Eulogy by Rabbi Elazar Muskin
of Young Israel, Century City, Los Angeles, California
Rabbi Haim Asa
חיים בן אברהם
May 28, 2014 (death) – כ"ח אייר, תשע"ד
May 29, 2014 (burial) כ"ט אייר, תשע"ד -
My dear Elaine, Aviva, Ariel, Liora, Eliana, family and friends,
The Talmud declares חבל אל דאבדין ולא משתכחין - “Woe unto those who are lost and cannot be replaced”.
How painful it is to speak in the past tense about one for whom each of us has felt the strongest ties of respect, friendship and affection. Our minds inform us of the grim fact, but our hearts reject it and we find it almost impossible to give voice to our thoughts. Bidding a last good-bye to a loved one, under any circumstance is an unhappy task. How much more intense is that sorrow when we take leave of one who carved a niche in the hearts of so many and who has been a mentor to thousands of people.
And yet our task this afternoon is glorious as well. At this moment we are not thinking of the mournful trappings; rather we are here to celebrate 83 years of great accomplishment, and we see in our minds and hearts the sweet face of Rabbi Haim Asa, his smiling countenance and his warm-hearted disposition.
In this moment of inevitable parting, it is fitting to look to our faith for comfort and consolation. It is perhaps more than just symbolic that Haim left this world on the 28th of the month of Iyar, Yom Yerushalayim, on the 47th anniversary of Jerusalem Day, when we recall the modern miracle of the Six Day War.
When one thinks of Jerusalem he is reminded of the Biblical description of the city as משוש כל הארץ – “The joy of the whole earth.” This means that the effect of Jerusalem is to increase joy to all who make her acquaintance. In thinking of Haim’s personality, one cannot help but recall the manner in which his entire life was one that gave joy to others, focusing on the positive and not negative in life.
Haim was born 83 years ago in Burgas, Bulgaria where his father was a leader of the Jewish community. By the age of 7 his mother died and he was raised by a step mother. He never harped on any of the difficulties in his life; rather he spent a life devoted to telling the story of how his family and all 50,000 Bulgarian Jews survived the Holocaust. This was an amazing story because Bulgaria was the only country that was a German Ally that did not deport their Jewish citizens to the concentration camps.
He would recount how his father had by accident received a telegram meant actually for a Nazi sympathizer that was sent from the Bulgarian Nazi headquarters indicating their plans to deport all Bulgarian Jews to their deaths. Upon intercepting this telegram, Haim’s father mobilized the Jews to lobby the King, parliament and the Bulgarian Church to avert this edict. His efforts succeeded and although all turned out positively, he was almost beaten to death by a Nazi in the streets of Burgas. It was 1945 and Haim was about to become Bar Mitzvah, but his father decided it was no longer safe to remain in Bulgaria. Haim would say, “I didn’t have a Bar Mitvah, but instead we legally migrated to Israel, creating a lifetime love affair with the Land of Israel.”
From the moment Haim arrived in Palestine, his talent as a leader and his strong sense of responsibility emerged. Already as a teenager he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and fought in the War of Independence helping secure the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway. By the close of the war, Haim decided to leave a career in agriculture, which he was trained to do in school, and instead became an officer in the IDF. He remained in the IDF and helped create the famous NACHAL program that flourishes to this day. He was the first NACHAL officer to graduate from the paratrooper’s academy, and when he left the army he served in the MOSSAD, Israel’s Intelligence Agency.
But Haim was always a man who wanted more, and in 1954 he came to America in search of a college education. Before he graduated college, he was asked in his last year to transfer to Arizona State in order to help counter the tremendous anti-Israel sentiment being nurtured on that campus. Without hesitation he rose to the challenge and became a power house for Israeli public relations.
It was during these years that Haim began working during the summers at Jewish camps including Ramah and Brandeis Bardin. It was at the camps that his interest in Jewish history became a passion. He initially had no interest in entering the rabbinate but when he began studying he realized that the best way for him to have an impact on the Jewish community was via his service as a rabbi. Just like Jerusalem of old, he too was able to infuse the world with a sense of joy and love.
But Jerusalem, in the eyes of our sages, not only encompassed joy it also symbolized the sound of music. The Talmud tells us that in Jerusalem, when King David hung up his harp at night, it provided music of its own accord.
It isn’t by accident that Haim left this world with his whole family standing around his bed singing the songs of Jerusalem that he loved so much. The last song they sang as his soul left him was Hatikvah, Israel’s anthem. This shouldn’t shock anyone, for Haim’s life was a life filled with the music of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. His music, however, wasn’t only defined by musical notes and chords; it was also composed by his amazing leadership style. This congregation and community adored and respected Haim because everyone knew that no matter what time of day or night if you needed him he would be there for you. He would give of himself 100% to those in need.
