In the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, any of us can speak of a theater, museum, library, or any other cultural venue that was closed out of an “abundance of caution.” When some of these places reopened, we were curious to see how they adapted to social distancing and simply to reconnect to elements of New York that brought us back to a normal time. A couple of weeks ago, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on the west side of Manhattan reopened to the public, in time for a Chol HaMoed outing.
“Look, daddy, there’s Zachary’s name,” my daughter Rachel, 6, said of the wall of honor next to the ticket booths. My son Zachary, 4, also expressed joy at spelling out his name. This Zachary merited his name above all others on the wall for his philanthropy in saving the decommissioned aircraft carrier from the scrap heap. Curious about Zachary Fisher, I read about his life and was fascinated by his interest in the military.
One can imagine how he must have felt in 1942, when he tried to enlist in the Marine Corps and was denied on account of a leg injury that resulted from a construction site accident when he was a teenager. At that time, millions of Americans his age were swept up in a euphoria of patriotism, eager to avenge the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and defend our democratic allies from the Nazis. For American Jews such as Fisher, there was also the opportunity to confront the Holocaust by joining the armed forces.
Rather than sit on the sidelines, Fisher used his experience in the construction trade to build coastal fortifications. Following the war, he devoted his philanthropy to assisting veterans and their families. I’ve thought of American Jews who have not made aliyah for personal or professional reasons but support the people, land, and State of Israel in numerous ways. I’ve thought of the philanthropy of working men supporting those who learn Torah full time and share in their merits of learning for its own sake.
On this note, the appreciation for our country’s defenders is also shared by the many chareidi families who were visiting the Intrepid last week. No one would expect a son of chasidim in Borough Park or Williamsburg to trade the uniform of his community for the one worn by members of the Armed Forces, and often we read about their alleged lack of knowledge about the secular world. On our visit, we saw parents explaining the battleship to their children, this “city at sea” with a rooftop runway, hangar deck underneath it, crew quarters, offices, and thousands of individuals who served on it between 1943 and 1974. Contrary to secular media stereotypes, they understand the role of the Intrepid in this country’s defense.
On the day before our visit to the Intrepid, I served in the role as my family’s “rabbi,” planning the funeral of a cousin from start to finish – claiming the deceased, purchasing the plot, selecting a funeral home, organizing a minyan, delivering the eulogy, educating the relatives on the halachos of mourning, and then reciting Kaddish, which I will continue to do for the next eleven months. The experience has given me an appreciation of the work done by the chevrah kadisha, members of the funeral profession, and pulpit rabbis who officiate at funerals and respond to personal emergencies of individuals in their communities.
Rabbi Eli Blokh, the shliach at Chabad of Rego Park, officiated at many funerals in my family, but at a certain point noted that I do not need his presence to organize minyanim and assist relatives in understanding the customs of mourning. I’ve put t’filin on the arms of secular relatives, delivered matzah to their homes, and encouraged them to light candles for Shabbos, but I am not a Chabad shliach. I am proud to be associated with their work as much as Zachary Fisher is connected with the military.
The example of Zachary Fisher demonstrates that one may not have the qualifications of a certain profession and community, but can still be associated with it as a result of interests, experience, and efforts.