A Synagogue Building Project in Efrat, Israel in Memory of Rabbi Haim Asa, z”l
and in honor of Bulgarian Jewry
Elaine Asa’s Speech at Memorial
for her Husband, Rabbi Haim Asa
The Shabbat immediately after Haim died was Parashat Naso when we hear the priestly benediction recited to the people of Israel. This is the blessing we give our children every Shabbat, praying that they be blessed with the following:
Hebrew: יברכך ה' וישמרך
English: May Hashem bless you and keep you
Hebrew: יאר ה' פניו אליך ויחנך
English: May Hashem’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious unto you
Hebrew: ישא ה' פניו אליך וישם לך שלום
English: May Hashem’s face be lifted unto you and may all your paths be shalom.
And this was the blessing and mitzvah that Haim was able to fulfill before he died. Our four children stood at his bedside as he asked each one to bend down so he could reach their heads with his hands, he recited this priestly benediction – the last mitzvah that he fulfilled in his life.
Haim’s life was truly blessed as he brought blessings to all those he touched throughout his life. We are here today because in some way you have been touched and blessed by Haim.
His life was a journey that began in Bulgaria in 1931. His family was of Sephardic origin who escaped the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal of the 14th and 15th centuries. His father was president of the Jewish community of Bourgas, a city on the Black Sea, and he was a privileged child surrounded by the love of his family and community.
That life ended when World War II began and Bulgaria became an ally to Nazi Germany, and yet it was because of that alliance that the 50,000 Jews of Bulgaria were saved from deportation to the concentration camps. His father was an important part of that story of survival, and Haim continued throughout his life to share and recognize the miracle of Jewish survival in Bulgaria, giving thanks to the King, the Church, the Parliament, and the people of Bulgaria.
Haim’s journey continued as he and his family made Aliyah in 1944 where Haim learned to become “Israeli” and his commitment to and love of Israel was ever present in his life. Some of you know the story about his last moments before he died, but I am going to repeat it because it tells us what Israel meant to him up until the last moment of his life.
We were all at his bedside and knew that the end was near; we gave him permission to let go but he still wasn’t ready and so we began to sing. It was Yom Yerushalayim, the day commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem, and so we sang songs of Jerusalem; we sang Israeli songs, Ladino songs, and he still wasn’t ready. And then Miriam, our “adopted” daughter from Temple Beth Tikvah, who is the educator and executive director, decided that he needed to hear Hatikvah, and so we all sang Hatikvah together, and literally as we were singing the last word of Hatikvah he breathed his last breath on this earth, letting us know that with his last breath Israel was the center of his being and neshama (soul).
From Israel, Haim’s journey continued when he decided to come to the United States in 1954 to begin his academic studies. This part of his life took many turns. He started with his studies in citra-culture at Cal Poly Pomona and then finished at the University of Arizona in Tucson his senior year where he was asked to be the spokesperson for Israel in the Tucson community and on campus to counteract the anti-Israel problems that the Jewish community was having with the Iraqi students who were part of an exchange program with the university – I guess nothing has changed in almost 50 years.
During his student years, he had to survive financially and, as most Israeli students do, he found work teaching Hebrew at local synagogues and as a counselor at Camp Ramah for the summers. He once told me that Camp Ramah was the reason he reconnected with Judaism.
On with Haim’s journey – Haim applied to USC in 1957 and began a graduate program in economics but soon realized that this was not his calling in life although he always loved the magic of “making a deal”. And so with a new direction in his life Haim Asa, the Israeli, applied to rabbinic school at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
The summer of 1959 was a new phase in Haim’s life, one that was to last 55 years. This was the summer of 1959 at the age of 28 ½ years when he decided to be on staff at BCI, Brandeis Camp Institute, in Santa Susana, California. I was a young 17 years old and a camper at the one month college program. We met, we dated after camp, we were married the following June, moved to Cincinnati so Haim could finish his rabbinic studies, brought Aviva, our first born, into this world, and started yet another phase in life as we moved to Argentina in 1963 after Haim finished his rabbinic studies.
