At 91 and in failing health, Holocaust survivor Rabbi Eli Fishman could be excused for taking it easy and keeping himself out of the limelight. Instead, he will be the focus of attention as guest of honor at a March 6 dinner hosted by the Talmudical Academy of Central New Jersey, located in Adelphia. The dinner precedes by just a few weeks the April 1 release of his book, On the Wings of Faith.
Fishman also continues to serve as president of the Judaic Heritage Foundation, an outreach and educational program.
Currently living with family members in Lawrence, NY, Fishman has long been associated with the Jewish community of Monmouth County. He came to Freehold from Newark in 1970 and was the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Achim-Freehold Jewish Center for 27 years.
Throughout most of his tenure there, his wife, Eileen, was the synagogue’s education director.
Fishman also played a key role in establishing the Talmudical Academy in 1971 and for rallying community support for the institution during its crucial early years.
Bernard “Nardie” Hochberg, a local merchant and real estate developer, was president of the Hebrew School committee at Freehold Jewish Center in 1970, when Fishman took over the pulpit. “Both my daughters had their bat mitzva there, and he officiated. He was a fine cantor as well as a rabbi.”
“I succeeded Eileen Fishman as education director and worked with her and the rabbi for two years before they left Freehold Jewish Center,” said Marvin Krakower, the synagogue’s current executive director. “They are sweet, humble people who were very easy to work with.”
Krakower remembers the respect Fishman engendered among congregants as well as his fine voice. “He sang like a bird.”
At the dinner, Fishman will be lauded for his contributions to the combined Jewish high school and college, which has seen more than 2,000 students pass through its doors in four-plus decades.
Fishman’s three sons, Joseph, Yale, and Akiva, will receive alumni awards. All three attended the academy and have extensive experience leading congregations, two as ordained rabbis. The brothers currently operate an estate planning/financial management firm on Long Island. The Fishmans also have a daughter, Rebecca Silberstein, who works as an attorney in Manhattan.
In a phone interview, Fishman told NJJN he began writing his book over 60 years ago, sometimes putting it aside for long stretches of time, but always returning to record not just “the story of my life, but a meaningful account of the Shoa.”
Born in 1924, he was already a teenager in 1939, when Nazi troops took over his town of Lublin, Poland. “My father owned a leather business that manufactured high-quality boots. By offering to provide these free to German officers, he managed to keep our family safe — for a while.”
That ended in 1942, when Fishman, then 18, was among 100 young, strong Jewish men selected for slave labor. “The rest of the Jews — thousands — were sent to be exterminated,” he said.
By chance, Fishman saw members of his family — his mother, brother, and one sister — on their way to the transports. “I rushed out and told my mother that I wanted to go with them, but my mother insisted that I stay. She promised me, ‘You shall remain alive to be a zeher [remembrance] of our entire family.’
“Her promise became my armor, which nothing could pierce: neither starvation nor beatings, neither fear nor terror,” said Fishman.
The author said he carefully chose the title of his book, On the Wings of Faith. It was, he said, “indeed faith” that sustained him through the dark years of the Holocaust, including a period at Auschwitz.
Shortly after his release from the camps, Fishman said he was able to connect with Rav Shmuel Abba Snieg, a noted Talmud scholar, who became the chief rabbi of Germany, American Zone, after World War II. The two worked together for five years until Fishman immigrated to the United States in 1950.
A few years later, he met the woman who would become his wife. “I was a teenager attending a convention of Hebrew schoolteachers in the Catskills. He saw me sitting in the lobby reading The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides,” she recalled. They were married in 1956, when she was 20.