It isn’t surprising at all that this congregation gave Haim a lifetime contract only a few years after arriving in the community. They realized he was their builder and their mentor. When he arrived in the mid 1960’s, this was a small congregation but by the time he would retire after 30 years, the congregation could boast close to 400 family units. When Haim arrived in Orange County there were only a handful of synagogues but today there are some 26 congregations serving some 100,000 Jews. He helped nurture this growth and served as a leader who inspired its development. What fascinates me most, however, is that from a relatively small community came so many Jewish leaders. Many young people were mentored and encouraged to enter the rabbinate, or other leadership positions, right here because they were inspired by Rabbi Haim Asa.
Haim was a true leader who didn’t wait for people to come to him; rather he went out to the people. When parents would drop off their kids for religious school, Haim went out to the parking lot and waited for them. He knew that many of the parents would leave right after dropping off their children without entering the building. This wasn’t acceptable to Haim. He wanted to create relationships, so there he was where he would see everyone and in turn be seen by everyone. You couldn’t escape. There were some who criticized Haim for doing this, arguing that it wasn’t rabbinically dignified, but Haim would not listen to this criticism because he had a wider vision of life and a more important goal to achieve.
Elaine told me that when Haim retired from this synagogue what he missed most was his personal relationships that he had with the youth of the community. No wonder why the community honored Haim and Elaine with building the Temple’s Educational wing in Haim and Elaine’s honor. Nothing gave him more satisfaction than knowing that his legacy was being sustained on this campus which he loved so much.
Haim was a man whose life was motivated by the symphony of life. It wasn’t long after he retired that he realized retirement wasn’t in his blood. He assumed a new leadership position, this time serving as the Jewish chaplain for the State of California Department of Health, a position he kept until his health would not allow him to continue any longer.
Finally the Psalmist declares ירושלים הרים סביב לה - “Jerusalem, mountains surround it.” This image of Jerusalem teaches us that the most precious relationships are those that require hard work and determination. It isn’t an easy walk rather it is an arduous climb up and down hills.
Haim’s life was marked by his willingness to always work hard and to climb any mountain he needed. Although he was a devoted rabbi and leader, his ultimate focus was on his family. It was these relationships in which he truly demonstrated his unique talent as a wonderful, husband, father and grandfather.
On June 11th, Haim and Elaine would have celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. How does one describe a marriage that started at Brandeis Bardin one summer when Elaine was only 17 and Haim was already 28 years old? With 10 ½ years separating them one would guess that the relationship simply wouldn’t survive, but it more than survived. It flourished. True, Haim and Elaine were opposites. He was the risk taker and she the pragmatic thinker who always had to keep him in check. But they appreciated each other and their love was deep and profound. They shared the same values of community and family and they worked as partners in building both. Their home was open and constantly a place where people from every walk of life were welcomed. Every part of Haim’s success was in great measure due to his partner, Elaine. She was there by his side when he was in excellent health and she was there day and night nursing him until the end. They simply did everything together.
When it came to his four children, Aviva, Rabbi Ariel, Liora and Eliana, he was the proudest man in the world. We all marveled each year when we received the well organized and detailed Asa family update with supporting pictures before each Rosh Hashana. Although his children chose a more observant life style than he had personally lived, he was proud that each was committed and devoted to Judaism. He instilled in each, via personal example, a deep sense of communal responsibility and his greatest pride was that all four, together with their spouses, Daniel, Michelle, Michael and Jeff, are devoted to their communities helping strengthen the Jewish future he cared so much about. He taught them to love the State of Israel and two of his children made Aliyah. How many rabbis can claim such a success rate with their children, but Haim and Elaine succeeded with all four with flying colors.
When it came to his 14 grandchildren, he demonstrated an ability to communicate that was precious. He knew each one’s comings and goings and followed their developments very closely. In turn they adored and loved their Saba, their grandfather, and cherished the moments that they were able to spend with him.
For Haim, family wasn’t limited to his immediate blood relatives. He treated colleagues like we were part of his larger משפחה. If a colleague needed help or encouragement it was Haim who was there giving generously of his time. I personally had the wonderful privilege to travel to Israel twice on Rabbinic missions for Bonds of Israel with Haim. I always enjoyed my time with Haim, not because he was the parent of one of my members but because he honestly knew how to treat a colleague. He always had an encouraging comment to share and he treated each with sincere respect. When he would visit Eliana and Jeff and come to Shul on Shabbat, there was never a time that he didn’t come over and share his observations about my sermon. He was always supportive and always such a Mensch.
Tradition records that when the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidut, was about to die, he told his disciples, “When the two clocks in the Beit Midrash, in the study hall, stop moving, you will know that my soul has returned to its Maker.”
In a sense, every life functions with two measurements of time. One is the clock of eternity representing our participation in eternal life. The other is our personal clock measuring the time of our activity in this world. The life clock of חיים בן אברהם, Rabbi Haim Asa, has recorded his meaningful achievement. Now that it has come to a halt, it guides him into the sublime timelessness of honor and glory. May the Almighty, in this sad hour, send solace to his grieving family, and may He on High receive the soul of the departed under the wings of the Divine שכינה for life everlasting and peace eternal. Amen
Eulogy by Rabbi Stephen Einstein,
Senior Rabbi of Orange County, California
Rabbi Haim Asa
When I was a little boy, two elderly aunts used to call me Stevie. Only one other person called me by that loving nickname, and he continued to do so through the years…until yesterday.
