By Alex Lazarus-Klein
Standing with her walker, bundled up in her fleece jacket and gloves to protect against the frigid mid-April cold spell, 90-plus-year-old Ruth Merlin was the picture of bravery. We were a collection of Jewish communal members and politicians, gathered on Niagara Square to mark the State of Israel’s 70th birthday. Behind us an Israeli flag hung on a pole beside an American one. For the local Jewish community, this was a moment of pride that our collective homeland was becoming a septuagenarian.
Ruth Merlin was to sing a blessing to her birthplace. Born in Tel Aviv at the time of Israel’s formation, she is part of what is known in Israel as the pioneer generation. And, on May 14, 1948, she had been there when David Ben-Gurion announced to the world about the establishment of a Jewish state to be known as the State of Israel. What followed was mass pandemonium, local settlers and recently arrived Holocaust survivors dancing in the streets. And, then war.
Ruth Merlin had seen it all, driving a truck for the Israeli army, when she could barely see past the front windshield. When they put her in an office because of her disability, she fumed at not being able to participate more fully in the war effort. When she and her husband arrived in Buffalo a few decades later because of economic reasons, she was saddened not to be living in a country she helped to build.
A week or so later, I was saying goodbye to a dear friend, Dr. Surjit Singh, who was the first person of Indian decent to come to Western New York. A devout Sikh, Dr. Singh, was a pillar of strength in the entire region. He had built two Sikh temples, one in Niagara Falls and one in Amherst, and led a comprehensive effort at interfaith cooperation.
Like Ruth Merlin, he had been active in his homeland of Punjab during the tumultuous decade of the 1940s. He had lived through some of the worst sectarian violence in history in 1947, when around two million people lost their lives, and 15 million more were displaced. He had fought hard for a Sikh state, only to be disappointed at the result and eventually exiled from his homeland.
At his funeral, faith leaders from all over Western New York, came to mourn a person who had dedicated his life to bringing people together. His home library contained holy documents from many different faiths, including a well-worn Quran and Bible. A local Muslim leader announced to those gathered that Dr. Singh likely knew his holy text better than he did.
Looking over the diversity of faces, young and old, black and white, immigrant and established American, Dr. Singh had done so much to change the face our region. With his help, we have become a true American stew, filled with people with roots all over the world. When I think of America, it is the America of Dr. Singh.
Both Ruth Merlin’s song and Dr. Singh’s spirit are what make this region great. It is the variety of voices, that bring their lived traditions and passions that enhances us all. At the funeral, the religious leaders were sitting in order of the age of our religious faith. I was sitting next to a Hindu colleague, whose religion outdates mine by 3,000 years, and we were discussing how in the early 1970s there was only one Indian restaurant in all of New York City. How strange to think of that time period. How much better off we are today.
Alex Lazarus-Klein of Amherst is the rabbi of Congregation Shir Shalom.