark eyed, sharp thin noses, dark hair and unpruned gaunt bearded Spaniard twenty-somethings, frogs, Spaniards, frogs…Daring stares. Yearning stares. Vacant stares. Blinking stares. Tears are streaming down my face at their lost youth and the unbearability of retroactive impotence.

A blessing arises unbidden: “May your souls be blessed to break free of this place, of the torment and memories of the horrors you experienced. If souls do return or travel to new destinies or realms beyond this life, may you know and create joy, kindness and peace.” Splashing handfuls of hessed — lovingkindness, up and over the alternating faces and as they dive, only to resurface as I become still and… know Love… different to any form of love ever in my life. A Love that slakes all possible pain and thirst — a Love inside of everything suddenly palpable, flowing in my every cell.

There in the water, the interpenetrated knowing yields … joy?! What is that? I hear Reb Zalman praying Reb Levi Yitzhok’s Dudele for us.



Mailoh du, matoh du. Mizroch du, mayrov du,  dorem du, Tzofen du,

Du du, du du, DU!! du du du, du, du, DU DU DU!!!, DU DU DU!!!

I dance and sing it slipping about in the river and an up-rushing of relieved souls join in.

This intimate Love pours through all form, space, song is love, light is love, water is love, mud is love… much as water frees the sometimes lingering soul during taharah… the released up-rushing souls spin in the Love and even seem to pass through my molecular body in their dance of ascent…


Finally, a soft breeze on wet skin beckons me back from the inter-loving, amazing reciprocity of the Dudele. Y’hei shmei rabba m’vorach. “May the Great Name be blessed. (from Kaddish, this is the a sense, for me, of the mitzvah of yirah, awe.)

Barry beckons from the river bank, holding a water bottle aloft. Someone has been kind.

Updated Article: Expanded Clergy Skills Being Cultivated at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

(Philadelphia) An accrual of timely major changes in clergy training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) became apparent at the 2010 ceremonies graduating new rabbinic and cantorial clergy, and masters degree students. RRC is the seminary and movement founded upon the rational teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. His articulate demystification of the development of Judaism and the Jewish people afforded the conceptual grounding for the evolving nature of contemporary Jewish practice and clergy training.

As an alumna, it was healing to hear Reconstructionist Rabbinical College President Daniel Ehrenkrantz observe out loud that RRC had long been a place where “the head was celebrated over the heart.” Coming to rabbinic training as a board certified social worker, it was uncomfortable being prepared to serve those suffering, celebrating, growing and developing as people and as Jews primarily by means of utterly fascinating scholarly studies.

Major Expansion of Training Modalities

So nice to hear from President Ehrenkrantz in his address and newsletters about the continued evolution of studies at RRC.  In the age of the internet where clergy are no longer primarily needed to serve as human hard drives stuffed with Jewish information, remaining relevant, useful and appreciated increasingly involves expanded skill sets. So, while not as extreme as the shift from priesthood officiants in the sacrificial system to scholars of Jewish law, the changing nature of Jewish clergy training at RRC announced is excitingly substantial. There's a lot that's interesting to relate to you.

Being a trendsetter in Jewish life is not new for Reconstructionist Judaism. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was the first American seminary to graduate homosexual Jewish clergy and to incorporate matters of gender studies in its curriculum. And, after an extensive tenure, Dr. Lori Hope Lefkovitz is leaving her RRC chair as the Sadie Gottesman and Arlene Gottesman Reff Professor of Gender and Judaism for another in Jewish Studies at Northeastern University. Her RRC position was envisioned by students and faculty back in the early 1990's as part of the original Jewish Women's Studies five year plan. Now that's planned change – from ideal to realized within one generation!

Visual evidence of the advancement of women in the rabbinate sat front and center on the bima before all, seven women and two men, now known as Rabbis and and a Hazzan. Rabbi Deborah Waxman, ’99, Ph.D. and Isabel de Koninck also rose for their certificates in Jewish Women's Studies, given by RRC in conjunction with Temple University. At the graduation ceremony President Ehrenkrantz announced Mordechai Liebling, ‘85 would be heading “a new Social Justice Organizing Program to invest rabbinical students with the clarity of purpose, vision and voice to become uniquely effective, spiritually strong leaders in the drive toward social justice and environmental sustainability.”

RRC also offers parallel training in how to foster understanding among people of all faiths under the supervision of Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, ’82, Ph.D. with a special emphasis on Jewish-Muslim engagement. Additionally, RRC maintains Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism, and also the Center for Jewish Ethics.

Can a Rational Seminary Incorporate Spirituality Training?

