A congregation profoundly affected by the Holocaust, a committee with the foresight to meet all of its building challenges at the same time and a much respected and beloved leader willing to make a large commitment will come together in the form of a celebration.
On May 1, Rabbi Emeritus Haim Asa’s 80th birthday, Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton will dedicate its Holocaust Memorial at the Haim and Elaine Asa Education Center. Temple President Ben Berkley calls it “the miracle on Acacia Avenue.”
According to Berkley, “The Holocaust Memorial was not even on the drawing board when the idea of the Asa Center for Lifelong Jewish Learning was first conceived. At that time, the Project Legacy committee was facing TBT’s greatest financial undertaking.”
In December 2009, with grading for the project well underway, a member of the committee proposed an add-on to the project. “He said we should build a Holocaust Memorial citing that the costs to build such a memorial would be a lot less to construct during the building phase than if we were to build it at a later date,” Berkley recalled. He could not imagine asking congregants for more money in a poor economy.
Then, according to Berkley, Rabbi Asa raised his hand, telling the story of how he and his family escaped the hands of Nazism. He also said that he and his wife would put up as collateral his personal savings to cover the costs of building the Memorial. As pledges and donations came in, it would reduce his financial exposure. While the group was reluctant to accept such a generous offer, the rabbi was adamant.
“By the end of the meeting, more than one half of the building costs had been committed with the remaining costs secured by other pledges shortly thereafter,” Berkley said.
“If you will it, it will happen, and we were committed to making it happen,” commented Elaine Asa, who has been married to Rabbi Asa for 50 years.
“People were so touched by the Asas’ willingness to put their life on the line, as they have always done,” said Miriam Van Raalte, temple educator and administrator, and the child of Holocaust survivors.
Rabbi Asa became the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Tikvah in the mid 1960s and the rabbi emeritus in 1996. He is currently a senior chaplain with the State of California Department of Mental Health serving Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk and Fairview Hospital in Costa Mesa. A Bulgarian Holocaust refugee, Rabbi Asa fought in Israel’s War of Independence and later became a leader of the Reform community in Buenos Aires as co-founder of Congregation Emanu-El. He fought the Argentine authorities to save a Jewish university student and rescued a Romanian refugee from Turkish authorities. He was the recipient of the World Union’s first annual Schulner Award.
The Asas have been and are still involved in every local, regional and national cause concerned with the welfare of the State of Israel and its people. Rabbi Asa was the North Orange County United Jewish Welfare chairperson while Elaine completed a three-year term of chairing the Women’s Division Campaign for the Orange County United Jewish Fund in 1980.
“Our Holocaust connections run deep in this congregation,” said Rabbi Kenneth Milhander, who is celebrating his tenth anniversary at Temple Beth Tikvah this year. “We’re the only temple in the world that has three Czech Holocaust Sefer Torahs. They were confiscated from the Nazis who were going to create a museum to an extinct race. There were 1564 Torah scrolls wrapped in Nazi flags. Art dealers going through Prague in 1964 found them. Eventually, they became available to any synagogue that wanted them. We got them on permanent loan.”
A fourth Holocaust Sefer Torah at Temple Beth Tikvah comes from Van Raalte’s family. “My uncle salvaged it the night after Kristallnacht, and my aunt took it out of her linen closet in Los Angeles one day, thinking I might want it,” Van Raalte said.
Other Temple Beth Tikvah connections to the Holocaust have developed over the years. Rabbi Asa discovered that Irene Opdyke, a righteous Gentile during the Holocaust, was living in Yorba Linda. One of the founders of the congregation befriended Leon Leyson, the youngest person on Schindler’s list, also living in Orange County. Another congregant met another member of Schundler’s list while shopping in Beverly Hills.
In building the Holocaust Memorial, Temple Beth Tikvah will have “the only project of its kind connected to a synagogue as a permanent site,” Rabbi Asa said. The Holocaust Memorial, Garden of the Righteous, is designed as “a living memorial to the millions who have no final resting place, remembering those who died just because they were Jews and the righteous gentiles who tried to help.” It will feature an Eternal Flame and water flowing from a Jewish star, descending down center steps. Its motto is “Resolve, Reflect, Remember.” It resolves that the Holocaust will Never Again happen by educating people, reflects upon the tragic consequences of hate and indifference and remembers people and places, including the names of the concentration camps, the cities where the temple’s Holocaust Torahs originated and the country of Bulgaria for its role in rescuing the Jews.
In addition, there will be artifacts to enhance the teaching process. A former teacher at Temple Beth Tikvah is donating photographs of the concentration camps taken by her father, who served as a photographer for General (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower. There will be a replica of the Yad Vashem menorah.
“As our exposure grows, so will the artifact collection,” Van Raalte said. “Meanwhile, we will offer a local, synagogue-affiliated Holocaust Memorial that’s free and open to all who want to learn.”
“Holocaust denial is becoming a major theme in anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Asa concluded. “We think our center will assume a very important role, and we’re excited about it.”
Temple Beth Tikvah’s Holocaust Memorial dedication will take place on May 1 at 4 p.m. at 1600 N. Acacia Drive, Fullerton. Keynote speakers are Bruno Ryff, consul general of Switzerland, and Congressman Ed Royce, U.S. Representative from the 40th District of California. A reception in honor of Rabbi Asa’s 80th birthday will follow the dedication. For more information, contact Temple Beth Tikvah at (714) 871-3535.