For almost half a century, Jewish students in Bucks County, Pa., have been learning the intricacies of chanting the Torah from a man who, when he was their age, was running for his life.
When Sidney Moszer was 13, the Cologne synagogue at which he stood on the bimah for his bar mitzvah was torched in during Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom in Germany.
Through Kristallnach, which occurred Nov. 9-10, 1938, a hundred Jews were killed. Afterward, 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps, their communities destroyed. Moszer and his family fled, and two months later were on a train headed for England. The journey would ultimately take him to the United States and bring generations of Jewish youth under his tutelage, a calling for which Moszer, now 93, is being honored.
During Shabbat services last Saturday, before the start of Hanukkah this week, families at Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown. praised Moszer for not only tutoring the synagogue children in Torah recitation for their bar and bat mitzvahs, but also for being an exemplar of survival when all seems lost.
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"You are teaching them our way of living and how to love who they are," Joan Hersch, synagogue education director, told Moszer during an interview.
His voice choking, he replied, "That's why I get so emotional."
"We'll cry together," Hersch said.
Moszer, a retired aeronautical engineer, has been teaching at the Congregation Brothers of Israel for 18 years, and since the 1970s at Congregation Beth El in Yardley, where he is a member.
He and his wife, Eva, were witnesses to the early years of the Holocaust. She was 8 when she and her sister escaped from Berlin as part of the Kindertransport, rescue of 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, from Europe nine months before World War II began. The sisters lived in England for a decade before immigrating to the U.S. and being reunited with their parents, who had managed to hide out in Germany during the war.
Sid Moszer is one of 25 Holocaust survivors who speak at events throughout the region for the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center at the KleinLife community center in Northeast Philadelphia. When he talks about his years as a German schoolboy and the deadly chaos that surrounded him, he must pause periodically to rein in his emotions.
"You live with this insecurity and uncertain feeling, and that feeling is always in the back of your mind," he said.
It still is, he added.
On Nov. 9, 1938, Moszer was living with his mother and three siblings – his father, a Polish Jew, had been expelled, and an older brother was on his own – in an apartment on the edge of a park in Cologne. As the Nazis burned synagogues and vandalized Jewish homes and businesses, the family fled the apartment, waiting in the park for hours until the violence of Kristallnacht ended the next afternoon and they could return.
They immediately began planning to flee Germany. Moszer's father managed to get back from Poland and the family secured transit visas to England because a relative lived there. After 21 months, on Oct. 4, 1940, they left for America – what he calls "the greatest day of my life."
The family later moved to Philadelphia. In 1944, Moszer was drafted into the Army and wound up with the infantry in France. At the end of the war, he was assigned to the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps as an interpreter for agents interrogating Nazis.
"I felt pretty good being able to interrogate the Germans from the other side," said Moszer, who was discharged in 1946.
He and Eva married in 1954 and had three sons, five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Tutoring the Torah was at first a favor for a friend who was dissatisfied with his son's bar mitzvah education. Other parents at Congregation Beth El recruited Moszer, and eventually he was pressed into service at Congregation Brothers of Israel.
"He taught us about reaching our maximum potential – and instilled in us that it should be our minimum expectation," said Gregory Segarra, a former student.
Moszer teaches each student the section of the Torah, the Haftorah (selections from the biblical books of the prophets) and the blessings that are read in synagogue on the day of the bar or bat mitzvah, and the prescribed chants for each section's recitation.
His lessons are never cookie-cutter, said Rebecca Wind, 13, of Newtown. "He changes his (approach) to make sure it was the best way for you to learn. He works at your speed."
Lessons are usually one-on-one, an hour a week, for six months. He has met with students in synagogue classrooms, in offices and hallways. He describes his mission as not only teaching, but also easing fears and instilling confidence.
"I talk to them on their level," he said. "I don't talk down to them, and I try to connect."
He doesn't "involve parents" in the lessons, because "that doesn't work."
In 1999, Moszer attended a reunion of the Kindertransport with his wife in London and the event helped him realize the importance of his mission and the triumph his life represents.
"I realized that the ones who wanted us dead are gone, and we are still here," he said. "And here I am, teaching the next generations."