Spirituality ceased to be a scorned term shortly after the World Trade Center was attacked. We all were hurting in some undefined place within ourselves for which the term soul seemed most apropos. Help for those sore of soul, seeking in regard to important life issues, including one's relationship to God, is known in Judaism as hashpa'ah, the field of Jewish spiritual direction. This was first introduced outside of Hassidism by Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who has by now taught or lectured at most Jewish seminaries in North America, including the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College which now provides formal individual spiritual development of clergy students, under the supervision of its former academic dean, Rabbi Jacob Staub, Ph.D., '77

In social work school we were taught to respect that “all change is difficult.” Honored on the RRC graduation dais, prominent scholar and author Dr. Paul Mendes-Flohr of University of Chicago and Hebrew University, was introduced by an usual quote from his own work: “Nothing Jewish shall be considered alien.” Hopefully this was a comforting thought to some of the rationalist old guard lay leadership of the Reconstructionist movement after the invocation, when Chair, Department of Modern Jewish Civilization and Associate Professor of Jewish Mysticism, Dr. Joel Hecker invoked angels in his benediction. When those graduating opened their collective presentation by speaking of their “immersion in the Divine,” a former RRC board member to my right softly groaned, “Dear God, what's becoming of this institution!” He then chuckled aloud at the expletive he'd so unconsiously uttered.

Fear not, the more things change, the more some things remain the same. Upon requesting ordination photos for this article, the public relations person sent them with the following clarification: “RRC does not use the term 'ordination' because it has the connotation of a divine intervention or intentionality that is not part of Reconstructionist Judaism.” Nor is there the laying on of hands that I experienced in receiving years later in addition to my RRC graduation, the honor of lineage smichah as rabbi, and later as mashpi'ah (spiritual director) and most recently as shlikhah (emissary) from Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. Smichah is the tradition of ordaining rabbis that derives from Moses' laying his hands upon Joshua in passing on the mantle of leadership. Instead, as pictured, students have developed an accommodation to the RRC policy, not just the receipt of a diploma, but also students placing on each other the mantle of a tallit to mark the spiritual passage from student to graduate. And yes, the two rituals do feel remarkably different – one powerfully confers a profession, the second connects one's Source of support and inspiration all the way back to Sinai.

Keeping Rabbis Relevant in Changing Times

RRC's evolving clergy training model does seem to be the epitomy of Kaplanian thought in action during these sobering times of diminishing numbers of traditional clergy jobs. Stories in the press abound on alternative lay-led minyanim that are arising, interspiritual, pan-denominational and virtual seminaries, a growing trend toward lay-led rights of passage, and growing numbers of synagogue mergers. So it was heartening to listen to the mostly outside-the-box career accomplishment of earlier RRC graduates receiving Honorary Doctorates, having distinguished themselves by their longevity in the field and their significant impacts upon American Jewish life. To paraphrase from their introductions, the individuals honored were:

Rabbi Sandra Berliner for her role as a leader in hospice care, with seniors and teenagers here in the Philadelphia area.

Rabbi Deborah Brin, one of the first Reconstructionist rabbis raised in a Reconstructionist home and community and one of the first lesbian students and rabbis out of the closet.

Rabbi Robert Feinberg had the most wide-ranging rabbinate, for 20 years as a navy chaplain, in Jewish Federation work he had the applied goal of overcoming the divide between secular and religious organizations, and he served as a congregation rabbi;

Rabbi Dayle Friedman, honored pioneer in service to elders who has taken a significant role in the development of chaplaincy training for RRC students through her programs Jewish Visions of Aging and Jewish Pastoral Care, and service as founding head of Hiddur, Center for Jewish Aging should be Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism;

Rabbi Bonnie Goldberg has infused Jewish learning into Philadelphia's Jewish agencies, offered pioneering professional participation in the early stages of Birthright Israel, always reaching beyond boundaries of one population or agency to endorse a communal vision;

Rabbi Andrea Gouze, part of the early generation of Jewish women who took on a congregational rabbinate before women were widely accepted in the pulpit has also had active involvement in the Association of Jewish Chaplains, working on the professionalization of Jewish chaplaincy;

Rabbi Barry Israel Krieger, an early and ardent voice leading the RRC community to consider environmental concerns.

In Just One Generation

Amazing to take in that it has only taken one generation for women and gender studies, spirituality, GBLTQ inclusion, Jewish chaplaincy, and other forms of non-pulpit communal service to become core to clergy training. Congratulations to the administration, lay leadership, staff and faculty and mazel tov to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College's new graduates.