TIKKUN OLAM *
*HEBREW FOR “HEAL THE WORLD”
What is a Jewish rabbi doing at a Jesuit university? Trying to heal the world, one cause—and one student—at a time BY FRANCE GRIGGS SLOAT
JOHN AND YOKO ARE IN BED. turns to leave. GUITARS AND MICROPHONES ARE “Wait a minute,” Lennon says. “Come back.” Lennon takes a small SCATTERED AROUND. The couple is blooming plant from the shelf behind the bed and hands it to Ingber. recording “Give Peace a Chance,” the song “Here,” Lennon says. “Give it love.” that will quickly become the anthem for the antiwar movement. Above their heads, like crowns, are hand-lettered signs that spell “Hair Peace” and “Bed Peace.” The room is Today, some 40 years later, Ingber sits in his office on the third stuffed with people taping the event on bulky floor of the Gallagher Student Center, reflecting on his early days of TV cameras, dancing around or sitting on the activism and his formative years. Seeking Lennon’s signature was, for floor singing backup. It’s crowded and it’s hot. the young Ingber, the beginning of a life dedicated to hope and the Down the hallway, the elevator door eradication of hate. It would include organizing demonstrations, crashopens and a long-haired, bearded young man ing state dinners and clashing with police for his cause. squeezes into the bedlam of the 17th floor of His methods have mellowed over the last 40 years, he admits, but Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. He pushes his passion has not. his way to the rope line and, yelling above “Tikkun Olam,” he says. the din, tells the manager, “I need to see John It’s a Hebrew phrase that means “Heal the World,” and it is at the Lennon.” core of his purpose on the planet. It is the driving force “You can’t,” the manager that led him to become a rabbi and a pillar in Cincinnati’s FROM MEETING JOHN says. “They’re recording.” Jewish community. It’s what led him to be the leader of LENNON DURING HIS The young man presses Jewish students at the University of Cincinnati for three FAMOUS BED-IN BY TRYING TO FREE SOVIET JEWS on. “I’m Abie Ingber, and John decades. It’s what led him to make a name for himself as (TOP RIGHT), INGBER HAS Lennon has to sign this petition.” an outspoken advocate for peace, education and interfaith CRUSADED FOR PEACE “Why?” dialogue—a fancy term that means reaching out to everyAND JUSTICE. XAVIER STU“Because. It authenticates his message of peace.” body and excluding nobody. DENTS BENEFIT THROUGH The manager hesitates a few seconds. “Wait here,” And it’s what led him to his current—and most EVENTS SUCH AS (CLOCKWISE FROM LOWER RIGHT) uncanny—arrangement as director of Xavier’s Center for he says. Clutching the papers in his hand, Ingber waits ALFOMBRAS, SERVICE with the crowd gathered in the hallway, eager to be a part Interfaith Community Engagement. A Jewish rabbi at a TRIPS, MOCK WEDDINGS of John and Yoko’s Bed-In for Peace. When the music Catholic university. He relishes the irony. AND BURNING A “WALL stops, the door opens and down the hall walks comedian But it works. Invited by University President Michael OF HATE.” Tommy Smothers, who’s been playing backup guitar for J. Graham, S.J., in 2008 to bring his healing touch to the recording session. “Sure,” he says when Ingber asks Xavier, Ingber has done that in many ways: him to sign the petition. • When a pastor in Florida burned the Koran in 2011, Ingber staged The manager comes back. “John will see you now.” a reading of the Muslim holy book, declaring, “We don’t burn books He follows the manager into Room 1742 and is awed by what he at Xavier. We read them.” sees: a shirtless Timothy Leary, the LSD-experimenting psychologist, • He’s twice created a Wall of Expression where students write hateprancing to the thumps of the eight-track recorder still pounding its ful words on a wooden wall—and then burn the wall down. mechanical drumming on the floor; a couple of Hare Krishnas standing • He staged a mock “interfaith wedding” in the middle of campus in bright flowing robes; crewmen handling guitars, microphones and that included pieces and parts of wedding ceremonies from different amplifiers. In the center of it, propped up against the pillows, sit John religions—including a white horse. Lennon and Yoko Ono, the King and Queen of Peace. • He led a “Bible reading marathon” in which the Bible was read This is insane, Ingber thinks. But then again, it’s perfect. He steps non-stop for 24 hours straight. into the chaos. All he knows is that on this day, June 1, 1969, he must • He raises money and takes students on medical mission trips so get Lennon’s signature on this petition, because nothing is more imporstudents can offer medical and spiritual care to poor people in isolated tant than this work to free Soviet Jews. Nothing. Here he is, a poor regions of the world. Jewish kid from Montreal, about to ask the most famous Beatle for his • He hosts a Different Foods, Different Faiths programs where signature. He walks up to the bed. various ethnic foods are used to offer lessons in culture and religion. “Mr. Lennon?” he says. Lennon, in pajamas, smiles at Ingber Students pop into his office all day. Some come to help manage the through his tiny round glasses and pushes the hair out of his