A father’s memory is an inspiration to serve — and to smile

A father’s memory is an inspiration to serve — and to smile

Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein
Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein

On Passover, among other Jewish holidays, we recite Yizkor to honor the memory of those who have died and, equally, to affirm and maintain our connection to them. Like many Jews, I treasure the opportunity offered by Yizkor to share my memories and my loss with my community. 

But, as anyone who has ever lost a close relative can tell you, you don’t need a formal ritual to remember.

The season itself is a reminder. If you had a relative who led the seder — or cooked for the seder, or had even a minor annual role at the seder — then memories will inevitably come at this time of year. You don’t have to wait for Yizkor. 

My dad, Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein, was rabbi and then rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El in South Orange. He led seders. He led Yizkor. But I find myself thinking of him, as Passover approaches, for reasons that are both more sublime — and more ridiculous — than those. 

First, the sublime: My dad had a profound love for freedom. He was an advocate for the release of Soviet Jews, travelling with my mother to Soviet Russia in 1959 (on their honeymoon!) and again in the ’70s and ’80s, bearing Jewish books and other contraband. For my dad, “freedom” wasn’t achieved merely by getting Jews out of Russia. He believed, as the Haggada teaches, that ignorance of God is a kind of bondage, and so he devoted himself to the Jewish education of Russian emigres. 

In the 1990s, my father learned about a man from Cameroon seeking political asylum because he had been thrown in jail and tortured for criticizing the government. Not only did my parents invite this man, Christophe Dosat, into their home, my father attended every hearing and deposition with him. Today, he is an American citizen. 

To my dad, “Let my people go” was not just a Bible verse or a slogan. It was a moral demand against Pharaohs of every description, on behalf of people from every background. 

Since my dad died, I have devoted most of my social justice work to freeing slaves. The latest estimate is that there are approximately 30 million slaves working throughout the world, with about 60,000 (still, shockingly) in the United States. In March, in collaboration with the organization Free the Slaves, I launched the Judaism & Modern Slavery Project. It consists of two parts: 

Seder Starters: readings and activities for your seder to help you raise awareness of modern slaves and add meaning to your celebration.

The Passover & Modern Slavery Curriculum: lessons for every age — from kindergartners through adults. 

Both resources are free and downloadable at freetheslaves.net/Judaism

The goal is to help Jews connect the story of our enslavement and liberation to the plight — and hopes for freedom — of slaves today. 

It was only after months of work on this project that it dawned on me how much my father’s love of freedom had inspired it. Those who remember my father will recall that he was agreeable, easy-going, and funny. But when people were not free, he became insistent, laser-focused, and serious. He refused to “stand idly by” (Leviticus 19:16). On the cover page of the “Judaism & Modern Slavery Curriculum,” you can see a brief, inadequate dedication: “In memory of Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein.”

And now, the ridiculous: Sometimes, it is the littlest things that remind us of the people we love. People do so many remarkable things in a lifetime, but it’s often the things that are decidedly not remarkable that trigger a rush of feeling or memory. 

Not long after deciding to dedicate the slavery curriculum to my dad, I was finding it hard to unwind after a long day. I turned on the television and happened on a rerun of Castle. My dad was a fan of the show, which features a writer who shadows a New York City detective. I remember questioning him about his affection for it, because I found it so, well, dumb. I couldn’t take more than a few minutes of it before leaving the room. 

But dumb and mindless were what I was after that night. To my surprise, I wasn’t just nostalgic about the show; I actually liked it. Now that my father is not around to watch it with, it reminds me of him. I see what he saw in it, and I dread the day when I will run out of reruns. 

I never would have dreamed that a TV show would be a link between me and my dad. And for a long time, it didn’t occur to me that helping to free slaves was also connecting me, in a much more significant way, to him. 

But seder time or Yizkor time — or anytime — the connection is always there. 

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