Foxman was born in Poland shortly before World War II. During the war, his parents saved him by handing him over to his nursemaid, who raised him as a Catholic. When the war ended, much to the nursemaid's surprise, the young boy's parents had survived the Holocaust and returned to claim their son.
Although they were eternally grateful to the nursemaid for risking her own life by hiding their son from the Nazis for four years, Foxman's parents were willing to go to court in order to regain custody of their son.
Young Abe, who had just spent four years living as a Christian, was not sure whether he wanted to remain Christian or return to his Jewish roots. On Simchat Torah 1945, the lad accompanied his father to the main synagogue in Vilna, where all the survivors had gathered to celebrate the holiday. He was so imbued with Christianity that when they passed a church on their way to the synagogue, little Abe let go of his father's hand and made a cross over his chest.
The experience in the synagogue was overwhelming. The room permeated with singing and dancing. Abe was placed on the shoulders of a dancing Jewish Russian soldier who had come to the services to celebrate with the Torah.
By the time they left the synagogue, Abraham Foxman had made up his mind. When he returned to the nursemaid's home he announced that he wanted to be Jewish because he liked the "Jewish Church." There he said, they "celebrate life."
To "celebrate life" has been central to Jewish worship ever since we received God's command, stated in this week's Torah portion, "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them."
Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, the famous Chasidic master, found this wording to be both unusual and confusing. One would have expected God to order Israel to build a sanctuary so that God "may dwell in it," and not to "dwell among them." The Chasidic master explained that the sanctuary was not created for God's sake, but for man's sake, to inspire us to allow God to dwell in our hearts.
The late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik once questioned, "Why do we need a synagogue at all? Why not pray in a field? The Jew does not need a house in which to pray.... We need a structure not for its architectural value but for its psychological effect. We do not need a house; we need a home. The synagogue should be called not the House of God, but rather the Home of God, or more accurately, the home of man. God is not homeless; man is homeless. God feigned homelessness in order to induce man to build a home.... The synagogue is God's home because it is man's home."
The synagogue as "home" has extraordinary power. It can move a child, who spent four of his formative years raised as a Christian by a woman he loved and who loved him, to choose to commit his life to the Jewish faith and people. What Foxman found in that Vilna synagogue on that fated Simchat Torah more than 50 years ago was a God who dwelled in the hearts of those present. He found that the Jewish people had a home in God's home.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Abe Foxman had walked into one of our synagogues today. Would he have been so inspired to make the right decision?
Our Torah portion reminds us that the answer is in our own hands.
Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.