eyes. office, others have questions about his Hebrew scripture class. Some Ingber makes his pitch, telling him how he plans to give the petition to come for guidance—personal and spiritual. On a September afternoon, the Canadian secretary of state in hopes the government will pressure he hands cash to a young woman to buy the burritos for his student the Soviet Union into freeing Russian Jews. If Lennon is serious about cabinet meeting that night. He calls her sweetheart and gives her a hug love and peace, he’ll sign it, Ingber thinks. before she leaves. Another day, he gently cups a student’s chin in his “Absolutely. I would love to sign it,” Lennon says. He signs with a hand as they discuss student cabinet business. He treats his students as flourish and hands it back to Ingber. Then in a tiny voice, Yoko says, he would his own four daughters, because, he says, they are all God’s “Can I sign it, too?” Of course she can. Ingber thanks Lennon and XAVIER MAGAZINE
children. But there’s another reason. “If I want this world to be better for my daughters, I have to work now for everyone,” he says. So he accepts invitations to speak at international events and seeks opportunities to involve himself in crises worldwide—like in 2009, when he traveled to Chad to bring a message of hope to refugees of the genocide in Darfur. Last August, he was invited to speak to Muslim students at a conference in Cameroon, on Africa’s west coast, about creating dialogue between Islam and others. He left somewhat hopeful—until the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed during an attack on his compound. But the next day, Ingber got a call from Mohaman Adam, his driver in Cameroon, offering his condolences to the only American he’d ever known. “So there is hope for this world,” Ingber says. “But we have a lot of work to do.”
crimination typical of post-war 1950s. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish enclave, religion was a central dimension in Ingber’s everyday life—in ways both good and bad. He was chased through the streets as a child, called “dirty Jew” by schoolmates and beat up as a teenager. But inspired by his parents’ story, he refused to let it seep into his soul. “As a traditional Jewish kid growing up in an immigrant poor area, being attacked was as much a rite of passage for me as for those who did the attacking,”
A young bearded Ingber sits at a state dinner in Montreal in May 1972, looking good in his borrowed suit. A student at McGill University, he has wrangled an invitation to this fundraiser in hopes of having a chat with the keynote speaker, AFTER BEING FREED FROM Kurt Waldheim, then the secretary general of the United A FORCED-LABOR CAMP Nations. IN SIBERIA, WOLFE INGBER As he dips into crisp and tangy orange sherbet stuffed (RIGHT) MADE HIS WAY BACK TO POLAND, WHERE into a frozen shell of orange peel, Ingber sees Waldheim HE MET ANOTHER HOLOcome to the microphone. He jumps up, knocking over CAUST SURVIVOR, FANIA the sherbet, and yells, “I appeal to you in the name of PASZT. THEY HAVE A SON, Soviet Jews fighting for human rights…” WHOM THEY NAME ABIE. Before he can finish, two security guards grab him he says. “It and, hoisting him like a battering ram, carry him out of the totally shaped ballroom and through the front doors of the Windsor Hotel, using his my worldview. I knew that head to bash open the doors. He lands on the sidewalk, picks himself teaching every Jewish child up and walks right back into the hotel, only to be hauled out again the to run quickly was not a same way. solution. We had to think As he pulls himself up a second time, he is met by a reporter from about weaning other people the Montreal Star, who interviews Ingber for a story the next day that from a world of acting out on describes how Ingber “was dragged out of the Windsor Hotel ballhatred.” room and punched repeatedly in the face last night by Royal Canadian Ingber’s resolve is what drives him to help found Canada’s Student Mounted Police officers.” A picture of Ingber’s face shows him with a Struggle for Soviet Jewry while a pre-med student at McGill University black eye and bruises. in Montreal. It’s what drives him to push his way into John and Yoko’s The bruises eventually heal, but Ingber’s resolve is stronger than hotel room in 1969. And it drives him to crash a meeting of the ever. His efforts as a student activist so far have been influenced by American Jewish Committee in 1970 in Washington, D.C., where his own formative years in Montreal, which included the kind of disSupreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg is the keynote speaker. The
I can’t heal the Jewish world unless I heal the entire world, to change the trajectory of everybody’s suffering in this world. It’s a herculean task, and while I may not complete it, I am not free to desist from beginning it.” 3
committee was trying to determine a response to the Soviets’ treatment of Russian Jews who had attempted to hijack a plane. Uninvited, Ingber barges in and snatches the microphone from Goldberg. “This meeting is over,” Ingber says. “Right now students are demonstrating at the Soviet Embassy. You can either do what you did during the Holocaust—nothing—or you can join us.” The room empties.
