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A Jewish Journey: Lilli Platt

By Martha Ginsberg | Issue Date: May 2011

Lilli Platt. Photo Credit: Denise Waxman

Lilli Platt, BJ member and active volunteer within the Membership and Bikkur Holim committees, has been coming to BJ every Shabbat since she first walked in one summer Friday evening in 2007. Actually, this is the first time she has gone to synagogue regularly since moving out of her parents’ house in 1969 to get married.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Lilli was born in a displaced-persons camp in Germany. Her mother was the youngest of eight children, and at age 17 at the end of the war and having been through four concentration camps, she believed she was the sole survivor of her family. However, following the war, she was happily surprised when one brother found her in a sanitarium in Prague. Needing to return to Germany, the reunited siblings snuck out at night and escaped through the woods; new Communist rule in Czechoslovakia had implemented a ban on leaving the country. Back in Germany, Lilli’s mother met and married another survivor, and Lilli was born shortly thereafter. The following winter they boarded a ship to America, and after an arduous 12-day journey, Lilli and her parents arrived in New York and settled in Brooklyn.

They were typical of recent European Jewish immigrants: strictly kosher and observant of traditional Jewish rituals. At home, Lilli’s family spoke only Yiddish. When she started kindergarten, she couldn’t speak a word of English. She still remembers the terror of not being able to even ask to go to the bathroom. She didn’t have the words. As her mother struggled to learn English herself, she read what she could to her child; a neighbor had convinced (and terrified) her that otherwise Lilli would never learn the new language.

For 18 years, Lilli strove to fit in. At a young age, she was alienated by her classmates. They even called her “Nazi” upon knowing her place of birth. The differences between her family and her “American” neighbors were obvious. She didn’t have grandparents to spend holidays with like the other kids. She didn’t go out for Chinese food on Sundays. She didn’t go out to eat at all. Everything in her life revolved around being Jewish at home, but it didn’t feel American. It wasn’t. Hamburgers and pizza were forbidden. She wanted to go to college, but her father shrugged it off: “A girl doesn’t need to go to college. Just get married.” So, she compromised; she got married, and she put herself through college part-time.

She moved to Long Island. In her predominantly Jewish suburban community, Lilli could comfortably blend “being Jewish” in with her new American lifestyle. Like everyone else, she got dressed up twice a year to go to shul. She brought up three American Jewish children who went to a combination of Hebrew School and Day School and became B’nai Mitzvah. In the meantime she finished college, got her Master’s degree, and became an adjunct English professor.

Then during one rare visit from her mother, who by this time had moved to Florida, Lilli looked for “something Jewish” to do with her. Someone recommended B’nai Jeshurun’s Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service. She’d never heard of it, but off they went. That was Friday, August 10, 2007. Lilli and her mother both sat transfixed. Between the “full house” attendance, the joyous music, and strong spiritual feeling, they were in awe.

Lilli’s mother had hoped to return, but the following week she suffered a stroke and died shortly thereafter. Lilli has been back every Shabbat since. She now lives on the Upper West Side, is fully engaged in this community she calls home, and recently became Director of the American Jewish Committee, Long Island region. Through BJ, Lilli not only enjoys Shabbat services, but has become an active leader, constantly forging new connections between members and programs, while never forgetting the beginning of her path to her new community—except maybe her Yiddish. Lilli is currently enrolled in a Yiddish class at The Workman’s Circle; she can no longer remember the only language she spoke as a child.

Martha Ginsberg has been a BJ member for four years and serves on the Education and Communications Team of the Membership Steering Committee.