Best rabbi? Obviously it's a subjective call, like when a man insists that he's "married to the world's greatest woman" or some restaurant has "the world's greatest hamburger" (this article is kosher, so no cheese, thank you). It takes more than a great rabbi to impress someone like me -- happily Jewish in a born-that-way sense but in practice an open-minded agnostic -- who's forgotten all his Hebrew lessons. Rabbi Abraham Magence is an Orthodox Jew whose rabbi side and human side aren't divided -- like, say, men and women at synagogue. Goodness is goodness. It transcends the need for a religious container.
Magence is a small, somewhat round man. His eyes carry the brunt of his experience. He's the rabbi at Bais Abraham, an unassuming synagogue just east of Big Bend Boulevard in University City. Magence, too, is unassuming. I ask if he can sum up what being a rabbi means. "Not so easy," he says in a burly but eloquent Polish accent. His eyes register a thought, and he settles on a definition: "To be a rabbi is to be a teacher." Magence has taught for many years. He's developed long-lasting friendships with generations of Washington University students, religious Jews who would hike over to nearby Bais Abraham for the Sabbath. "Whenever they have time, I'm making with them time to teach them," smiles Magence, referring to students past and present. "All the Bible, all the commentary. " And all the way to Ohio. "Only two months ago," the rabbi reveals, "I did have five weddings of my ex-students: In Cleveland, one student. In Dallas, Texas, another student. In Chicago, a student. I became attached to them, and they became attached to me, and they invited me to come do the weddings." No word as to where the other two students (separately) tied the knot, but the point is, the rabbi remains close to faraway pupils.
Teaching is a bond because it's something he risked his life for. "I was born in Poland," says Magence. "After Poland and Germany finished the war, most of the religious institutions -- which means most of the rabbinical seminars -- moved from Poland to Lithuania, because Lithuania was free from the occupation of the communist army. Then started exile; we ran wherever we could." Magence stayed one step ahead of the marching boots. "I was very privileged," he says. "For two-and-a-half years, I organized -- even under communism, which does not allow even for father or mother to teach their own children any religion. Not just the Jewish religion: Modern religion, whatever it is, not allowed. But I organized. We used to meet three or four times a week, sometimes for two weeks in one place, then in another place for two weeks. We were hiding ourselves in order that the secret police shall not find out that we are organizing."
But after more than two years of covert Judaism, there was the dreaded banging on the door. It wasn't Elijah. Magence knew that a knock in the middle of the night was not a good thing. Arrested, he became a political prisoner. He found himself in a subterranean interrogation center, and in a nightmare. "Another 40 or 50 young men were there in that big room," he recalls. "Interrogation. Always at night. Never during the day. I ask God, 'Take away my life.' I was there suffering for six weeks. Unbelievable kind of suffering. Unbelievable." Then, remembers the rabbi, weeks later, "in the morning -- 7 or 8 o'clock; who knows the time? -- I was taken to the office upstairs. They told me that I was going to a building across the street. And if I run away in middle of the street -- he showed me his gun -- he would run after me. Later I found out that was the headquarters for the KGB."
After somehow making it through that ordeal, Magence found himself in Russia without work papers. Eventually he was able to meet a Jewish woman who knew the chief of police and helped him obtain an identification card under his mother's maiden name. A twisted path brought him back to Poland, then to Czechoslovakia and on to Germany. At this time, right after World War II, he says, "Germany was divided. Part of Germany was occupied by the United States, part of it by the French government, part of it by the English government. My part, I was in Germany under the American occupation. I was there two years until I got papers from my brother in St. Louis." More red tape held up the rabbi, until a Jewish organization in New York enabled him, his wife and a group of others to get to America by way of Paris, where they remained for some time as more details were sorted out.
Finally, he says, in 1950 "I came on a boat to America Saturday evening. The Jewish Family Service gave me a ticket for a train for my wife and me. Sunday evening, I come to St. Louis." Rabbi Magence, who spoke no English, found somebody who spoke Yiddish as soon as he arrived. But that didn't make him feel any more at home than simply being here. "What I'm teaching my children," says Magence, " is I love the United States much better than you were born in. To me, Fourth of July is sacred day. Very sacred day, Fourth of July. When I used to see Famous-Barr is open on Fourth of July, I'd get a pain." Fortunately it couldn't come close to the pain of yesterday, which Rabbi Magence carries with him as a reminder -- of the days he paid for freedom, so far in advance.
Rabbi Magence will be honored on Feb. 11 at a dinner celebrating his 50 years in St. Louis and 30 years at Bais Abraham. For information, call Vivian Kranzberg at 314-994-0368.
-- Jordan Oakes