One day, while in high school, Ingber walks into his home and sees his father sitting there, teary-eyed. “What’s wrong,” he asks. “A great man just died.” “Who?” “The pope,” he says. The elder Ingber, an Orthodox Jew, is talking about Pope John XXIII, who presided over Vatican II and the Church’s momentous decision in 1965 to seek reconciliation with Jews. Ingber adopts his father’s welcoming attitude toward Catholics and expands on it during his college years, developing a philosophy of welcoming all. But how would he use it? He had a degree in microbiology, but he would never be a doctor. Ah, he thinks, he could, as a rabbi, spend a lifetime healing the world through social change and love, and maybe recover a fraction of the world his parents—and the grandparents he never knew—had lost. So he enters Hebrew Union College—a reform Judaism university—in Cincinnati in 1972 and is ordained in 1977. Twenty-seven years later, Ingber’s mission comes full circle on St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Standing before Pope John Paul II on Oct. 27, 2004, he opens a leather-bound book filled with snapshots of elements of this pope’s incredible life. Ingber, in a yarmulke, is with Bill Madges, chairman of the Department of Theology, and James Buchanan, director of Xavier’s Brueggeman Center for Dialogue. Together, they are seeking the pontiff ’s approval for an exhibit they want to create that documents the pope’s lifelong personal and public efforts to reach out and reconcile the Catholic faith with Jews. The pope leafs through the book, clearly enjoying the pictures of his life in Poland. He gives his blessing, triggering six months of whirlwind travel and late-night sessions gathering artifacts and organizing the exhibit. “A Blessing To One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People” opened in May 2005 at Xavier and has traveled to 17 cities in the United States. It makes its European debut next year at the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Ingber poured his heart into the project, Madges says, because the purpose of the exhibit is so central to his vision. “Abie is all about bringing people together,” says Madges, “and he particularly relishes the opportunity and challenge to bring together people that you wouldn’t typically think would go together because there would be tension between them.”
The photo of Ingber with Pope John Paul II hangs on the wall of his office, which is in some ways like a museum and in other ways a metaphor for his life. Three of the office walls are covered with artifacts
documenting his work—photos of him with world leaders, the Dalai Lama, American presidents, author Eli Wiesel, scores of ambassadors and foreign leaders. An African tribal mask, fishing stones from Darfur, a cross from Ethiopia, a stone oil lamp from First Century Palestine— items acquired during his worldly travels—sit on a table. The fourth wall is different. It’s a window overlooking Xavier’s campus. It shows the students milling about between classes and playing on sunny days. The other walls show the work that has been done. The window shows the work that is still left to do. In a way, Ingber has been preparing for this work his entire life. Or longer. “Everybody was born before they were born,” he says. “I was birthed in the Holocaust.” The seed for the work—and the hope—was planted 65 years ago at a refugee camp in Hofgeismar, Germany. Wolfe Ingber, Abie’s father, came there after being freed from a forced-labor camp in Siberia. He slowly made his way through the Eastern Bloc countries toward his home in Poland, riding downriver on a barge and working in mercury mines and cornfields just to survive. He was one of the lucky ones. When the Germans tore into Poland from the west in 1939, his father sent him eastward with his two older sisters, figuring they had a better chance of surviving capture by the Soviet Red Army than by staying put and being captured by the Germans. It was true. The three young siblings headed east from tiny Szczebrzeszyn, leaving everything behind. Not long after, the Germans marched into the town and decimated the Jewish community, forcing Jews into slave labor or sending them off to death camps. Wolfe and his sisters never saw their parents again. As expected, the three were captured by the Soviets and shipped to a Gulag labor camp near the Arctic Circle. Though about half of the Polish people forced into such camps died within a year, Wolfe and his sisters managed to stay alive over two frigid winters. What sustained him were the Jewish prayers he recited every day, as his father had instructed him to do. Knowing the war is over and his sisters are all the family he has, Wolfe leads them to the refugee camp and begins working as a translator and driver for an American, Col. Schuster, with the United Nations Refugee Relief Association. One day, while standing in line for the latrine, he notices a young woman in front of him and thinks how pretty she is with her light hair and blue eyes. “Are you alone?” he asks. The question has multiple meanings. “I am alone,” she says. “There is no one left.” Her name is Fania Paszt. Her parents were sent to a death camp, and her brothers were executed, but she escaped the ghetto in their hometown of Luts’k, Ukraine, and wandered alone through Poland. She spent two years hiding in farmers’ attics, coops and even an outdoor oven. Six times, Christian families risked their own lives to protect the Jewish girl, including on Christmas Eve 1942 when a local official took her into his home and the next day gave her to a Christian family to hide. His reason for not killing her? It was taboo to take a life on Christmas Eve, he told her. Standing in the line that day, Wolfe asks Fania to a movie—“Going My Way?” starring Bing Crosby as a young Catholic priest. By 1948, they are married and moving to Montreal to work in a growing garment industry with other immigrant Jews. Two years later, Abie is born. And although his mother rarely talks about her experiences in the Holocaust, she entrusts the story to his father. Hearing the truth about two lonely people who came together XAVIER MAGAZINE
Ingber’s office is a shrine to his experiences. Go to xavier.edu/magazine to see the panaroma of his workplace and details of some of his collection.
