Rabbi David Baron Opens the Doors of the Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills on Yom Kippur to Honor Diverse Heroes like Irene Gut Opdyke and Moti Kahana
By John Lavitt
Beverly Hills, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11-12-2022
As an American journalist with Jewish parents, who feels the weight and responsibility of his cultural heritage, it took me longer than expected to write this article. After all, not being a very observant Jew who rarely goes to Temple, how am I supposed to review the High Holy Day services at a local reform temple in Beverly Hills? Although I felt lucky to be able to attend Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) services at the Temple of the Arts at the Saban Theatre, I also felt a little like a stranger in my own skin. How am I supposed to take on the mantle of a scribe recording this day?
After all, Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Hebrew Calendar, occurring annually on the 10th of Tishrei. During this day, the primary focus is on atonement and repentance, beginning with Kol Nidre (Aramaic for “All Vows”) at sundown the night before and continuing until dusk the next day. Indeed, the day’s observances consist of complete fasting -not even water is allowed traditionally – and intensive prayer. Given the seriousness of this observance, if I am not part of the congregation, what can I say that does not ring of judgment and commentary?
Not wanting to take on the role of the clever commentator or a critical judge, I wondered what I would write that would not sound like mere promotion or publicity. I hoped on Yom Kippur to find some guidance by speaking with Rabbi David Baron, the founding rabbi of the Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts, the largest arts and entertainment industry synagogue in the United States. Located at the legendary Saban Theatre, the Rabbi’s Temple offers the unique approach of exploring and practicing Judaism through music, drama, art, dance, and film. When asked how his Temple would give meaning to a Jew who had strayed from the religion, Rabbi Barron said:
“If we look at Yom Kippur closely, it is all about our inner lives, our spiritual lives. What are we carrying in relation to grudges and resentments? How do we move forward on a path of forgiveness? On that level, it has a deep message for us. In the Temple of the Arts, we use the creative arts to bring people closer to the religious experience. The root of the word ‘religion’ is from the Latin word ‘ligare,’ which means ligaments. Ligaments are what hold our musculature together; it is what holds a person together. Indeed, Religion is what connects us as a community and holds us together, bringing us closer to God. When we look at the survivors of the Holocaust and people who helped in the face of such extremity, we do not just dwell in the horror and sadness of what they experienced but, in the joy, and fulfillment of what they created. Today, on Yom Kippur, in this Temple of the Arts, we creatively join together and find meaning in our community and its true connection to the presence of God.”
Although Polish nurse Irene Gut Opdyke (born Irena Gut) could not be present because she passed away in 2003, her daughter came to the Yom Kippur services to commemorate the incredible story of her mother. During the war, while working in the villa of Wehrmacht Major Eduard Rügemer, Irena Gut smuggled 12 Jews (men, women, and children) out of the ghetto and placed them in hiding in the cellar of the Major’s house. When Rügemer found out about the Jews she was hiding, she pleaded for their lives. He offered to let them continue to live in the basement if Gut would become his mistress. Until he fled with the Nazis as the Russian army was closing in, Gut lived as the Major’s mistress, sacrificing herself to save innocent lives.
Later, while living in the United States with her new family, Gut began telling her story. She wrote a memoir called, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer. In 1982, Yad Vashem recognized and honored her as one of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations. Her story was told and honored on Yom Kippur by her daughter, Jeannie Opdyke Smith. When asked about the heroism of her mother, Jeannie Opdyke Smith said:
“My mother’s life can be summed up with two words: forgiveness and love. Forgiveness and love are stronger than any army or any weapon. When expressed in the way my mother expressed those values, love and forgiveness can soften the hardest of hearts and open the most closed minds. However, we must never forget that forgiveness and love are not a given. Indeed, they are choices that we must make, and I respect and admire my mother so much for the courage and faith she expressed when she chose to side with forgiveness and love. I have kept her legacy alive with my husband by having sixty foster kids in our home over the past thirty-four years. We have been able to live our lives in a way that reflects the best of the life she lived so well.”
Rabbi Barron and the Temple of the Arts picked their guests on Yom Kippur exceedingly well. Another guest was Mordechai (Moti) Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman, and philanthropist who truly puts his money where his heart sings. Believing in giving back, even as a family man with a wife and kids, he has gone into war zones in multiple countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, to help people in need.
In 2014, Kahana helped to extract one of the last remaining Jewish families in war-torn Syria, bringing them to Israel. In October 2021, Kahana arranged a flight to evacuate Zablon Simintov, Afghanistan, along with 30 Afghan women and children. In March 2022, Kahana went to Ukraine to help to rescue 200 Jewish orphaned children. He also brought truckloads of food to feed any Ukrainians needing a meal. When asked why he took such risks in war zones, Kahana said:
“I believe that not only that God is Good but Good is God. Ukraine is my fifth war in twelve years, and I have seen so much horror and evil. I have seen the deaths of so many innocents and too many children. I realized that all this evil had nothing to do with God. What has to do with God is all the Good people who are taking risks to save lives, and I knew I had to be one of those people. I found God in the Goodness of those people, and I realized that God is simply a misspelled word: God is Good. In my own life, although I love seeing the Goodness at work, I am still looking for God sometimes in the world. I am only certain to find God when I replace him with finding Good. I find Good all around me and all over the world. When I return from a war zone, alive and well, to the safety of my home and the love of my family, that is where and when I know I will find God. My wife laughs when I say such things, but she knows deep inside what I mean.”
There is such humility in this man. Moti Kahana is a hero who would never accept the mantle of the name. Still, in the stillness and beauty of his actions, his heroism and Goodness are undeniable. On Yom Kippur, as I fasted and attended services at the Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills, I insisted on taking a picture of Moti next to a fire extinguisher. If there is a fire, I know to reach for that extinguisher. If I need to be inspired to be a better man, I know to talk to a soul like Moti Kahana, who is the essence of the Goodness he celebrates. Such a message is what stays with me long after Temple’s ark has been closed and the services are over. Rather than focus on the impact of my sins, I celebrate the Goodness of others and allow such a Good to wash over me like a lingering inspiration.
Photos by John Lavitt and Ellen Zuckerman