I Have a Question



For Whom Are We
Rabbi Herbert Friedman grew up during the Great Depression. His family was poor. One night, his mother attended a meeting of her synagogue sisterhood, where a representative of the U.S. National Refugee Service made an urgent plea for Jewish families to “take into their homes German-Jewish children whose parents were willing to let them emigrate to the United States, not know if they would ever see those children again.”

Rabbi Friedman wrote what happened next:


Of the more than 100 women assembled, all mothers, no more than a dozen raised their hand. My mother stood and announced that she would take three children. God has been good to her, she said, giving her three healthy sons; this was her opportunity to repay. She added without embarrassment that her family was living in a small apartment, with only two bedrooms, because their house had been foreclosed by the bank during the Depression. Hence, she could take only boys, who could sleep mixed in with her sons.  

Mother came home with the affidavit forms, placed them under my father’s nose at the kitchen table, and told him of her commitment. Signing the forms, as far as she was concerned, was only a formality. He saw it differently, because of the legal obligations his signature would impose…  

He could not envision for an instant how they could handle the additional expense of food, clothing, school, etc., for three more persons.  

My mother answered him quietly, but with great passion. Even though we were poor, how could we refuse to save Jewish lives if we were given the chance to do so? She was ashamed of the other sisterhood members. All of them should have volunteered, and she would not hesitate to tell them so at the next meeting. “If we have enough food for five of us,” she asked, “why can’t we simply make it enough for eight?” If I must wash shirts for six boys instead of three, what’s the difference?”…  


The parental argument raged all night-the only time I remember my parents raising their voices in anger and disagreement. She won. In the morning, my father signed the affidavits, and she proudly took them back to the synagogue.  

As I mulled over the matter, I decided that my mother’s fight with my father symbolized the whole problem, and the only conclusion was therefore to act according to moral Jewish values, without permitting rationalization, delay, or any other diluting factor.   

“When history knocks, you answer.”


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In the wake of our country’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, let us pause and ask a simple – yet profound – big question: FOR WHOM ARE WERESPONSIBLE?
The corollary question is equally big and important: HOW SHALL WE ACT?

Rabbi Friedman’s mother knew for whom she was responsible….parents who were desperate to ensure the survival of their children in the face of the Nazi Holocaust. And she knew exactly what she needed to do.

What about you and me?

Today? In our world?

For whom are we responsible? And how shall we act?

This question and 
the story by Rabbi Friedman