DURING A TRIP, HE WAS GIVEN THIS ETHIOPIAN CROSS, WHICH IS WORN AROUND THE NECK OR PLACED AT THE TOP OF A STAFF DURING BAPTISM. THE INTERTWINED GEOMETRIC PATTERN REPRESENTS EVERLASTING LIFE AND IS SPECIFIC TO THE TRIBE THAT DESIGNED IT.
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IN 2005, INGBER MET WITH POPE JOHN PAUL II, AND THE PONTIFF BLESSED AN IDEA FOR AN EXHIBIT ABOUT HIS RELATIONS WITH THE JEWISH PEOPLE.
▲ INGBER BROUGHT TO CAMPUS FRANKLIN MCCAIN, ONE OF THE FOUR BLACK STUDENTS WHO SAT AT A WHITES-ONLY LUNCH COUNTER AT WOOLWORTH’S IN 1960. ▲ A TARAHUMARA INDIAN CEREMONIAL DRUM, USED IN THE SEMANA SANTA (HOLY WEEK) CEREMONY, CAME FROM A TRIP TO THE SIERRA MADRE MOUNTAINS.
to start a new life was an inspiration for young Abie. Knowing that his parents made a conscious decision to choose love and life when they justifiably could have chosen hate, makes an even deeper impression.
Everybody was born before they were born. I was birthed in the Holocaust.”
▲ INGBER BECAME A FRIEND OF MIEP GIES, WHO RETRIEVED ANNE FRANK’S DIARY AFTER THE FAMILY WAS ARRESTED AND KEPT THE PAPERS SAFE.
IN THE EARLY 1980S, CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER JESSE JACKSON WAS CRITICIZED FOR REFERRING TO NEW YORK AS ‘HYMIETOWN.’ INGBER WAS THE FIRST RABBI TO WELCOME HIM INTO A TEMPLE AFTER THE SLUR.
A MUSLIM STUDENT AT XAVIER WAS SO IMPACTED BY INGBER, HE GAVE HIM THE FAMILY PRAYER RUG THAT BELONGED TO HIS FATHER.
The dancing is over, and Madges’ head is spinning. He’s inside a 16th century building in the Polish town of Szczebrzeszyn, where Ingber’s father used to live. Now a cultural center, there is little trace of the rich Jewish traditions that once graced the formidable structure, which was a synagogue until the war. But on this cultural immersion trip in the fall of 2002, Ingber has brought a delegation of Xavier students and professors into the old synagogue where his father used to pray. They reenact a traditional Jewish service—the first since the Nazis shut it down more than 60 years ago. At one point they are singing and dancing in a circle, and together they hoist one of the professors aloft in a chair and carry her around. “It’s such a joyful celebration,” Madges says. “This was a deeply personal experience for him, but he wanted to share it with those around him, and he found a way to do that.” Ingber also wants to share the moment with his father in Montreal. He dials him up and hands the phone to Madges. “Now I’m talking to his father from the synagogue he would have known.” This is Ingber’s first trip to Poland, but it won’t be his last. The delegation is here at the invitation of Auschwitz’s Center for Dialogue and Prayer to tour the concentration camps and to meet Christians and Jews from Germany and Poland. Before they leave Szczebrzeszyn, however, they decide to look for the town’s old Jewish cemetery. Ingber pulls out a map his father drew from memory. Down a road, up a hill, across a field, they trudge until they finally come across broken tombstones, half buried in a forest. Ingber says a prayer and scoops up a little soil from the homeland to take home to his dad. Ingber returned to Poland last year to identify artifacts at Auschwitz for the Blessing exhibit and to speak to university students at the Museum of Dialogue and Cultures. But there’s so much more to do in his quest to build bridges between people—including bringing Xavier students of all faiths to Poland to help identify and restore the old Jewish cemeteries. It reminds him of what Lennon said when he handed him the plant in that hotel room in Montreal so many years ago: “Give it love.” “I can’t heal the Jewish world unless I heal the entire world, to change the trajectory of everybody’s suffering in this world,” he says. “It is a herculean task, and while I may not complete it, I am not free to desist from beginning it.” XAVIER MAGAZINE