That’s the kind of man Haim Asa was. He loved the people in his circle fiercely…and his circle was very wide. At the core, of course, was that beautiful caring young woman he married, Elaine. And, in turn, your devotion to your Haim was truly limitless. And the wonderful children they reared and nurtured—Aviva and Daniel, Ariel and Michele, Liora and Michael, and Eliana and Jeff. How he doted on their 14 grandchildren! His brother Haim, Kathleen and their children were surely part of the circle. And through the years, our Haim had been devoted to his parents and to Elaine’s. And, surely, to the extended mishpacha.
But the circle of Haim’s love was not limited to his family. His love was passionate—as was every aspect of his life. He passionately cared for Am Yisrael—wherever in the world we may live—and for Medinat Yisrael, which he defended as a member of the IDF and through his words and deeds ever since.
Haim’s love was the mainstay of Temple Beth Tikvah—the congregation he built, led, and served for decades. And his care for this synagogue and its people did not stop on the day of his retirement. Retirement? For Haim…I don’t think so. His commitment as a Rabbi—to congregation, to community, and to humanity—was a constant.
Proud to be the Dean of the Orange County Rabbinate, Haim was an organizer of our Jewish Community, giving it shape and direction from the days when we were few in numbers.
Haim was a doer. It is said that a person cannot be in two places at the same time. Haim proved that rule wrong on a daily basis. I never knew anyone else who would not only double book, but triple book—and manage to get to all three places!
Some of you know that Haim had an educational decision to make—whether to pursue an MBA at USC or study for the rabbinate at the Hebrew Union College. While he opted for the latter course, he never gave up the entrepreneurial skills of his early business studies. So…if you needed a Torah scroll or a beautiful megilla, Haim could get it for you. You need a reliable used car…call Haim. A burial plot for a loved one…Haim would arrange for it.
Haim’s greatest impact was on individuals, who grew and flourished through his loving care. How many of you had Haim sit at your hospital bedside and give courage to you and hope to your family? How many of you came to this country as immigrants and got your apartment and furniture through Haim’s connections?
For years now, the go-to person at Temple Beth Tikvah has been your Educator/Administrator/Caterer/Chief Factotum, Miriam Van Raalte. The little girl, Miriam Kaufman, grew up at TBT and became the Jewish leader she is due, in great measure, to the nurturing of the man she lovingly called Abba—her second father, Haim.
Haim was beloved by his colleagues. From his days as Latin American Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism to his leadership of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis, his fellow rabbis knew they could count on Haim to take principled positions on the leading issues of the day. Not surprisingly, many rabbis are present today, paying their respect.
Let me mention three rabbis, each of whom plays an important role on the American Jewish scene, and who were inspired by Haim. First, his son Ariel, who probably has entered more Jews into the Covenant in the South than anyone else. Steve Fox, the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. And Karen Fox, who serves Wilshire Blvd. Temple.
Karen’s reflections on Haim’s influence are emblematic of his work here. She wrote: “Rabbi Haim and Elaine brought a lightness and warmth to the many refugee and survivor families in north Orange County. With them, Judaism was fun and engaging, not only darkness and painful memory. They shaped a small congregation that served as extended family, where there were no families. They opened their home to Shabbat dinners and Sukkah decorating parties, unheard of before in WASPy Orange County.
“Whereas my parents were hesitant to speak out socially and politically as Jews, Haim was bold. He ignited a fire in the belly of young Jews in the 1960s, whether advocating for Israel and creating a caravan to the Hollywood Bowl after the 6 Day War, or protesting publicly on behalf of Soviet Jews or Hispanic farm workers. Haim walked the talk, after surviving the Holocaust he would do what he could to inspire others to make the world a better place for Jews and all others.
“I don’t know how many dozens of teens that Haim sent to Camp Swig, to have that Jewish camp experience change their lives. For years, Haim’s warmth and candid conversation inspired generations to enter Jewish education and the rabbinate. He encouraged me, way before women were rabbis. He encouraged my brother as well, and mentored many of us at Camp Swig over a period of 20 years.
“Haim also married Mickey and me, and knew how to balance the intricacies of the Orthodox/Reform family. I am so grateful to call him my Teacher and Rabbi. And I can see his smile and that twinkle in his eye today.”
Each one of us here on this day has such a Haim story to tell, of how he made a difference in our lives. I will conclude with one very short conversation between Haim and me. In the Spring of 1976, I experienced what I call a professional dislocation. Haim was the first to call. He had only one question for me, “Stevie, do you have lechem on the shulchan (bread on the table)? I knew that if the answer was “no,” he would be right over to provide sustenance for my family. If Haim never did anything else for me…and he did much more...that would have sealed it. The man may have been earthy and blunt…but he was a tzadik.
The memory of his good deeds will bless us for years to come.