Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



Once a year, the eyes of the whole world turn to Hollywood...and a distinguished movie star opens an envelope...and announces the name of the best actor of the year....and the audience goes wild with excitement as the movie star hugs those that are sitting near him, and then, to tumultuous applause, climbs up to the stage and receives the Oscar.

And once a year, the eyes of the whole world turn to Hollywood…and a famous television star tears open an envelope and reads the name of the best actress of the year in a television program and the audience goes wild as an excited actress hugs the people she is sitting with and then comes up on the stage to receive an Emmy.

And once a year, in an office somewhere, Buddy Selig, the commissioner of baseball, announces that the votes have been tallied, and so and so has received the MVP, the most valuable player award.

And once a year, the eyes of the whole world turn to Congregation Shaarei Shamayim on Sukkot, and before a congregation that listens with baited breath...I announce the “Lulav Of The Year Award.” What is the “Lulav Of The Year Award?” (With thanks to Rabbi Jack Reimer for the thought.) And why does it have that name?

It’s the award that I will give to that person who has shown the most courage during the past year or so or whose courage was revealed in the past year. Why do I call it “The Lulav Of The Year Award”? Because while a Shofar you can hide in your pocket, if you want to, and a tallis, you can carry in a bag, even a plain brown paper bag...and no one will know what you have inside…but a lulav you can’t hide. A lulav sticks out, and stands tall.

The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that in ancient times, the residents of Jerusalem would take a lulav with them wherever they went on Sukkot. It was a strong affirmation of who they were, for a lulav can’t be hidden. The Midrash teaches us that a lulav is symbolic of the spine. And therefore it is an appropriate symbol to give to a person who has the spine to stand up tall, for what he believes is right.

And now the envelope, please. And the winner is…Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher—who was Britain’s 1st female prime minister, serving for 11 years starting in 1979—passed away last April and we were reminded about the towering force she was in the last half of the 20th century. But with her death also came the realization of how difficult her life was when she was in her later years. Meryl Streep did a beautiful job of portraying that last year in the film, “The Iron Lady.”

She had been unwell for many years, had been lonely since the death of her husband in 2003, was no longer in full possession of her intellectual faculties and was living alone in a hotel—lonely, drinking, ranting and unable, at the end, to utter a complete sentence. 

Today, however, I would like to celebrate her life by telling you something about Margaret Thatcher that you may not have known. Despite her many impressive accomplishments, including rescuing England from a severe fiscal crisis and fighting the Soviet communist regime, Thatcher said that her proudest moment was when she saved a Jewish teenager from Austria during the Holocaust.

In 1938, Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old Jewish girl, sent a letter to Muriel Roberts, Edith’s pen pal and the older sister of Margaret Thatcher, asking if the Roberts family could help her escape from Austria and the Nazis. Alfred Roberts, the father of Muriel and Margaret, was a grocer in a small town. They lived in a cold-water flat above the grocery with an outhouse; the Roberts did not have the time or the money to bring Edith to their home. So Margaret, then 12 and Muriel, 17, decided they were going to raise the money and somehow they succeeded in bringing Edith to England. They got the local Rotary Club involved and Edith stayed with several Rotary families, including the Roberts for the next 2 years before joining relatives in South America.

Edith slept in Margaret’s room and Thatcher later wrote in her memoir: “She was tall, beautiful, evidently from a well to do family. But most important, she told us what it was like to live as a Jew under an anti-Semitic regime. One thing Edith reported particularly stuck in my mind. The Jews, she said, were being made to scrub the streets.”

Edith is now a Jewish grandmother in Sao Paolo who says that she owes her life and the life of her children and grandchildren to Margaret Thatcher and her family. In 1986, Thatcher was the 1st British prime minister to visit Israel. She was visibly shaken when she visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as she stood in front of a photo of a German soldier shooting a Jewish mother and child. She exclaimed, “It is so terrible. Everyone should come and see it so that they never forget. I am not quite sure whether the new generation really knows what we are fighting against.”

Thatcher continued to be a loyal friend to the Jews even when it wasn’t politically advantageous because of the rising influence of the growing Arab population in England and the rising influence of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. She fought against the British support for the Arab boycott of Israel, protested on behalf of Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union and chose several Jewish leaders to be part of her cabinet. Thatcher admired the hard work and self-reliance of the British Jewish community and frequently turned to England’s late chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits for spiritual back up. She even elevated Rabbi Jakobovits to the House of the Lords and he later became known as “Thatcher’s rabbi.”

Thatcher also made the following statement about Israel's security: “Israel must never be expected to jeopardize her security; if she was ever foolish enough to do so and then suffered for it, the backlash against both honest brokers and Palestinians would be immense—‘land for peace’ must also bring peace.”

Thatcher spoke up with such courage and strength because, as she described herself, “This lady is not for turning.” When she believed in an ideal, whether it was transforming the British economy or saving a terrified Jew from Austria, she was not afraid to follow through, even if she had to stand up against popular opinions to do so.

There were so many reasons why 12-year-old Margaret and her sister could have thrown up their hands in despair and stuffed Edith’s letter into a drawer in their tiny, freezing apartment. They had no money, no power and no idea how they would be able to rescue this terrified girl that they had never met. But they believed that they could and should do everything possible to help—even if they were only 12-years-old and living above a small town grocery store with no hot water.

And so we pay tribute to Margaret Thatcher for her friendship and work with the Jewish people by posthumously giving her the Shaarei Shamayim Lulav of the Year Award for her wise words and inspiring courage. And for teaching us, that above all else, the greatest achievement in life is sometimes not one that earns you a trophy or money or even a powerful position. Sometimes it’s the quiet, determined accomplishments that no one hears about until years later or ever. Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

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