We were about to embark on an exciting and challenging new stage in our lives – a new language, a new country, a new Jewish community, a relationship with the people of Buenos Aires that until today continues from that founding generation that we established with the creation of Congregacion Emanuel De Buenos Aires until today with families that are still a part of our lives. How blessed we were, are and continue to be!!!
From 1963-66, Haim was the director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Latin America with headquarters in Buenos Aires. We brought Aviva, our eldest child with us, and I managed to become pregnant with both Ariel and Liora during our time in B.A., but both were born in Los Angeles. I needed an excuse to come home and visit family.
On to the next phase – from 1966-1996, 30 years of a blessed relationship with our temple in Fullerton, Temple Beth Tikvah. As we grew from Dor L’Dor, from generation to generation, building a Jewish community in northern Orange County, births, baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs, funerals, marriages and, yes, even divorces – Haim was there for everyone at any time of the day or night. He cared about “Am Yisrael”, about all Jews and worried about our survival.
It was in Fullerton that our youngest daughter, Eliana, was born in 1969 and she along with our three other children were raised in our community. It was during this period that our children came to understand what community meant. Their involvement at Camp Swig where we spent ten summers, along with their involvement with SCFTY, the Reform youth group, and our two sabbatical years in Israel all are responsible for their individual commitments to Judaism and Israel, each in their own unique way.
Our two daughters, Aviva and Liora, who spent their junior year abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem eventually made Aliyah – Aviva and her family in Efrat and Liora and her family at Har Halutz. Our son and his family live in Atlanta and thank G-d for Eliana and Jeff and their family who live here in Los Angeles. We have been doubly blessed by our 14 grandchildren who have brought great joy to our lives.
And now to the last part of Haim’s journey. He retired in 1996 from Temple Beth Tikvah as Rabbi Emeritus after 30 years of being their rabbi and was the senior rabbi of Orange County, but you know that rabbis never retire, and certainly not Haim. Haim continued to serve the needs of any Jew that needed him up until the day he died. Temple Beth Tikvah was the center of our lives and continues to be so. We were honored when the Temple, in the process of building a new school and administration building, chose to name its new building, “The Asa Center for Life Long Jewish Learning”. Just as a building exists in Fullerton in honor of Haim, it is our hope that a synagogue building will be dedicated in Efrat, Israel in Haim’s memory, a project that Haim approved of as Aviva shared this with him before he died.
This building will benefit the Zemer HaZayit Congregation where Aviva is a member. She will tell you more about the congregation and its uniqueness when she speaks later. We hope to build bridges between our two communities – an orthodox community in Efrat and a reform synagogue in Fullerton. Haim would be smiling at this first of a kind endeavor.
And now to continue the journey: During his retirement, Haim volunteered as a chaplain at CIW (California Institute for Women) in Chino where he spent much time, and he nourished and supported the women who were incarcerated, many for life. Many of these women are now being released and are trying to begin a new life. Haim continued to care about “his women” at CIW and was honored by them and as a surprise they made this beautiful tallit where they inscribed their names on the etz haim, the tree of life.
In 2002, Haim was asked to become the Jewish chaplain at Metropolitan State Hospital, Department of Mental Health. This was a ten year period where Haim served the needs of the mentally ill patients who needed to be incarcerated. He developed a very special relationship with the inmates, the staff and chaplains.
Haim Asa’s journey came to an end on May 28th, but his legacy will certainly continue through the memories that we have and through the Haim Asa stories that we will share, and now through the synagogue that will be built in Efrat in his memory. Haim’s life certainly served for blessings and for building bridges between people and communities as he touched so many people, Jew and non-Jew alike. His calling was to share both the joys and sorrows in people’s lives.
I thank all of you today for being here to honor Haim. You continue to bring blessings to his name, but I have special thanks to Aviva who has spent hours and days putting together the website and spearheading the synagogue building project in Haim’s memory.
Please join us by becoming a part of the dream of having Haim’s name be remembered in Israel. Special thanks to Eliana, Jeff and family for helping to make the details of today happen and to my cousin Robin for helping Aviva and in MCing today.
May Haim’s name always serve for blessings.